What Is The Zero-Result SERP Algorithm Update?

The Zero-Result SERP Algorithm Update was first released by Google on March 13, 2018. This new update for Google removed organic search results for some search queries and replaced them with a single knowledge card.

At the time, this most recent Google update caused quite an uproar among web developers, but it only lasted a week. On March 20th, 2018, organic search results were added back to all SERPs. In November, though, Google brought Zero-Search SERPs back, but this time, it was only for mobile search results.

The Initial Zero-Results SERPs Experiment: What Was Google Thinking?

In March, the search engine decided that for a limited number of search queries, there is only one correct or relevant response, so it decided to do away with other results that may distract the user or increase page load time. If you know anything at all about Google, you know the whole purpose of the search giant is to return quality search results for its users.

Zero-Results SERPs for Weather, Time, Conversions, Etc.

It really wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds. The search queries affected by the Zero-Results SERPS update were only those related to time, weather, conversions, and calculations, for instance. Still, as far as search updates go, this was a big one.

Even so, Google didn’t even acknowledge the update initially (at least not on any formal level), but search analyst Danny Sullivan eventually addressed Zero-Results SERPs on Twitter. His tweet implied that the decision to experiment with the removal of organic search results in a limited number of very specific search queries was quite simple: no one used them.

Impact of Zero-Results SERPs

Plus, removing them would save users the hassle of having to wait for a page of (probably irrelevant) search results to load. It seemed like a win for Google and for users, but what about website owners? More on that later.

How Did Zero-Results SERPS Work?

Upon first roll out, the Zero-Results SERPs worked like this: when a user typed in a certain search query such as those related to time, calculations, conversions, or weather, for instance, Google would return a single search result in the form of a Knowledge Card on both desktop and mobile. This result would look similar to the images below:

In addition to the Knowledge Card, Google presented a link that users could click on to see more results.

The Problem with Zero-Results SERPs (At First)

After confirming that the Zero-Results SERPs update was really not an official algorithm update at all, but just an experiment, Google invited feedback on the change from the SEO community.

The result was a parable for being careful what you wish for. Yeah, let’s just say no one in the community was happy about the fact that their websites had disappeared from search results pages, no matter how few or narrow these particular SERPs were.

The Ringing of the Death Knell for SEO

Aside from throwing fits that would impress any toddler and shouting “SEO is dead!” from the rooftops, some web developers and SEO experts managed to pull themselves together and make some fairly good points about the fallibility of zero-results SERPs.

For instance, Google wasn’t getting it right with the Knowledge Cards 100% of the time, and in some cases, the search engine was getting it very, very wrong.

For instance, when users typed “date in New York” looking for fun things to do with their significant other in the Big Apple, they’d get a single boring Knowledge Card on their SERP, telling them what day it was (e.g. March 15, 2018). Sure, they could click on the “See more results” button, but what a pain in the neck, am I right?

Similar issues occurred when users searched for “Time” (the magazine) and got the current time (on the clock) instead. For once, Google updated their algorithm and ended up lessrelevant than before. Oops!

Zero-Result SERPs for Mobile Search

But despite this dismal outcome of the quote unquote experiment, the Zero-Results SERP story wasn’t over. In November of 2018, Google brought it back, but this time, it was limited to mobile searches. Here’s an example of a query that triggered a simple knowledge card on a mobile device:

Thankfully by the time Google brought back Zero-Results SERPs for mobile, the search engine giant had worked out a lot of the kinks that triggered the initial backlash. Specifically, the search queries triggering a single Knowledge Card result became even more limited.

Now, a search for a date in New York still triggers the calendar knowledge card, but it also presents organic search results (including fun outing ideas in the big city) on the same page. No more having to click the pesky “more results” button to get to the result you’re looking for. Whew!

The Future of Zero-Result SERPs

So are Zero-Result SERPs here to stay, on mobile anyway? It appears so. While you’ll hear a lot of webmasters and others in the SEO community warning about the “slippery slope” nature of these kinds of algorithm updates, we recommend you stay calm and implement best practices for making your site mobile friendly.

Keep Calm and Optimize for Mobile

Although the roll out wasn’t a smooth one by any stretch of the imagination, ultimately, the zero-results SERP update reflects Google’s desire to make the web a fast and convenient source of information, especially for their mobile users. And that’s not news to anyone who knows anything about Google.

While the update caused a ripple, that’s really all it was, so our advice is to stay the course and continue optimizing your site for mobile search. Oh, and keep coming here to check for Google updates and changes to its algorithms!