Why Google’s Carousel should not leave your head spinning

Google’s result pages have changed significantly over the past few years. We’ve seen the effect of Universal Search, Google Instant, Google Instant Preview and other innovations they’ve come up with. The most recent innovation has been the introduction of the Google Carousel.

If you’re an SEO, you’ve got to keep on top of these developments and work out how your site or your client’s site might well benefit (or suffer) from these new methods of displaying search results.

Why? Well, firstly, the Carousel appears at the top of the search results and will most probably be the first thing a user [of a search engine] notices and, as studies have already begun to show, the click rate on Carousel results is significant.

Should you panic? Should you be instantly searching for tips on how to get into that top left hand Carousel box? Will it even matter? How will presenting results like this (horizontally) affect user behaviour? How will it affect Organic Search results? Can you expect a top rank in the organic listings to now become less important? So many questions… Well, perhaps the first thing you should do is put the kettle on and calm down.

Once you’ve got a cup of your preferred beverage in hand, this post might help give you some idea of what issues you need to consider.

We analyzed the results for just under 900,000 keyword results and set out to work out:

  • What percentage of Page 1 results generate a Carousel result?
  • What type of keywords generate a Carousel result?
  • Was there an identifiable pattern to the results?
  • Were there any noticeable exceptions?

What percentage of Page 1 results generated a Carousel?

We checked a grand total of 881,804 Page 1 results using a random set of keywords from our database! Of those, 99.88% did not display a Carousel.

How and when were Carousel results displayed?

Of the 0.12% of results which did display a Carousel, the distribution in the number of Carousel items displayed was quite interesting:

As you can see from this histogram:

  • 61.9% returned exactly 20 Carousel items
  • the number of carousel items appeared to start at 5! Was this as a result of a deliberate design decision on the part of someone at Google, because having 1 or 2 Carousel results just wouldn’t look right?
  • the maximum Google would display appeared to be 51 (~1%) – again, is this a sign that Google won’t want to display any more than this or just a result of the data set we happened to be working with?

What type of keywords generated a Carousel?

Of the c.1000 keyphrases generating a Carousel, the vast majority involved phrases associated with dining out, takeaway food, travel and ideas for things to do when in certain places and these also appeared to be the most competitive:

In fact, keyphrases including “things to do” certainly appeared to be amongst the most competitive. Of the results which returned 49, 50 or 51 Carousel boxes, “things to do” appeared in exactly half of those. If you’re targeting phrases like this, you should perhaps therefore expect a healthly level of competition (but you probably already know that, right?).

And, as you can see from the following wordcloud, if you work with any sites related to pizzas, pool halls, bowling alleys, restaurants, hotels, activities for tourists, you should also take note!

If you’re interested in the actual numbers behind the wordcloud above, then the top 6 broad match results were phrases including the following keywords:

Instances Percentage Keyword
141 13.4% hall
132 12.5% pool
122 11.6% arcade
118 11.2% video
113 10.7% hotel
107 10.2% restaurant

None of this is really that unexpected. As others have pointed out, the results are (currently) tied to Google Places pages and indeed to be based on the same calculation which produced the old Places section in the SERPs. You can therefore naturally expect local search terms to produce Carousel results, although there are plenty of exceptions (see later).

What markets could it be affecting?

Despite the prevalence of terms relating to Great Britain shown in the sample spreadsheet above, the actual effect of the Carousel seems to still be largely affecting US only results or global results:

Bear in mind, though, that the above breakdown may have been biased by the keyword set we used. We probably need to widen a study like this and analyse the same keyphrases in different markets to get a more accurate breakdown.

Were there any exceptions to this pattern?

So should you just be thinking about local results and the US market? Well, you’ll notice from the spreadsheet shown earlier above that #18 in the list was the phrase “the wire cast” which produced the following result:

These types of results only amounted to 0.6% of the total in the data set we used and they also included the following shows: “The Ring”, “Six Feet Under”, “The Sopranos”, “Entourage” and last, but certainly by no means least (it’s such a great show!), “Flight of the Conchords”.

Were these results simply a reflection of the personal preferences of some Google engineer? I did begin to think that at least someone at Mountain View had good taste! 🙂 However, it’s clearly more likely to do with how Google manages and displays structured data.

So what other types of result can you expect to appear in a Carousel? It took me about twenty seconds to think up some other search terms which I expected to generate Carousel results and, sure enough, they did:

So, it’s not just local search terms that are affected. Bear that in mind!

So how does this affect organic SEO? Well, the jury’s still out on that one. Similarly, it’s still too soon to work out how it is going to affect user behaviour, partly because a lot of the non-local Carousel results will just produce another SERP when you click on each Carousel item. Ranking #1 for the subsequent search term could therefore still prove to be as valuable as it is now.

So don’t panic! Remember:

  • Overall it’s still only affecting a very small number of searches.
  • It’s not affecting every market (yet).
  • If you were ranking with a Places result on Page 1 of the SERPs for that particular search engine variant, then your site is most likely going to appear in the Carousel.
  • This might be to your advantage if previously your site’s rank was slipping just “beyond the fold” as your Carousel box is now going to be more in the user’s direct eyeline.
  • If you find yourself amongst a group of ~50 Carousel items, then that term was probably extremely competitive before anyway.
  • You should continue to try to optimise for local search in the same way you were before (citations, reviews, branded links, etc)
  • You could consider trying to rank more aggressively now for your competitor’s branded terms as you’re still visible (in the Carousel) even if a user clicks on a competitor’s Carousel box; and you could also then show up in the organic results which are then displayed.

For me, the more interesting question the Carousel throws up in relation to Organic SEO is whether this is a fairer way for Google to display results, rather than ranking sites 1 to (7-)10 vertically. Aaron Wall raised this question on his blog and he certainly seemed to think so.

So, take a deep breath, drink that cup of tea (or coffee), rationalise the possible effect on your site (or sites) and hopefully Google’s continued tinkering with its search results will not leave your head spinning.

By: Matt O’Toole, Customer Experience Manager at Analytics SEO

2 Comments. Leave new

  • mattjotoole
    02/08/2013 14:47

    I happened to be speaking with Tara from Koozai last night about PPC and one thing she reminded me of in relation to the Carousel was the possible effect it could have on PPC CTRs as it will be pushing organic results further down the page. Obviously, we’re only talking about phrases where PPC results appear, so keywords with commercial intent, but still, it would be interesting to see how the Carousel affects Google’s PPC revenue.

    • Anonymous
      06/08/2013 18:36

      I see Google is rolling out a carousel based system that appears at the top of search fields. It seems to be destination and location based and is pulling destination and images from your google + page. It seems to be effecting casual categories (such as entertainers (of which I am)) first before rolling out to others.

      My main problem is that it is now effecting me greatly as even Adwords are below this carousel and hyperlinks are below that. I pride myself in my SEO rankings. Now with the carousel, it seems that is it not SEO driven at all but location driven. My highly ranked Hyperlinks are further down the page and in some cases I am not even showing up on the carousel simply because I am farther away from the search criteria.

      Can anyone shed some light on this new google Carousel system for me? Will it be based on SEO ranking or always be based on destination only? Is it connected to the google Places page and setting that I placed and set up there?

      My problem is that my clients usually are within a 100 mile radius of my home. My home is NOT my business place. I go to them not the other way around. Living in the burbs of Philadelphia, I want and have been highly ranked for PA, DE, MD etc. Right now the carousel shows only a smaller radius of PA only.

      I thank you all in advance for your time. I just feel lost and frustrated as this new carousel approach changes everything for my SEO strategy and it may end up really hurting my side business. If there is anything I can do to help get my radius back up there or get my rankings as well as they were when it was just organic hyperlinks, I would appreciate the help.

      My goal is to learn as much about it as I can. Thank you all for your help.

      Kyle Peron


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