SERP Seasonality: Managing User Intent to Maintain Rankings

Imagine this: your rankings are down. Your impressions have been falling off for a few weeks, but you’re not doing anything differently. With the recent series of major broad algorithm updates, notably in March and June, it’s hard to point to what the exact issue is that seems to be penalizing your site.

But what if it’s not the update? What if the dramatic changes you’re seeing are due to how and what people are searching for, instead of how Google evaluates websites?

What is seasonality?

Seasonality is the natural fluctuation in interest in a topic over time.

This is a known effect in ecommerce–and even in offline commerce–where interest in and sales for certain items peak at different times of the year. Christmas gifts and Halloween costumes aside, whether it’s baseball tickets during the baseball season, BBQ accessories for the summer, or spiral notebooks just before school starts, many commercial searches are driven by seasonal cycles.

As Google Trends illustrates, the popularity of a given search may also show the effects of seasonality, whether the variance occurs annually, monthly, weekly… Sometimes this is extremely predictable. For example, more people search for “fireworks” around holidays associated with fireworks displays, such as in July, or late December:

SERPseasonality-fireworks-trends

Dealing with Ecommerce Seasonality as an SEO

Traditionally, ecommerce sites use SEO strategies to take advantage of peaks in search interest for terms their potential clients might be interested in.

These strategies often rely on dedicated landing pages for the seasonal search terms, and dense internal linking to promote both the landing page and the related seasonal articles. Landing pages often take the form of category pages, but attempt to provide content that will allow them to rank easily, such as this texted at the bottom of the Summer Toy List page on Amazon:

SERPseasonality-amazon-landing-page

Jordan Koene from Searchmetrics suggests a two-part strategy for season SEO: understanding your content assets in advance, and setting realistic expectations particularly regarding “the adequate time that’s required for Google to crawl, index and place authority for high rankings for that content”.

If, in your sector, this requires building backlinks, you may need to start your SEO and content work even earlier.

Seasonality beyond Ecommerce

That’s all very good for ecommerce, but what if the site you’re working on is not an ecommerce site? Seasonality may still be a valid explanation for your site’s SEO behavior. Seasonality is not limited to ecommerce, particularly because seasonal effects in search are not limited to ecommerce queries.

Other types of queries that may be affected include both “Know” and “Go” queries:

  • Medical queries, such as these for “flu” and “sore throat”, which are more popular during winter months
    SERPseasonality-flu-trends
  • Event-related queries, such as these ones for “eclipse” and “royal baby”, which increase in popularity during punctual events
    SERPseasonality-eclipse-trends SERPseasonality-royal-baby-trends
  • Activity-related queries, such as this one for “tow path”, which shows low interest in December and January, and increased interest corresponding to warmer months every year
    SERPseasonality-tow-path-trends
  • “Near me” searches: Mike Blumenthal found that there’s a yearly peak in July for this type of search.

But sometimes the Google trends are not enough to show what’s really going on, as not only do the number of searches increase, but the order of results change drastically for a short period of time, before returning to their usual state. Sites might lose or gain positions rapidly, but for a shorter period of time.

SERP seasonality viewed as evolutions in user intent

When SERPs are affected, we’re no longer talking about an increase in the exact same search, but rather in a shift what the searcher expects to see in the results–in short, a shift in the search intent.

Based on patents, statements from Google representatives, and the Google Search Rater Guidelines, we already know Google uses different techniques to modify the SERPs based on intent. We also know that “Google will frequently – and often dramatically – change the ranking order and appearance of a search engine result page (SERP),” as Tom Rayner observed during his discussion on latent intent, or query connotation.

Tom Rayner takes it for granted that seasonal shifts in intent produce the same sort of changes in the SERPs. And with reason: the evidence for volatile, seasonal SERP is well-established, but not particularly well-known.

For example, JR Oakes found major changes in average monthly rankings for certain queries:

Tom Capper, at Distilled, has also argued for this type of SERP volatility based on his experience, particularly for major search terms. He noted last November: “My research and experience are leading me increasingly towards a more dynamic and responsive model, in which Google systematically tests, reshuffles and refines rankings over short periods, even when sites themselves do not change.”

To demonstrate, he looked at the effect on the search term “mothers day flowers” over the two weeks before Mother’s Day, which “goes from being a backwater search term where Google has little to go on besides ‘ranking factors’ to a hotly contested and highly trafficked head term.” The resulting movement in the top ten organic spots is telling:

SERPseasonality-tom-capper-distilled

Changing meaning behind search terms

Different things may cause change in intent. In some cases, seasonality can drive changes in the meaning behind the search terms themselves.

For “World Cup” searches, not all peaks correspond to queries regarding the men’s football finals:

SERPseasonality-world-cup-trends

  • Peaks in March 2011 and March 2015 correspond to the Cricket World Cup
  • Peak in June 2019 refers to the Women’s World Cup

The SERPs change during these period to better offer the content searchers are looking for. This concerns both SERP features, such as sports results and the knowledge graph, and, of course, the organic results for these search terms:

SERPseasonality-world-cup

Different user journey stages

When Conductor analyzed Valentine’s Day searches this year through the lens of stages in the customer journey, it discovered “some extremely interesting findings, especially around the way the SERP results reveal different customer intent for key head terms in searches.”

For example, you might own the SERPs for “know” queries, but not the “do” or “go” queries that create seasonal peaks.

Signs you’re affected by seasonal SERPs

Typical signs you’re affected by seasonal SERPs are recurring losses of traffic or rankings that are recovered over time. These drops might last a week, a month, or even longer, depending on the queries they draw most of their traffic from.

Regular site monitoring and use of historical data can help establish that this is the case.

You can also use log monitoring to reliably track page hits from users coming from search engines, as well as bot behavior. Googlebot behavior tends to change before SERP modifications occur, which can give you a heads up in advance. These trends are most visible on large sites with significant crawl attention from Googlebots.

Tracking SERP seasonality using log data in OnCrawl

Strategies to track and capture user intent

If you can track and capture user intent in seasonal SERP variations, the payoff can be huge. Here’s an example of the yearly lead-up to the Grammys for the official Grammy website:

To take advantage of this, you will need to follow these steps:

  1. Look at the SERPs themselves before, during, and after seasonal peaks. If you’re running an analysis after the fact, you can use position tracking tools to look at the top ten organic results, similar to Tom Capper’s study above.
  2. Look at the individual pages that rank for each period.

When analyzing the SERPs, determine what has changed:

  • Is there a difference in content quality?
  • Is there a difference in content subject?
  • Is there a difference in search intent?
  • Are the same sites present?

If you’re struggling to identify search intent in the SERPs, Ann Corbett wrote a guide for SEMRush.

Finally, it may be too late for this season, but be prepared for the next cycle. Adapt or add to your existing content. The goal is to provide quality content for the seasonal search intent in order to unlock traffic and rankings associated with it.

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About OnCrawl

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