Back in November, Google announced that they would be rolling out “site hierarchy display in search results” to be (occasionally) displayed in search results instead of their exact destination URL. The reported purpose for this type of URL display is to offer a better search experience to the user by providing context surrounding a given search query in cases where the URLs do not.
So what does this mean for site owners? What does this mean for SEO? The short answer is that site owners will be rewarded for following standard search engine accessibility best practices while SEO practitioners have just one more example of why those best practices should be implemented. The long answer is below.
A Little Background
URLs displayed as breadcrumbs in search results appear to be occurring mainly from long tail search queries. Naturally, longer tail search queries are going to produce more specific results and drive traffic to a product page vs. a category page. And product pages tend to live deeper within a site’s hierarchy, which typically have messier and less descriptive URLs. A search for “ipod” for example, returns only one result with the modified URLs. But a search for “ipod touch 3rd generation” returns four results with modified URLs.
Furthermore, the criteria appear to be: a large amount of inventory and/or content, non-descript (unintuitive or lacking keywords) URLs and breadcrumb navigation. Let’s explore these in depth.
1. Significant Volume of Inventory or Content
This one is pretty straightforward. Websites with tons of products and different variations of those products (hardback vs. paperback books, for example) would benefit from being able to provide context to searchers directly from the search results. Note that you can click directly on the sections displayed in the URLs as well, so if I searched “he’s just not that into you book” (totally theoretical obviously) I might just decide to go directly to the Relationship section and browse all options instead. This is especially relevant if the search result was not exactly what I was looking for, but pretty close. It seems that the cases where breadcrumbs are displaying for sites without a significant amount of volume or content however do happen to have a great architecture and breadcrumb navigation on that page so the rule certainly isn’t black and white.
2. Non-Descript URLs
In most cases that I’ve run across so far, URLs that are displaying as breadcrumbs are showing for pages that don’t have very descriptive URLs. In other words, these URLs are lacking key phrases that closely match the search query nor do they offer value to the searcher in terms of explaining what type of content will be on that page. It is quite common that large (especially ecommerce) sites are not able to easily generate simple and keyword friendly URLs given their dynamic nature.
3. Breadcrumb Navigation
Google is able to display these URLs as such by pulling from the breadcrumb navigation on the page, as available. So the large sites that have taken the time to implement breadcrumb navigation but have not yet been able to figure out how to optimize their URLs appear to be impacted the most from this new rollout. A search for “buy kindle wireless reading device” returns two results from Amazon: one with URLs that display hierarchical links and one that shows the standard URL of the page.
The page without breadcrumbs in the URL does not have breadcrumb navigation on-page. The other page with the breadcrumb URLs has breadcrumbs on page at the very bottom (see at the very bottom of the page under “Look for Similar Items by Category”).
Based on MarketingSherpa data that shows a clear increase in CTR for URLs with short, keyword friendly URLs vs. long, non-descript URLs, I think it would be safe to assume that there is a potential for an increase in CTR for affected listings. There may however, be a potential negative impact. What happens when certain URLs are displayed as breadcrumbs when the URL might in fact offer more information?
It seems to me that in this (above) case the URL is better than the hierarchical display. Google is still in test mode however, so only time (and site by site performance analysis) will tell. But it’s something to be aware of and a good best practice to make sure your breadcrumbs are accurate and consistent.
At this point, it looks like Google is rewarding the sites with breadcrumb navigation by giving them a cleaner look and providing context to search queries in the SERPs. This is just one more example of why you should do what Google tells you to. I’m not kidding. How many years have they explicitly stated that basics like HTML navigation are important? At least a couple.
So when new information gets out that a canonical tag helps to address duplicate content, or nofollow tags could give you better PageRank or that Google can index dynamic URLs, note that these are NOT solutions. All of these are band-aid remedies that don’t address the structural integrity of a site or the fundamentals of SEO. Accessibility is key to a stronger search presence and a site’s architecture and internal linking scheme has everything to do with it.
Rachel Andersen works for the Portland based SEM agency Anvil Media, Inc. She has expertise in all aspects of search engine marketing and specializes in SEO for large sites. Andersen has been responsible for the development and execution of dozens of search and social marketing campaigns over her time spent with Anvil.