Key Sections: What It Is – How To Rank – Tracking – Final Thoughts

The time has come. Google is now prominently displaying the ‘Visual Stories’ unit (that features Web Stories) on mobile in the US. This is after an intense period of testing that begun late last year.

Visual Stories have the ability to take up a lot of space on mobile, and should be a feature for SEO professionals to pay attention to. Especially when triggered for high value queries.

In my post, I’ll be providing a rundown of some important information that you should be aware of when trying to rank within the Visual Stories unit on Google. Such as where the unit appears, the types of arrangements that can show, tips for getting featured, and more.

Before I get stuck into my post, make sure to check out my latest Web Story about the top SEO tools on Google. This is Web Story that I’ll be using as an example throughout my post, and was pretty happy with how it came together from a design/development/strategy standpoint.

What is the Visual Stories feature on Google?

Visual Stories is a module that appears in Google’s search results on mobile. The feature includes a collection of Web Stories that Google algorithmically selects to show for users.

The feature will only ever appear on the first page of Google, with placement either being toward the top, middle or bottom of search results on mobile. If the feature doesn’t appear on pg.1, that means that it hasn’t been triggered.

Based on the current US rollout, there is 3 treatments that can appear for Web Stories within the unit. The treatments range between showing either 2, 3 or 4 Web Stories at once. When 3 appear in the unit, the top ranking Web Story becomes larger than the rest.

Google’s visual stories unit can show in various different displays, ranging from 2 web stories to 4 web stories.

If there are 4 Web Stories in a unit (the full treatment), it appears that a single site can take up to 2 spots in the grid of 4. I’ve not seen more than 2 at this point, but I’ve seen the same site appear twice on several occasions. So if you’re already ranking in the unit, there’s an opportunity to appear again.

At the moment, the feature is still only available in the US for all users. I have however seen significant amounts of testing in countries such as India and Canada, so I would expect to see this rollout extended in the near future.

Now that you have an understanding of the Visual Stories unit as a SERP feature on Google, let’s discuss some important factors when trying to rank within the unit on mobile.

How to rank within Visual Stories?

There are some important considerations when trying to rank Web Stories in general on Google. I discussed many of these considerations in a post from August 2020 related to Web Stories SEO tips, which still remains true to this day.

In my post, I discussed specific SEO tips to get your Web Stories ranking on Google. The same applies to the Visual Stories unit, which employs many of the same ranking signals as Web Search.

In particular, here are some important tips to keep in mind:

  • Quality control: like any other web page, maintaining quality content is crucial to ranking, and even getting indexed in the first place. If your Web Story is 3 slides long and doesn’t add any value to readers, you may find that your Web Story may not rank or become indexed on Google.
  • Effective HTML usage: again just like a web page, if there isn’t text for Google to crawl, then it’s unlikely that Google will be able to develop a thorough understanding of your Web Story content. Ensure text isn’t burnt into images and using HTML elements correctly.
  • Killer design: this is one of the most difficult to nail with Web Stories. Adding colour and visuals on the fly will rarely cut it when it comes to Web Stories. You should instead be using storyboarding and have a Designer on hand to assist with getting visuals right. Because of the visual nature of Web Stories, if you don’t nail your design, then the Web Story could easily fall flat.
  • Keyword targeting: this should be an obvious one when it comes to SEO. Adding the target query and variations in a natural way to the H1, title tag, and throughout the content is crucial for placement in the Visual Stories unit. If missing, I wouldn’t expect to appear for your target query.
  • Survey the SERP: you may notice that the Visual Stories unit doesn’t appear for all queries. This is because there either isn’t enough relevant content for Google to present (less than 2 relevant Web Stories), or that Google doesn’t think the query is relevant for that type of content format. Complete your own testing before creation to ensure the unit appears. For instance, I was confident that the query “seo” and “seo tools” were triggering the unit prior to creation, so I made sure to include those queries in the correct locations.

The above should make a good foundation when creating your Web Stories to have the ability to rank within the Visual Stories unit. But the truth is, Web Story creation is quite difficult. I’ve created 3 Web Stories so far, which have progressively becomes better over time. But it took time to master the creation process.

Now that you have a good understanding of the basics when it comes to Web Stories and the Visual Stories unit, let’s discuss how you can track the progress of your Web Story getting included in the top ranking Visual Stories results.

Tracking inclusion in the Visual Stories unit

When it comes to tracking your Visual Stories performance, the best way of doing this is via 1st party data through your own verified Google Search Console account.

At the moment, there isn’t a filter in the Search Appearance report within GSC to see Visual Stories inclusions, but there is a filter for ‘Web Story’ which can be a helpful starting point.

The Visual Stories unit has a very low CTR currently. This may change as the push becomes stronger and users become more aware of the format, but I wouldn’t expect a ton of clicks from inclusion in the Visual Stories unit at this point.

Because Visual Stories can appear for very broad queries like “seo”, you’re bound to get a very sudden spike in impressions to alert you of the change. Here’s what this can look like:

A spike in impressions in Google Search Console from a Web Story URL appearing in Google’s Visual Stories unit.

From this point, you’ll need to become a detective with your search query data for the Web Story URL in question. There are several clues you can look to when trying to figure out the source, relating to the country, device and average position metrics.

Although GSC query data is sampled, you’ll still be able to get a good idea of where the visibility is coming from when drilling into the queries with the most impressions. Here’s what the query data looks like for the graph above:

Queries that have triggered the Web Story unit to receive impressions on Google.

To be sure that the Visual Stories unit is appearing, the only way you can confirm is by looking at Google’s mobile search results for the query. The above data includes visibility in various countries that had Visual Stories appearing during the testing phase, but it’s only the US that has the rollout currently.

It is also important to note that the Visual Stories unit counts as a single position within Google Search Console. So if your Web Story appears in the top position within the unit (like my Web Story does) or in the 4th position in the sequence, that will still count as a single spot.

At the time of writing this post, there are no SEO tool providers that have the ability to track appearance within the Visual Stories unit. I pinged Semrush earlier this year to give them the heads-up that the launch was coming, but didn’t hear back. So it’s now open to whichever tool provider wants to get the credit for the first to add to their dashboard.

Final thoughts

The rollout of the Visual Stories unit in the US on mobile is certainly one for SEOs to pay attention to. Because it’s now available to all users, we’ll likely see far more eye balls on Web Stories that are included.

A major downside to the feature that I’m seeing so far, and have seen confirmed by others in the past, is the exceedingly low CTR that you currently receive from placement in the unit. A big part of this was because of the testing phase, where I had Web Stories ranking for the query “google” (very irrelevant query), but the CTR is even low for the query “SEO tools” which should be bang on with intent.

For this reason, I’m not yet confident enough to be able to recommend the Web Story format to clients of mine as a viable publishing format. When the clicks start to come, that conversation could change. But now that I’m also seeing a lot less Discover visibility for Web Stories (anecdotally), am wondering about what the true benefits actually are.

What I would say though: if you have the Visual Stories unit showing for a high value query, and most of the Web Stories that are ranking within the unit are poorly created, go for it. Those impressions are worth something, even if the Web Story isn’t actually viewed. Especially if you have your brand logo prominently in Google’s search results for an otherwise impossibly hard to rank for query.