In March 2018, Google shocked the search engine world by removing all organic results from the SERPs of certain specific search queries. These queries were only ever questions with definitive answers e.g. ‘Time in Seattle’, ‘Where was Isaac Newton born?’, ‘What is 2+2?’ etc., even so seeing the almost blank results page below caused a lot of concern for digital marketers.

Screenshot of zero result SERPs

Screenshot courtesy of Moz

With only a short answer box or knowledge card, sometimes an ad and a ‘Show all results’ button, searchers were, to say the least, slightly thrown off. While we may expect to have our questions answered by Google, a lack of any organic results was surprising, to say the least.

The update came and went very quickly and, by the end of the month, it had disappeared. Google’s Danny Sullivan announced on the 20th of March that the zero-results SERPs update (or ‘condensed view experiment’) was stopping “for now”… ominous.

So, assuming that zero-result SERPs are brought back in the future and become a feature of our day to day Google searches, there are a few questions that need asking. Why would Google do this? Can it actually work? What are the implications for SEO in a world of zero-result SERPs?

Why would Google do this?

Starting with the main question on everyone’s lips – why? Why would Google choose to entirely eliminate organic results from certain results pages? While it may seem as though this is a tactic to make life harder for SEOs, that’s probably not the case. In fact, for queries with objective answers, it actually makes a lot of sense. Google will always want to match a searcher with an accurate answer to their question as quickly as possible to improve user experience. By decluttering the SERPs of organic results and simply providing an answer, Google’s customers will simply be satisfied more quickly.

These zero-results SERPs could even be seen simply as a natural progression from the rich snippets and answer boxes Google already promotes. Searching for a famous name, a city or a piece of entertainment already gives searchers a huge amount of useful information that often removes the need to visit any organic results. Therefore, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that Google would further reduce the need for searchers to visit organic sites.

As an example, we’ll look at a search for the film Pulp Fiction to exemplify how Google can relay a vast amount of information to searchers without them having to leave the results page.

Pulp Fiction knowledge card The lower half of a Pulp Fiction knowledge card

As you can see, with a simple search for ‘Pulp Fiction’, Google provides images from the film, the year of release, genre, running time, a link to the trailer on YouTube, reviews, a synopsis and a list of the cast and crew. With that one search, Google has pretty much answered every query a searcher could need, without that searcher having to click on a single organic result.

Furthermore, on mobile search, which Google has been prioritising since the arrival of mobile first indexing, the same search yields an answer box that dominates everything above the fold (and even a lot of below the fold SERP space).

Pulp Fiction mobile knowledge card

This increased usage of rich snippets and answer boxes goes to show the focus that Google is putting on answering searchers’ queries more quickly and concisely than before. As such, it should not come as a surprise that, for queries with definitive answers, the search engine giant is looking at literally just providing users with the answer. With mobile search taking priority, alongside the rise of voice search, short, to the point answers are becoming more important for users.

Can it actually be implemented?

Google ended the zero-result SERP experiment quite quickly, but did indicate that, with a few tweaks, it could become a permanent feature of the search engine. But could it realistically be implemented onto the site?

That’s a question with no definitive answer. While zero-results SERPs do provide a decluttered, more concise user experience, only one in every eight search queries provide a rich snippet answer as it is. Plus, with 15% of searches every day being entirely new, a huge amount of searches just wouldn’t qualify for a zero-result results page.

Furthermore, although these zero-results SERPs make for a better user experience on mobile, where most searchers only need fast, direct answers, the same cannot be said for desktop searchers. On desktop, searchers are likely to be looking for more detailed information, and it may simply not be viable outside of the mobile and voice search spheres.

From a more cynical perspective, zero-results searches could be seen not purely as a pro-UX update, but one designed to increase Google’s profits through ads. Removing organic results frees up more space for advertising, and if businesses can’t get onto a results page through optimisation, they may see ads as the only way to go. Alternatively, if SEO becomes a non-viable option through Google – or if the changes are too dramatic for the average user to deal with – they may shift their focus to Google’s competitors instead.

Ultimately, it seems that, if it does make a return, the zero-result SERPs update won’t stretch much further than providing the definitive answers for a select group of search queries that it originally did.

What does it mean for SEO

So what does all this mean for SEOs? While the introduction of zero-result SERPs may have sent digital marketers into a mini-meltdown when they first arrived, there’s probably very little to worry about.

If these zero-result SERPs continue only to occur in relation to queries with definitive answers such as famous birthdays, mathematical equations and different dates and times around the world, very few businesses will feel an impact on their SEO campaigns.

Well, timeanddate.com might feel some strain.

Zero-results may be a symptom of a wider change towards rich snippets and more direct, concise search results, that’s true. Despite this, at present, you’re unlikely to be targeting the incredibly direct terms that lead to a results page lacking in any organic results.