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The humble favicon, caught between a rock and a hard place

by Krishanthe Keerthikumar

January 15, 2020

You may or may not have seen that the favicon, of all things, is the talk of the (online) town this week. The 16x16pixel image has caused quite the storm, despite being a pretty inoffensive feature of any website. Or at least it used to be.

Before we get into the details, a reminder for those who may not know a great deal about our friend the favicon. A favicon is a miniaturized image, typically of a brand or website’s logo. It typically would feature on the tab of a browser, like so:

As with anything in the search space, there are guidelines on how to define your favicon. In short, you need a <link> tag in the <head> of your page including the URL of your chosen favicon image (the link must be on the same domain as the home page itself).

Here’s an example: <link rel="icon" href="/favicon.ico" type="image/x-icon">

When Google crawls your homepage, it will look for and update your favicon accordingly, assuming it is within the guidelines, some of which are:

  • It must be a visual representation of your brand
  • It should be a multiple of 48px square in a valid favicon format.
  • Nothing nasty, like pornography, or hate symbols.

And voila, Google will do the rescaling and you can see your brand logo appearing in places you never imagined was even possible.

I know what you’re thinking, ‘you were right, that truly is pretty inoffensive’ - well, let’s get into why all this has become important again.

On the 13th of January 2020, Google's Search Liaison (Danny Sullivan) tweeted confirmation that brand icons will now, or in the near future, feature in desktop search results alongside the domain name.

Google is constantly testing different features in the SERPs, in fact, this test, in particular, has been running on mobile for quite some time. Confirming its permanent rollout to desktop shouldn't be that big of a deal.

Wrong. The tweet was met with overwhelming negativity from the search community. It resurfaced the bubbling undercurrent of frustration in the SEO community that Google is further blurring the lines between what is a paid result and what is an organic result, this time to a limit previously unseen.

Some of the feedback was based purely on the aesthetics, that the favicons perhaps didn’t really work and users prefer seeing the full URL of a result before they choose to click on it, which is very fair feedback.

The majority of anger was levelled at how little difference there now is between a sponsored link and a hard-earned organic result. An organic result that is likely to have been the culmination of work between an SEO and content specialist, who have invested a lot of time and effort into their website.

As those of us in the SEO community know all too well, the penalties for attempting to deceive a user, or a search engine itself, with any form of disingenuous ploy or digital malpractice, can be very severe. These penalties, of course, are Google’s attempt to maintain a level playing field for all websites to compete, while simultaneously giving the best experience to searchers. The hypocrisy was not lost on many in Google’s latest and not-so-subtle attempt at driving searchers into the paid results. Searchers who, as many will agree, would probably prefer not to click on a paid result for fear of it being irrelevant to their search query.

Google shared a mock-up of what the new SERP will begin to look like:

After having a quick chuckle about the idea that a search result would simply have one paid result above the organic results - expect 3, probably 4 in reality - the focus shifted to the differences, or lack thereof, between the two types of result.

What was billed as a simple update to allow for the favicon to appear alongside organic results, appears to have been little more than a smokescreen for Google’s attempt to add more $ to their bottom line. The ‘ad’ label disguised as a favicon, of course, being the highlight.

There are hundreds of blog articles detailing the historic timeline of changes made from the ’90s to where we are now, it doesn’t need to be covered further in this post.

But what does need to be said is how much further can Google go with this? Realistically, do they even care? Their market share is still incredibly dominant, their products are deeply ingrained in the ways of life of billions, and if we’re honest with ourselves, is a change like this really going to push any of us towards a rival search engine? Only time will tell.

One thing that is clear is, unfortunately, for the humble favicon, yesterday was just a false alarm at finally being the centre of attention.

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