Definition: Search Engine Results Page
Want to scale the top of the search engine results?
Of course! But before you do, you need to understand everything there is to know about the SERPs.
This post will tell you everything. By the time your done, you will be well educated in the space.
This guide covers it all – from what exactly a SERP is and how it works to how you can effectively take your site to the top of the page.
What is a SERP?
SERP 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 SERPs 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 SERP.
What’s All The Fuss About Google SERPs?
You’ll notice we put a lot of emphasis on Google when we talk SERPs – or anything SEO related, for that matter.
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, it’s 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.
Organic SERP Results
This is why you pay SEOs the big bucks – to take a page to the top of the SERPs.
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
Paid SERP Results
On the flip side, you have your paid results.
These have been paid by an advertiser to display in the SERP, and they generally appear at the very top of the SERP, or alongside them.
Paid SERP 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 of the SERPs 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 in the 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 SERP
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.
But to scale the SERP, you need both.
On-Page SEO for SERP’s
On-page SEO is how you optimize your individual web pages to rank higher in the SERP.
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 SEO for SERP’s
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.
Technical SEO for SERP’s
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 of SERP: From SEO to SERP 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 in the SERPs.
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 SERP Features
There’s no shortage of features when it comes to the SERPs, and generally a feature will have some sort of unique image, map, or border to signal its different than the rest of the listings on the SERP.
Some SERP 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 in the SERP, 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 of the SERP, and focus primarily on finding common questions your audience asks and providing clear answers.
Video SERP Feature
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.
Knowledge Panel SERP Feature
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.
Local Pack SERP Feature
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 SERP Feature
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 Pack SERP Feature
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 SERP Feature
Carousel’s are list-like displays that appear in a row in a SERP. These are used for mobile searches, and must be either for recipes, films, courses or articles.
To reach carousel status in the SERP, 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.
Related Questions SERP Feature
This one appears as a dropdown box under People Also Ask in the SERP.
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 SERP results. In your content, make sure to focus on Q&A and FAQs to increase the odds that your snippet will get pulled.
AMP Mobile Results SERP
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 in the SERP.
Twitter Packs SERP
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 SERP 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 SERP Feature
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.
Search Box SERP Feature
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.
In-Depth Article SERP Feature
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.
Because they’re hard to spot and tend to appear so low on the SERP, there isn’t quite as much value associated with in-depth articles.
Wrapping Up Google SERP
Google SERPs 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 for the SERPs, and take advantage of all the traditional and new SERP features Google has to offer.