SERP Definition: “SERP stands for Search Engine Results page. This refers to the pages of results that are returned when someone does a search in a search engine such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex or other.”
In this post, you will learn how the Search Engine Results Pages work.
What You’ll Learn:
- Traditional SEO:
- How Google determines a page’s rank
- How SEO affects rankings
- The evolution
- Overview of the major features
- How AI will affect the SERPs
What is a SERP?
If you search for “SERP meaning,” you’ll find that it refers to a search engine result page – the page that appears with a user’s results when they type a search into Google (or any search engine).
Search results are generally triggered by keywords that the user may have included in the query.
But here’s the thing: no two results are the same.
Search engines work hard to customize the experience to each individual user, meaning that you’ll rarely see the same results twice – even using the same search engine.
You’ll also notice that like most things, search engines change with the times. New search algorithms mean changing results, and updated features lead to the appearance of maps, images, videos, and more in your results.
And What Is Google Search Engine Results Page?
You’ll notice we put a lot of emphasis on Google.
Why? Because it’s by far the most dominant search engine in the space. Admit it – when you go to search for something on the web, you don’t think twice about which search engine you’re going to.
You don’t even ‘search’ for something anymore. You Google it.
And you’re not alone. Back in October 2016, Google commanded 59.2% of the total internet searches. By May 2017, that number had risen to 62.6%. That’s a 3.4% increase in less than a year.
Not only is Google clearly holding strong at the top, but it’s also increasing. And while any savvy SEO will focus their efforts in many directions, they know that when it comes to dominating the SERPs, Google is king.
Traditional SEO – Organic vs. Paid Results
Traditional SEO usually refers to one of two things: organic or paid search.
The breakdown’s like this:
Organic – refers to content that ranks high due to Google’s algorithm and a page’s optimization
- Paid – results that are paid by an advertiser to be displayed in a SERP
The most effective SEO strategies combine both organic and paid SEO to achieve their business goals.
This is why you pay SEOs the big bucks – to take a page to the top.
An organic result appears because it’s relevant to a user’s search terms. Generally, the top spots are filled with the pages that most “naturally” suit a searcher’s query.
Because these are meant to be natural, there’s no added bells and whistles.
Instead, these results are obtained through organic SEO, which refers to the methods used to obtain a high rank or placement on a search engine through the use of unpaid results. Rather, organic SEO caters to search algorithms by using keywords, backlinks, quality content, etc. (more on that shortly).
I won’t lie; it takes time and dedication to achieve top results through organic SEO. But it’s worth it. Some of the benefits include:
- Tends to generate more clicks overall – the top 5 organic listings on Google accounted for 67.6% of all clicks
- Because of content relevancy, organic results tend to keep top spots longer
- Build more trust with users, as most prefer to click on organic listings
- None of the extra costs associated with paid listings
Keep in mind: search results can change based on a Google SERP update.
Paid SERP Results
On the flip side, you have your paid results.
These have been paid by an advertiser to display and they generally appear at the very top of the page or on the side.
Paid results are also powered primarily by keywords; a searcher’s paid result will be one that matches closely to any keyword they entered in their search.
Most of the time, they look almost identical to organic listings – minus the small “ad” badge. But increasingly, you’ll see different ads suited to different niches.
For example, retailers can show off pictures and prices of their products through the use of Shopping Ads.
The use of AdWords extensions has also opened new doors for advertisers. Now, local businesses can include location extensions, those with downloadable apps can include app extensions, and any business can include sitelink extensions with additional links.
Paid ads work on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis, meaning an advertiser only pays when someone clicks on their ad.
And like organic results, paid results too have their fair share of benefits. While they may not have the same staying power, paid search can you get to the top and expose you to highly targeted customers – fast.
And though they may not see the same CTRs as organic listings – on average, Google PPC ads see a 2% CTR – those that do click are often ready to convert.
Beyond that, paid results come with a set of analytics that will tell you everything from clicks and impressions to conversions and ROI.
And the insight you gain through your paid analytics can help inform the decisions you make when it comes to organic SEO as well, which is why the two often work so well together.
How Does Google Determine a Page’s Rank on a SERP?
There’s no easy answer to this one.
The websites on the first page are the ones Google has determined to be the most relevant and useful to a particular search query.
To make that decision, Google relies on a complex algorithm of 200+ ranking signals (for a full list, look here).
In technical terms, the process works something like this:
- Google uses its Googlebot (search bot software) to crawl a site. Crawling is the process where the bot goes to different sites to find new information. The Googlebot finds sites to crawl through links.
- The information gathered by the Googlebot is then indexed. This is where Google uses those 200 ranking factors to determine the placement of a site in the SERP.
So in order to rank high, companies cater to the ranking signals and algorithm through SEO practices.
How SEO Affects Search Engine Results Page
SEO efforts are separated into two categories:
- On-page SEO – refers to all the factors you control on the page such as linking, content optimization, page titles, etc
- Off-page SEO – includes all factors off page, such as social media networking, blog promotion, etc.
Think of it this way: on-page SEO has more to do with what your page will rank for, while off-page is more concerned with where your page will rank.
On-page SEO is how you optimize your individual web pages.
This refers in large part to the content of a page – which may be the single most important factor when it comes to determining a page’s rank.
Good content is relevant, relatable, serves a clear purpose to your audience, and is linkable.
It’s generally focused on a very specific subject, clearly stated through the use of specific keywords.
Your target keyword should be used several times throughout your content, as well as:
- Your title tag
- Image alt text
- Meta descriptions
- Headings and subheadings
Off-page, of course, is any SEO effort that happens away from the actual webpage.
When done correctly, it can signal to search engines that your site is popular, relevant, and trustworthy.
Most commonly, this is done through backlinks – links from other webpages that lead back to your site. The more quality backlinks you can accrue, the more likely Google is to trust your site and rank it accordingly.
But there’s more to off-page SEO than that, including:
- Social media marketing
- Influencer marketing
- Guest blogging
- Events, giveaways, etc.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the importance of technical SEO.
While this can fall into either on or off-page, it’s often presented as its own category because it refers to what happens behind the scenes.
Some of the most important technical SEO factors include:
- Page load speed
- Duplicate content
- Rel=canonical issues
- Mobile optimization
- Broken links
- Internal linking structure
The Evolution From SEO to Result Features
Here’s what most people don’t know: there’s much more to ranking than organic and paid results.
In fact, Google offers an impressive variety of ways to push your page to the top.
We call these SERP features, and they’re changing the game when it comes to SEO.
Traditional, HTML SEO listings are no longer the best and surest way to land high.
Instead, Google – and brands – are increasingly looking to results like videos, featured snippets, and map boxes to quickly answer a search query.
This doesn’t mean that SEO is over. The opportunity is still there, but the way we approach it is changing.
Rather than “I want the top listing!”, brands need to be thinking: “I want the featured snippet” or “I want to show up in the video box” – and plan their SEO strategy from there.
To do so, SEOs need to focus their attention on answers, rather than results.
Kinds of Features
There’s no shortage of features, and generally a feature will have some sort of unique image, map, or border to signal its different than the rest of the listings.
Some features are generated simply through your content, while others require additional information through structured data.
Google separates its features into two categories, as they explain below:
- Content type: Many search features are tied to the topic of your page. For example, if the page has a recipe or a news article, or contains information about an event or a book. Google Search results can then apply content-specific features such as making your page eligible to appear in a top news stories carousel, a recipe carousel, or an events list.
- Enhancements: These are features that can be applied to more than one kind of content type. For example, providing review stars for a recipe or movie, or exposing a carousel of rich results (previously known as rich cards)
We call these positions 0, and you may have guessed, they’re a pretty big deal.
A featured snippet appears above the top spot and is pulled directly from a webpage that provides a specific answer to a searcher’s query.
For example, if you type “what is the biggest search engine” into Google, you’ll see this featured snippet at the top:
Generally, to rank for a featured snippet you should already be within the top 5 positions and focus primarily on finding common questions your audience asks and providing clear answers.
Video results can appear as a thumbnail in searches. They generally come from YouTube and are connected to a specific keyword.
For example, type “happy” into Google. You’ll see this video on the first SERP:
You can provide details such as the description, thumbnail URL, upload date, and duration.
These days, one of the only ways to get your video to appear as a snippet is through hosting on YouTube. So make sure you’re using YouTube if you have a video strategy, and optimize all videos correctly.
Reviews are most often displayed as stars (1-5) and are shown primarily for products, recipes, and related items. They appear directly below title and URL, and generally receive higher click-through rates than those without.
So, if you type Amazon Kindle into Google, you’ll see this result with a starred review:
There are two types of reviews allowed by Google:
- Critic Review – a snippet from a longer review, used for local businesses, movies, and books
- Review snippets – a rich result collected from a review website, used for local businesses, movies, books, products
To use them, you must implement schema.org and follow the guidelines provided by Google.
The knowledge panel offers a searcher a broad overview of information about local businesses, corporations, well-known people, movies, etc.
For example, this is what comes up in a search for George Washington:
The information displayed in the knowledge panel can be pulled from one or more sources and typically appear to the right of search results on desktops, and at the top of results on mobile.
Though similar to a featured snippet, a knowledge panel typically includes more variety of information and is powered by Google’s Knowledge Graph – a database that pulls information from trusted sources.
An instant answer (also called ‘answer box’) is shown when Google can provide short, concise answer to a question.
Unlike features snippets, they provide no detail or description outside of the actual answer.
Instant Answers are also powered by the Knowledge Graph, which means there’s little in terms of SEO that most businesses can do to achieve an Instant Answer result.
A local pack will show in a SERP for – you guessed it – local searches. Those include searches with local intent or those that include a business or location name.
That means if I type in “pizza near me,” Google will pull the following local pack:
The pack usually includes a map with various location pins, and the top three locations. Clicking on the map will expand it and offer more location suggestions along the side. Clicking on one of the individual locations will generally pull up a knowledge panel.
Local packs are extremely important for any local businesses. To land in the local pack, you’ll need to claim (and optimize) your Google My Business page and put an emphasis on local SEO.
Top Stories usually appear as a result of a news search query, and are comprised of articles most relevant to the topic. The stories typically appear at the top of the SERP and come in a block of three.
A search for a current news, like the Olympics, will provide this:
In order to stay on top of Top Stories, articles must be time-sensitive and provide updated, consistent information. While Top Stories generally have very good CTRs, they’re usually reserved for bigger news organizations.
Image packs appear at the top of the SERP when a keyword entered in the search query triggers specific images as well as text results.
A search for “lion cub” would produce something like this:
You can increase the likelihood of appearing in an Image Pack by optimizing your images for related keywords.
The downside is that clicking on one of the images takes a user to the Google Image results, not directly to your website. To get there, the user would have to again click the photo and the given URL.
Carousel’s are list-like displays that appear in a row. These are used for mobile searches, and must be either for recipes, films, courses or articles.
To reach carousel status all items must already be in a list form and follow standard structures markup guidelines.
We touched on these earlier, and essentially, Shopping Results (or ads) rich results that feature a thumbnail image, its title, price, link to a product page, and sometimes its review rating.
They appear right at the top or to the right of the SERP:
They’re generally best for businesses with more than 500 products (Google favors those with more), with a high quality website.
This one appears as a dropdown box under People Also Ask.
It usually contains four questions, and when one is clicked on they’ll be shown a brief snippet, as well as two new related questions.
For example, If I ask Google the “how to train a puppy,” it will give this list of related questions right under the featured snippet:
These questions and answers can be pulled from different sites, and in some cases, all from the same site (which clearly represents an incredible SEO opportunity).
To rank here, you’ll already want to be employing good SEO practices and ranking in the top results. In your content, make sure to focus on Q&A and FAQs to increase the odds that your snippet will get pulled.
Organic Listing FAQs
Simply put, you can use schema markup to give the search engines a little more information about your website in a way that’s invisible to your users.
For example, if you’d like to identify the author of an article, there’s a schema type called Blog that includes an author property. You’d set the name of the author in that property.
Why would you want to go the extra mile to use a FAQ markup in addition to standard HTML markup? Because it makes it easier for search engines to parse the content on your site.
That’s important because their algorithms might use that additional info to give your web pages a higher rank in the search results.
AMP Mobile Results
AMP – Accelerated Mobile Pages – is a Google initiative that’s quickly changing how results appear on mobile.
Essentially, AMP loads mobile pages at an accelerated speed. Though it’s primarily been used for text-based results, new features like Google AMP Stories are expanding the types of results that can rank using AMP.
Google tends to favor websites with a faster load time, and has now announced that mobile load speed will soon be a ranking factor as well.
As such, pages that install AMP will have a better shot at a high rank.
This one’s a little different than the others, as it doesn’t come directly from Google.
Rather, Twitter packs are a short collection of recent Tweets related to a searcher’s query.
They usually come in sets of three, and appear about half way down the page.
These can come from verified or unverified accounts, and the specifications for how to appear in a Twitter pack are still somewhat unclear.
Sitelinks allow you to enhance your existing listing by adding other relevant links to your site below your result.
Amazon’s looks like this:
Sitelinks can be extremely beneficial in helping users navigate your site and finding spread traffic throughout. Think of it as a way to occupy multiple spots in the SERP, while only really needing one.
To get sitelinks added, you need to already be getting a decent amount of traffic. Beyond that, make sure you have a solid internal linking structure and schema markup on your site.
This one goes hand-in-hand with sitelinks, but gives users the additional option of searching your content right from the SERP page.
To use one with your search results, you’ll first need to have a search engine on your website (these are common; most sites already have a search feature for their content).
These boxes have obvious benefits for both users and brands; it makes it easy for anyone to search and locate desired content, without having to sift through any unnecessary pages or links, which in turn will decrease bounce rate.
These ones can be tricky to spot. They appear along organic listings, with little to no distinguishable characteristics to separate them.
Typically, you’ll find them towards the bottom of the SERP and provide particularly lengthy pieces about a given search topic.
To appear here, you’ll need schema markup as well as:
- Long-form content (2,000-5,000 words)
- High quality writing
- Optimized headlines, images, description, etc.
How AI Will Affect the SERPs
By now you have certainly heard how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is changing the landscape for the future of everything from media marketing to, yes you guessed it, SERP.
So what does all this AI stuff mean for search results?
For starters let’s take a look at “neural matching”. This is an algorithm that uses AI technology to help analyze and understand language (specifically synonyms) better so as to give users more diverse search results.
Image and Video Search
Given the importance of image and video, Google recently rolled out new features that “use AI to make your search experience more visual and enjoyable” says director of Google engineering at Google Images, Cathy Edwards.
Google’s primary focus is user experience. With that, SERP’s will have more appealing and useful content, video previews and image searching for its users.
Dynamic Search Results
Dynamic search results is another awesome and useful search component. It uses AI to help you make your search experience easier.
Even if you don’t know exactly what you’re searching for or what you may need to search for after to your initial search, Google shows you subtopics at the top of the page that are relevant to your query.
1. What are some top tools?
If you’re in the market for a great Google tool, you’ll be happy to learn that there are plenty of them on the market that will help you track and improve your website’s rank. Here are some of the best:
- SERPBook – An oldie but a goodie. It will show you where your website ranks for specific keywords on all the major search engines. Additionally, it will chart your rank history over time. That way, you can see if there’s an improving trend. It also offers automated, white-label reports.
- STAT – Wonder if any of your keywords made it to the answer box ? If so, check out STAT. You can also use it to track rank, gain competitor intelligence, and optimize for Local SEO.
- SEMRush – A tool that just gets better over time. SEMRush lets you plug in any keyword and it will show you the top-ranking websites. It will also give you a Keyword Difficulty rating so you can see how hard (or easy) it will be to rank for a specific search term.
- SEOquake – Unlike the other tools mentioned here, SEOquake is a browser plug-in. That means you can use it to analyze websites and search results while you’re surfing the web. In fact, SEOquake offers real-time stats beneath every search result. That kind of info will help you get ahead of the competition.
- Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool – One way to stand out is with markup that highlights key details, such as star ratings, publication dates, and price info. However, it’s easy to make mistakes when adding markup. Use Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool to uncover any structured data problems so you can fix them.
- Schema App Structured Data – Speaking of markup, you can add easily add it to your WordPress site with the Schema App Structured Data plugin. As with most plugins, it enables you to update your website even if you don’t know how to code.
- Ahrefs – Looking for an all-in-one tool that’s often billed as the “Rolls Royce” of SEO services? If so, then check out Ahrefs. It’s a bit pricey, but offers several features that will help you get a great rank.
- Google Search Console – What’s not to love about a free tool offered by the Big G itself? Google Search Console is a great place to start if you’re looking for info about keywords people use to find your site, how many times your site appears in search, and info about the technical aspects of your web pages.
- Answer the Public – If you’d like to generate a FAQ that will rank in search, take a look at Answer the Public, a website that accepts a keyword and generates questions from it. You can use those questions in your own content.
- Majestic – Identify websites that are great candidates for backlinks with Majestic. It’s a tool that will give you insights about the “link juice” that other websites can offer. You can also learn quite a bit about your own website with the tool, such as which backlinks you need to disavow.
2. What Are Google Rank Checker Tools?
When it comes to SEO, it’s important to know where your keywords rank in the search results. If you’re tracking several dozen or several hundred keywords, it’s not practical to Google them every day and scroll to find out where your search listings are located.
In fact, Google won’t let you perform too many searches in a single day. Your IP address will be blocked.
That’s why it’s important to use rank checker tools. They’ll monitor keywords on your behalf and show you where your site ranks for each one of them.
Even better, many rank checker tools will show you where your keywords have ranked over time. That way, you can see if the trend is your friend.
7. Where Are Good Places to Get Search Marketing Education?
There are several great resources online:
- Ignite Visibility Blog – Our own blog here at Ignite Visibility has an SEO Starter Guide, info about the latest Google algorithm updates, and news about all the latest trends in digital marketing.
- Moz’s SEO Learning Center – If you’re new to SEO, Moz’s SEO Learning Center contains a library of information about ranking, visibility, on-site SEO, building a backlink profile, Local SEO, and keyword research.
- Google Webmaster Central Blog – Google shares all the latest news about its search engine on the Webmaster Central Blog.
- Search Engine Journal – One of the most popular blogs that shares all the latest news of interest to the search community.
Google search isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems, and landing one of the top spots is no easy task.
Luckily, there are more ways than ever to optimize your site and take advantage of all the traditional and new SERP features Google has to offer.