2 New SERP Features That Are Bad News For Publishers

In the last week, one of my clients noticed they were losing traffic for some key queries without losing their organic positions on both reviews and guides.

Once we dove into the search engine results pages (SERPs), it became clear that Google has been quietly rolling out some new features that have the potential to hurt organic visibility for sites that aren’t Google or Reddit.

New Discussion And Forums Feature On Review Queries

As the Google Review Systems update finished rolling out on December 7th, a new Discussions and Forums feature was added to SERPs on a wide variety of keyword + reviews and best + keyword queries.

My initial hypothesis was that this was being put on all queries where affiliate reviews dominate, as these are some of their most important keyword combinations – but I am finding it even on select medical queries, such as the medication + review query shown below.

Here are a few examples:

search for chase sapphire preferred reviewsScreenshot from search for [chase sapphire preferred reviews], Google, December 2023

Screenshot from Google for [best credit cards]

Screenshot from search for [peloton reviews], Google, December 2023Screenshot from search for [peloton reviews], Google, December 2023

This query was interesting to me because instead of including Quora, as is frequently the case in Discussions and Forums, it’s pulling in a Peloton-specific forum.

Also, note that the fourth organic result below the Discussions and Forums feature provides the same Reddit thread from above with additional rich results.

Screenshot from Google for [best yoga mats]Screenshot from search for [best yoga mats], Google, December 2023

Searching “best yoga mats” defaults to Google Shopping results – and still, the Discussions and Forums feature is present on page 1.

 search for [brokerage reviews]Screenshot from search for [brokerage reviews], Google, December 2023

The third item in this Discussions and Forums result is interesting because Bigger Pockets is a real estate investing website, and the third forum result is a forum question about a specific broker in real estate investing.

That is unrelated to the rest of the results on the page, which deal with brokers for stock investing and trading.

search for yaz reviewsScreenshot from search for [yaz reviews], Google, December 2023

It’s a little concerning that the most authoritative medical sites are nowhere to be found on this birth control query.

I am not finding Discussions and Forums showing up on other common medication + reviews queries though, at least not yet.

I am seeing four big takeaways from this update:

  • It’s interesting that Google released some best practices for high-quality reviews and then decided to reward Reddit and other forums where non-experts are posting and responding to one another. Even when it is quality content, it rarely shows quantitative measurements or a complete competitor landscape as the best practices document describes. However, given the rise of keyword + Reddit queries, perhaps this is Google recognizing that people trust forums and are giving the people what they want.
  • Adding these features into the SERP makes the top 1-3 organic spots even more valuable. In most of the examples presented here, this feature shows up in the middle of page 1 of the results. The sites showing up after this feature are definitely going to suffer, and in these examples, you can see that YMYL searches have these results higher up on page 1.
  • This will likely eat into affiliate traffic and revenue. Affiliate sites have dominated both best and review queries for ages, and adding prominent links to Reddit and other forums is going to take traffic away from these reviews in favor of discussion boards — where people are having more honest (sometimes too honest) and unfiltered conversations about products. I suspect even people who are not typical forum users are going to find themselves on forums more, as the headlines to these threads are typically intriguing. This isn’t necessarily bad for the Internet, but it is something sites making their money from affiliate links should be preparing for.
  • I suspect we’re going to see more large publishers adding user-generated content to their strategies, knowing they have the potential to rank in this section of Google results. Bigger Pockets is already being rewarded for a fairly broad financial query, as you can see from the “brokerage reviews” query.

Guided Search Experience For Beginner Queries

I also encountered another new feature last week that is providing users with a new experience when they search for “beginners guide”+ a more complex and broad query. For example, a search for “beginners guide to investing” provides this result:

Screenshot from search for [beginners guide to investing]Screenshot from search for [beginners guide to investing], Google, December 2023

In this case, this “beginner’s guide” that Google is providing incorporates results across the web. And if you click into one of these sections, you’ll get a variety of sources on the topic:

search for [beginners guide to investing]Screenshot from search for [beginners guide to investing], Google, December 2023

And if you click into one of the headings like “Continue investing,” you’ll be redirected to the results for that query. But Google will keep the guide headings in the results for you to return to the SERP.

earch for [continue investing]Screenshot from search for [continue investing], Google, December 2023

Here’s another example:

search for [beginners guide to living abroad]Screenshot from search for [beginners guide to living abroad], Google, December 2023

Again, we have a 9-step guide gathered from the web and put into a guided search experience by Google.

search for [beginners guide to living abroad]Screenshot from search for [beginners guide to living abroad], Google, December 2023

If you click into one of the steps, you’ll get links to the sources. And if you click one of the headers, you’ll get the results for that query. In this example, “find a job abroad.”

But Google will keep the guide steps at the top of SERP so you continue to use the SERP as your guide rather than one of the sources.

2 New SERP Features That Are Bad News For PublishersScreenshot from search for [find a job abroad], Google, December 2023

In the past, Google has provided a Featured Snippet for these types of queries and provided steps from one site in the query with the link to read more from that site, like this example:

2 New SERP Features That Are Bad News For PublishersScreenshot from search for [beginners guide to weight lifting], Google, December 2023

I’ve only found a handful of examples of this new feature, and the queries all have the term “beginners guide” in them.

They also are broad topics that Google has determined have nine steps. That may just be a coincidence. I have two big takeaways from this soft rollout:

  • Google is trying to keep users on Google by providing its own “steps” for learning a topic. As a user, you can then read the sources of its “steps,” and be taken to the sources it shows – but Google is trying to get you to come back to the SERP and use that as your learning home base.
  • Like when People Also Ask launched, tracking this is tricky. If you are tracking average position in Google Search Console, it does not appear to be counting these results yet. If this rolls out to more queries, we are going to need to solve tracking for it because there are 25 results showing up within that feature before you even get to the regular organic results in that investing example.

This feature is different from the Search Generative Experience (SGE) that Google recently announced because it is sourcing from the web rather than utilizing AI, at least for now.

Perhaps because these topics are YMYL, it is taking its time and ensuring it gets these results right before it dabbles in SGE for YMYL.

What do you think?

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Featured Image: rcherem/Shutterstock

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