We’re here to guide you through Google's Refine by feature, with examples and top tips to help you make the most of it as a user and a business.
The days of seeing 10 text results on a search engine results page are long gone.
Google have been updating their search algorithm and playing around with results page features since day one - with shopping ads, map snippets, question boxes and videos now all battling for attention.
Another feature which has been quietly gaining ground since July 2017 has been the ‘Refine By’ tool; a handy way to make product search results more specific and make searching even more effortless for users - the backbone of SEO.
As with every change Google makes, this presents opportunities for businesses and digital marketers with one hand, and adds challenges with the other. We’re here to guide you through this increasingly prominent feature, so you can get the most from it as both a customer and a brand.
When does it appear, and what does it look like?
It will commonly appear on those broad, high volume searches that are carried out at the very early stages of researching something, or buying a product. It’s in the mix with the usual Google Shopping and paid ads you’d expect to see.
Type in any noun and more often than not, you’ll see a box with different image ‘cards’ of that object pop up. It’s not just regularly searched products that this appears for either. Below you’ll see the results for some common and less common terms to demonstrate.
The Refine By tool has been kept as simple as possible in its design, i.e. a ‘block’ on the page with a suitable Refine By option, accompanied by images to help users identify their specific choice ‘at a glance’.
The look and feel of this feature is almost identical across desktop and mobile devices at the moment, but of course that could change.
Refine by type
Refine by use
Refine by shape
Refine by style
How do search refinements work?
Quite surprisingly, choosing a refinement option just adds the term to your original query, with no trickery involved. One minute you’re seeing results for ’toaster‘, the next you’re seeing results for a 6-slice behemoth.
Refine by size
Interestingly, the Toaster>6-slice route doesn’t contain any shopping or paid ads on the results page, whereas searching for ’6 slice toaster‘ from a standing start throws in a shopping carousel and Amazon paid ad, so you get straight into the organic results.
This is common across all of the searches we’ve refined – i.e. Drill > Cordless is free from ads but a search for “cordless drill” has ads all over the page.
Great news for SEO as results are back to appearing above the fold, but not so much if Google Ads are part of your marketing strategy. To maximise your visibility
As a user, can I only apply a single search refinement?
In some cases, it’s possible to refine your refinements further – for example, shed lovers can rejoice as they can pick a material and then choose to view only a specific size:
Refine by material
For those shopping for a new bike, a search for ‘bicycle’ has plenty of refinements available. Choosing a type from ‘BMX’ to ‘road’ to ‘mountain’ can then be followed up by picking a brand, then refining by suspension type where appropriate:
Refine by type...
...then refine by brand...
...and suspension type.
With ’toothbrushes’, once you’ve picked your favourite brand, you can then select from electric and standard and so on.
Generally, if the first refinement option is a quantitative value like ’4 slot‘ or ’6ft x 4ft‘ there are rarely additional refinements, but qualitative refinements often have additional options.
What does this mean for digital marketers?
All of this refining of refinements means that Google is constructing long tail, product-specific searches on the fly; helping users to get through to the purchasing stage far more quickly.
This is a challenge for marketers who have a content strategy which focuses heavily on the initial research stage. When users can learn product terminology, type it in straight off, and just click an image directly in search results to complete their research, it will become less likely that they’ll be spending time reading guides like “The top 10 standard toothbrushes for kids under £10”, and so on.
Another area to consider is that Google is dictating terminology and keywords more and more. For example, who knew that a hand blender was actually called an ’immersion blender‘?
And were you aware that the top five types of shoes are: trainer, sandal, heel, boot and ‘active’?
There are a few Americanisms to be aware of too. Where products can be refined by size, these are more likely to be in imperial measurements like feet and inches - rather than centimetres and kilos.
Some terminology can also be lost in translation, with microwave types being either ’countertop‘ or ’over-the-range‘, which is an odd way of saying ’built in‘ or ’integrated’.
This Google mandated search query system also means the order of keywords in queries can be changed around too, based on the order of refinements.
When using the ‘bicycle’ refinements, for example, picking the path of Bicycle>Hybrid>Boardman>Men’s leads to a search term of:
’Man Boardman Hybrid‘
which seems unnatural compared to the more traditional order of:
’Men’s Boardman Hybrid Bike‘ or;
’Boardman Hybrid Bike – Men’s‘.
Also bear in mind that not all refinement options are displayed to users. Swiping or scrolling through the carousel is required to view the full range of options in many cases. On mobile devices, only the first three refinement options are shown on page load, and on desktop this is five.
We’ve seen as many as 12 cards in the refinement carousel, but unless your brand, type of cactus or size of log cabin is in the top 3 to 5 results it’s unlikely that you’ll benefit from these refinements.
This is particularly true when market leaders of a particular product are in the top 5, such as smart speaker results (see below) - where the chances of a click on the LG or Lenovo refinements are very slim unless you keep scrolling through the carousel for more options.
The view on page load:
After the first click, less relevant brands appear:
And LG and Lenovo are only shown after a second click or swipe:
How can my business benefit from search refinements?
All of these subtle changes mean it’s time to consider how your product and category pages are optimised. Decreased click-throughs to blogs from these direct refinements suggest that product pages are where the attention should really be focused.
- Ensuring your product names, descriptions and supporting information sections are all aligned with the relevant refinements can bring much needed visibility.
- Performing keyword research from a wide range of sources can help account for all relevant refinements. You can also dig into your Google Search Console data to identify phrases which are likely to be formed through use of search refinements rather than manually inputting. Even if impressions and positions for these terms are currently very low, building these into your content can give you an edge over competitors.
- Also consider using structured data on your product and category pages to clearly indicate your product specifications and attributes. You can mark up your brand, colour, material, height, weight, width and additional information using a specific Schema called Product. This not only highlights the technical information to benefit search refinements, it also means eye catching detail like pricing and reviews are added to your regular search snippets (our Organic Search team can help you get up and running with structured data).
Is the feature any good?
For something that’s already been around for two years, there seem to be quite a few issues with the search refinement tool.
Sometimes, the refinements on offer just don’t seem to be in line with what users are looking for. This is because, in some cases:
- Searches for ‘the object’ can result in broadening the search rather than refining it, leaving the refinement redundant.
- Results can become inaccurate according to the ‘simplicity’ of that search term. So, when refining from “cactus” to “cactus tree”, the results are dominated by the Joni Mitchell song from 1968, even though a user is clearly looking for a cactus.
- Occasionally, brand terms can dominate search refinements too – a search for ‘shoes’ which is then refined by ‘Active’ and refined again by ‘Adidas’ results in the term ‘Adidas Sports’ and lacks the initial “shoes” term entirely. This takes users away from finding the perfect pair of shoes, and onto a broader, brand-led pathway.
So, whilst this tool is a work in progress, the usual Google policy is “use it or lose it.”
Whatever happens to search refinements in the future, there is still significant value in providing potential customers with in-depth information about your products. Likewise, understanding how a user begins with their initial research or a particular problem and eventually makes a purchase isn’t a bad idea either.
If you can cater for users across every stage of their purchase journey with your marketing strategy, then you’re onto a winner.