What is Google Discover and how it affects SEO
Google Discover is a personalized content recommendation engine for smartphones and tablets, powered by AI and based on your search history and your online behavior. On the Discover feed, you’ll see fresh and evergreen content around topics you care about. Google is even able to predict your level of expertise in each topic, to ensure that the content they serve you is useful to you.
This predictive aspect of Google Discover is one of their key features and provides a glimpse into what will be the future of SEO when AI assistants are one step ahead of the user to give them what they want before they even search for it.
The user has a high level of control over what they see in Discover. They can follow certain topics, and tell Google when they want to see more or less of a certain topic. One key aspect of the content Discover displays is that the focus is not on fresh and new content, but on content that is new to you in particular, even though it was published a year ago. The trigger could be a new interest that Google has detected through your search and online behavior. Certain actions, like booking a trip, could also trigger content discovery around your destination, for example.
The only aspect over which users have no control is on news coverage. Google Discover uses the same approach as Full Coverage in Google News, which shows the same stories to every user from a diverse pool of sources. The objective is to avoid filter bubbles on important public issues.
Google Discover replaced Google Feed in 2018. At that moment Discover had 800 million users. Google Feed was also a content recommendation engine, launched in 2016. While Google Feed used machine learning and AI to decide what content you should see, the redesign and rebranding of Feed as Discover highlights the shift from search to prediction in the new product, which will have a big impact on SEO, as we optimize not just for search, but discovery as well.
Why Google Discover is a step into the future of search
Content recommendation engines are used by all kinds of online media companies and services, from Instagram to Netflix to Youtube, to keep users engaged and increase the time spent on their services (and their exposure to ads). Netflix has said that 80% of shows watched between 2015-2017 came through their recommendation system, as opposed to people searching for a show. 70% of the time users spend on YouTube is because of their recommendation system, as opposed to people searching on YouTube. See the pattern? In the past online media and services were passive providers: they showed us what they had and reacted only when we asked for more: we searched, navigated, explored. Now online media and services are taking a proactive approach at serving us content to keep us engaged.
Google Discover represents another step in that trend, one that could change how we optimize our content. SEO today is obviously built around the action of search. What are people searching, what is their intent and how can I answer it in a way that Google will see as relevant. But what if in a few years 70% of the content consumed through Google was discovered, instead of searched?
Ben Gomes, SVP for Search, News and Assistant at Google, has shared three shifts Google is making in their approach to search:
- The shift from answers to journeys. An answer is a final point. There’s no continuity. The shift to journeys means that Google will try to anticipate what would be your next question. Where are you in your learning journey and what will you need to know next. So instead of just giving you an answer, Google will approach that as one step in an ongoing need for information.
- The shift from queries to providing a queryless way to get information. Google Discover is the key element of this shift. A recommendation engine that doesn’t rely on your search queries, but proactively shows you content based on your behavior.
- The shift from text to a visual way of finding information. This is not just about surfacing more visual content, like images and videos, on a SERP. Google is also taking concrete steps to facilitate the creation of more visual content through AMP Stories, which is an open-source library that allows anyone to produce and publish content in the same format popularized by Snapchat and Instagram. Besides that, Google is developing new tools like Google Lens that allow people to use image segments as search queries. For example, you see a picture of a street in Google Images in your smartphone and you’ll be able to select one car from the street to see other similar images to identify the car. Or look for a pair of shoes and reach the product page where you can buy them.
Let’s leave aside the fact for a moment that we, as consumers, are becoming again more passive in our media and information consumption, and the ethical implications of a few companies becoming not just neutral gatekeepers, but actively selecting what content we should see. The fact is that content discovery, as opposed to search, is becoming more important for Google. This doesn’t mean that SEO is dead, just that it has to adapt to a new reality.
How to optimize content for Google Discover
Focus on quality and user benefit
The content on Discover is picked by Google’s AI to fulfill a perceived information need or interest by the user. Google will then ensure that only top quality content is featured on Discover. Make sure that your brand as a publisher is equivalent to reputable, high-quality and engaging content.
Your content should be relevant to your audience, whether it’s a local community or it’s organized around a certain topic. The objective should be to answer the informational intent of your audience in a specific context. That way your content is more likely to be picked up by Google’s recommendation engine. Titles and meta descriptions should be written with the user in mind, addressing their main informational intent and avoiding clickbait.
Build relationships and trust with your audience
One of the signals Google uses to select content for Google Discover is the engagement they generate in social media and search. This means that your promotional and content distribution strategy has a big impact on making your content attractive for Google Discover.
That doesn’t mean you should put all your content on social media, but be strategic around which content do you promote.
Content engagement from search and other channels, like email newsletters is also used by Google to determine the trustworthiness of your brand. Not just the traffic your content receives, but how your audience engages with the content: how much time they spend on your site, how many articles they visit and how frequently they visit your site.
Use images and video
As we saw, one of the shifts Google is taking in their approach to search is to give more weight to visual content. Creating compelling images and video content will give you more chances to be picked up by Google Discover.
Images also need to be high quality, at least 1200px wide. According to Google, articles on Discover with high-quality images tend to have +5% CTR and +3% time spent on site, compared to articles with thumbnails.
To make sure your high-quality images are used by Google Discover, you either need to implement AMP or fill out this form.
Google Discover is only available on smartphones and tablets. This means that providing a great user experience in a smartphone is of capital importance to be featured in Discover.
By implementing Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) on your site you will dramatically improve the loading speed of your content. This will benefit user experience and engagement, as you avoid the frustration and disappointment of extended loading times.
Not only that, but the AMP format ensures a cleaner user experience, with its focus on the core functionality needed by readers.
Create a mix of new and evergreen content
While Google Feed mostly surfaced trending content, Discover is taking a user-first approach. Google wants to provide the user with the content they want or need at this point in their knowledge journey. And that means the latest industry news or a long-form piece about a specific issue that’s still relevant even though it was published one year ago.
Your content strategy should reflect that approach and include both current events and evergreen content.
Follow Google News guidelines
Google says that to be featured in Google Discover’s cards your content needs to adhere to the Google News content guidelines. This doesn’t mean that your content needs to be in Google News, or that your content will be in Google News if it’s on Discover or vice-versa. The only implication is that content featured in Discover could be eligible to be included in Google News as well. However,
Apply metadata to your content
Google Discover uses machine learning to organize content and make decisions on which content to recommend for each user. Implementing metadata on your content helps Google’s AI to understand what your content is about and what is the informational gap that it covers.
Research your competition
You can do some basic research to see what kind of content Google Discover is surfacing from your competition. The first thing to do is to make sure you follow your targeted topics on Google Discover. This alone will provide you with lots of insight on how Google Discover organizes the information they present, which is based on your audience patterns and behavior. Besides that, you’ll see the articles on those topics, which you can then analyze to understand why were they picked by Discover.
Another research angle is social media. Content shared from Discover to Twitter or Facebook includes by default the words “From Discover on Google”. So if you perform a Twitter search of topic + “From Discover on Google” you will be able to identify content that was recommended by Google Discover.
How ads are appearing on Google Discover
Google started to monetize Discover in May 2019, with the introduction of Discovery Ads. This type of ad format consists of an image carousel that can be shown, apart from Google Discover, on the YouTube home feed and the Promotions and Social tabs on Gmail.
Google is also bringing Showcase Shopping ads to Google Discover, which is a similar rich media format, but this time focused on showcasing products from an online store.
Both formats try to take advantage of the user mindset of content discovery and inspiration by showing visually rich and interactive ads that encourage engagement and curiosity.
How to analyze the impact of Google Discover on your organic traffic
Google added a Discover section on Search Console where you can see which content was picked up by Google Discover and how it performed. You can see impressions, clicks and CTR, as well as a clicks timeline and the countries where your traffic came from. This section is only available to publishers who already have content on Google Discover.
But what if you want to analyze your traffic data in Google Analytics or any other web analytics suite? As of now, there’s no clear way to attribute traffic to Google Discover in Google Analytics.
Credit for Valentin Pletzer for trying to uncover Google Discover tracking, which he sees looks like the below:
|iOS Google App (Discover)||no referrer
|iOS Google App (Search)||https://www.google.com/search?q=…. (not cut)
|iOS Google News App||https://news.google.com/
|iOS Google Chrome (Articles for you)||https://www.googleapis.com/auth/chrome-content-suggestions
|iOS Google Chrome (Search)||https://www.google.com/
|Android 9 Google App (Discover)||android-app://com.google.android.googlequicksearchbox/https/www.google.com
|Android Google App (Discover)||https://www.google.com (no trailing slash)
|Android 9 Google App (Search)||android-app://com.google.android.googlequicksearchbox (no trailing slash)
|Android 9 Floating Search Bar||android-app://com.google.android.googlequicksearchbox (no trailing slash)
|Android Floating Search Bar||https://www.google.com (no trailing slash)
|Android Google Chrome (Search)||https://www.google.com/
|Android Google Chrome (Articles for you)||https://www.googleapis.com/auth/chrome-content-suggestions
|Android Google News Widget||https://news.google.com/
Even if we can’t get the full picture now, that doesn’t mean publishers can’t use the existing data to analyze and optimize their content. Publishers can start by grouping the content they get featured on Discover by topic and, if possible, subtopic. You’ll start to get some initial insights on the type of content that gets picked up by Discover and how effective it is. From that baseline, you can start experimenting with different headline styles, different types of images, and see what helps you improve your visibility and engagement.
Another vector of analysis is to compare the performance of your content in Discover with the average performance of your articles in Google search. The most useful metric for comparison, in this case, would be the click-through rate.
Google Discover represents a big shift in how Google approaches its mission of organizing information and providing users with the best and most useful content. Google is now proactively recommending content instead of answering search queries as best as possible.
This shift responds to a change in user habits in which we’ve become used to recommendation engines, to the point in which these AI-powered discovery mechanisms are responsible for a very large part of our media consumption.
It makes sense for Google to introduce content discovery as a tool to keep us engaged with their ecosystem. For publishers, it represents an opportunity for your content to be exposed to a new audience.
Even though publishers have limited means as of now to measure the effectiveness of Discovery as a recommendation engine, it makes sense to be on top of a trend that could change the shape of search optimization forever.