Indented Results (as we know it), have been a SERP feature on Google that launched in September of 2021. As of September 2023, exactly two years since launch, Google has now officially removed this feature of Search.
This comes at a time of immense volatility in Google’s search results following a slew of significant updates to Google’s algorithm, and recently followed by the removal of FAQ and How-to rich results. It is clear that Google is moving in the direction of more simplified search results.
Within this article, I’ll be exploring some of the history and changes to indented results in Search, issues with the new approach, what the outcome is for site owners, along some thoughts on what the future holds with SERP features in general.
What has changed?
Google has gone from displaying indented search results as a core SERP feature to now effectively de-grouping Search listings for sites when multiple listings appear.
Google’s Search Liaison wrote on Twitter:
“We stopped doing “indented results” a few weeks ago, and it’s unrelated to the core update. Especially with continuous scroll, it wasn’t as helpful as in the past. Our site diversity system still works to generally show only two results from the same site in the top results, though — as has long been the case — that can vary based on the nature of the query.“
We stopped doing "indented results" a few weeks ago, and it's unrelated to the core update. Especially with continuous scroll, it wasn't as helpful as in the past. Our site diversity system still works to generally show only two results from the same site in the top results,…— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) October 12, 2023
To be more precise, according to Advanced Web Ranking, who are the only SEO tool to feature this data publicly, the significant decline in result indenting first started around August 15th of 2023, with an additional decline to zero around September 27th of 2023.
This is a change that I first picked up via my SERP Alerts Twitter account, previously noting that I believed that Google may be due to roll out a 2023 edition of the Diversity Update, due to the de-grouping affect of Google’s recent changes to result indenting.
While the above example is the desired result of Google removing indenting, with individual results appearing grouped together, there has been a change alongside this update which I believe was not intentional.
Issues with the new approach
More recently, I’ve noticed examples in Search where more than two listings appear for non-branded results. This is not the desired outcome for Google, with their intention being to showing a maximum of two listings, which has been the case for some time now.
Additionally, listings are now being de-grouped completely and are floating around in different positions. In my opinion, this isn’t intentional, and is something that I’ve seen happen in the past as a bug and has been rectified from Google’s end.
The two examples above weren’t particularly difficult to track down, showing two key issues with respect to result indenting removal on Google. The two issues include:
- De-grouping: I believe it is not by design that results for domains aren’t grouped together anymore on Google. In the example for Mashable above, you can see that a Men’s Journal article sits in between the articles, which feels like a messy approach to SERP representation.
- Multiple URLs: Google’s intention is to show a maximum of two URLs per site in the vast majority of cases, with some exceptions. In the case of the domain TV Guide, they have historically only ever had two organic web search listings appear for the most part, but now they have multiple.
When reviewing the history of the TV Guide domain appearing for the query above, not only could I confirm that two has been the historic maximum, but I can also see that there was even a logged result that displayed 5 organic listings for their site in various positions on September 25th in 2023, around the time of when resulting indenting was removed.
Historically, there has always been issues with Google’s ability to decipher intent behind non-branded queries when there is a domain named after that query (Exact Match Domains). This is something that Google has directly targeted in the past, but this issue appears to be different.
Note: the above domain has appeared with more than two listings in the past, but the report has shown this to be with either the branded sitelink treatment, or with two indented results appearing at a time, but never with five separate de-grouped organic listings in the past two years.
Impact on site owners
For sites that previously occupied indented results for high volume queries with non-branded intent, there’s a good chance that you’re now only ranking with a single page rather than multiple now.
In contrast to this, there is also (what I believe is a bug) the de-grouping and multiple URL impact. For sites that have a lot of content that covers the same topics from multiple angles, there is now a chance that that your second URL appears in a different position lower down the page.
For Exact Match Domain sites, there has always been scenarios where Google rolls out updates and it suddenly gives high priority to these sites, and this seems to be one of those cases. I do however believe that this visibility will be short-lived and it will change in the coming weeks.
In general, I don’t agree with Google’s advice on consolidating pages that would previously show as indented. Unless they decide to only show a single web page per domain (which is highly unlikely to happen), then you’re just missing out on a *potential* opportunity to show twice.
This is of course a nuanced discussion and depends greatly on the approach to each piece of content, but I can think of plenty of situations where sites have written about the same topics from different angles and it makes sense that each page remains separate.
What the future holds
What I am learning, even after a decade of working in SEO, is that what Google says through their public liaisons does end up happening, at least to some extent and maybe not immediately. It is of course always healthy to be critically minded, especially when dealing with the behemoth that is Google.
When Google said that they are simplifying search results, I’ve now seen this happening in more ways than one, with the complete removal of tabular results around the same time of the FAQ and How-to rich result removal.
This doesn’t mean that some of these SERP features could make a return in the future, but it does represent a clear shift in how SEO might be done in the future. Google says that the ultimate goal here isn’t to make way for AI, it is to make results that “look clean”.