Google has revealed that emoji 😎 will once again show up in search results snippets, reversing a decision taken in 2015 to remove the characters from its results.
Further context was added with the announcement that emoji will appear “where relevant, useful and fun,” and we can expect to see more of them in future. This will apply to both desktop and mobile results.
A search for something as on the nose as [emoji] reveals how we can expect some results to look:
Why has Google made this decision now, how prevalent will emoji become in search results, and should marketers already be trialling this latest development?
Google and emoji: A brief history
Emoji are pretty much everywhere nowadays, and their uptake as a form of communication is not surprising. Our brains process visual information 60,000 times faster than text, plus they come with the intrinsic benefit of circumventing language barriers. Moreover, they’re pretty fun.
Advertisers, of course, have sniffed an opportunity to connect with a younger audience ‘in their own language’, with some mixed results along the way.
This is still a ubiquitous feature of online (particularly mobile) communication, with brands and celebrities routinely distilling their message into a couple of cute images on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
Google, however, had adopted a different stance. After seeing that some brands were over-indulging in the emoji trend in an attempt to attract more clicks, Google removed the characters from its results altogether in 2015.
The offending parties were placing the characters throughout their title tags and meta descriptions, in anticipation that this would arrest more attention than a text-only result.
This theory remains sound today; in fact, a recent study showed that emoji usage in app store descriptions can dramatically increase download rates. As such, the lure for marketers remains as tempting as it was two years ago – perhaps even more so.
If anything, search results are more fragmentary than they have ever been, and capturing a consumer’s attention has become increasingly difficult.
So why the change of stance from Google now?
First of all, it is worth noting that Google clearly wants to ring-fence this capability to select queries that its RankBrain machine learning algorithm deems relevant. This is a softening of their position, not a complete volte-face.
Additionally, should brands rush to cash in and place the characters in awkward, stilted contexts, Google may opt to banish them again.
In the interim, this trend has become too significant for them to ignore, so this latest announcement offers a convenient compromise.
Another interesting angle was brought to light through a recently-filed Apple patent for a new keyboard, featuring an Emoji button in place of Caps Lock.
Similar functionality has been included in Apple products already through keyboard command combinations and the Apple Touch Bar, but nothing quite so concrete.
If such an option encourages users to search using emoji, search results which most exactly match the query would presumably rank highest. There are plenty of emoji-based domains out there already, so their inclusion in search queries would logically start to follow suit.
Much in the way Twitter has tried with its emoji targeting options, this could see Google turn the demand for emoji-based communication into a commercial enterprise.
The Apple keyboard may never see the light of day (there is no letter E in the concept drawing, so it certainly requires a little more work), but it is indicative of what is looking more like a lasting trend than a fad. It would surprise no-one if Google managed to monetise this better than anyone else.
How can marketers take advantage now?
If brands can insert emoji into their results snippets in a way that matches the user’s query – perhaps even more accurately than text alone would have done – then there are clear benefits.
Google would have good reason to show these results, and users would have equally good reason to click on them.
However, both of these elements require testing.
First, we won’t know if Google wants to show emoji for a search result unless someone tries this out in practice. If there are no emoji in the page’s meta tags, they of course won’t show up for the query. There is also an element of judicious planning here; common sense suggests that results for a pizza restaurant will be more ‘emoji-friendly’ than those for a lawyer’s office, for example.
If we know that a query is deemed relevant enough to show emoji characters, the next stage is to assess whether they actually have a positive impact on engagement rates. It can be more difficult in SEO than in PPC to have controlled experiments of this type, but observations can still be made on ranking, impression, and CTR trends.
As with so many new developments, the early adopters will reap the rewards, so this is worth experimentation.
And although it seems unlikely that Google will allow its results pages to descend into a cartoonish free-for-all, there is still plenty of room for manoeuvre for savvy marketers.
With recent additions to the emoji canon including a potato, bacon, and a drooling face, the possibilities are endless.
Clark Boyd is VP Strategy at Croud, a global digital performance agency.
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