If you’ve spent any time reading about online marketing, you’ve likely seen the acronym “SERP,” or heard references to it in the context of search engine optimization (SEO). But what exactly is an SERP, and how can you use an SERP to your advantage?
In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of search engine results pages (SERPs), including what they are, how they work, and the steps you can take to ensure your website is visible in them.
Let’s start with the absolute basics. SERP stands for “search engine results page,” and as that name implies, this is the page you encounter after conducting a keyword search on a platform like Google. Based on your search string (the characters you enter into the search bar of the search engine), Google and other search engines will generate a list of results, and consolidate those results in an SERP for your convenience.
You can conduct a search right now—for anything—and see what an SERP looks like firsthand. You’ve likely seen thousands of these pages in your life without realizing that they had a specific name.
Users have the option of browsing through multiple SERPs to see new and different results. However, they typically focus on results on the first page, with a special focus on the first few entries within the SERP.
For example, the entry in position 1 usually gets 31.7 percent of the clicks, while position 2 gets 24.7 percent of the clicks. Position 10, the last position in a standard Google SERP, only gets 3.1 percent of the clicks. Accordingly, many webmasters want to be featured as high as possible within SERPs, ranking at or near the top of the list.
Google is by far the most popular search engine online, and its approach to SERPs is the most familiar. However, Yahoo, Bing, and other search engines typically have their own SERPs—including their own formulas for generating results within those SERPs.
You can think of SERPs as containing two main types of entries: organic entries and sponsored entries.
Modern SERPs offer many different types of results, all packed within the same page. Depending on what you’re searching for, and the type of phrasing you use, you may get an entirely different selection of results.
These are some of the most common types of entries you’ll find in a typical Google SERP:
SERPs of other search engines, like Yahoo and Bing, are structurally similar, but may not offer the same robustness.
With literally billions of websites and an impressive archive of knowledge at its disposal, Google has its work cut out for it when choosing which content to feature in an SERP (and how to rank it). So how do search engines choose results for SERP?
Let’s take a look at the different approaches that can come into play.
First, we need to think about ads. Google offers different types of ads for different types of search strings. Users searching for a specific type of product, for example, are likely to get a carousel of product ads, while users searching for a broad topic are more likely to get traditional Google ads that appear like organic entries.
While the backend processes are complex, the high-level view of the advertising system is simple: it’s based on an auction. Advertisers can choose the keywords and phrases they’d like to capitalize on, and place bids for what they’re willing to pay on a cost-per-click (CPC) basis. The higher the bid, the more likely you’ll be to rank, and the greater the competition, the higher the CPC bids are going to become. Advertisers can also plan out automated campaigns, setting maximum daily budgets and desired keywords, while letting the AdWords system take care of the rest.
Google also selectively places ads based on a subjective “quality score.” Spammy, low-effort, and misleading ads tend to be penalized with a lower quality score, while well-written, appropriately targeted, trustworthy ads get a boost. High CPC bids and high-quality scores get favoritism when getting placed.
Organic results are calculated in a much more complex way. Google wants to provide users with the best possible results for their search queries, so they incorporate data from more than 200 individual ranking factors.
Fortunately, you don’t have to understand how each of those individual ranking factors functions to understand the “big picture” of how Google prioritizes organic search results.
These two broad categories of factors are the most important:
Pages that excel in both these areas tend to rank higher in SERPs. You can use this to your advantage by improving the relevance and authority of your own pages—which we’ll cover in the next few sections.
Rich snippets, direct answers, and Knowledge Graph entries are more complex. Sometimes, Google is capable of drawing on its own body of knowledge (the Knowledge Graph). Other times, it takes the highest-ranking organic search result, and scans for specific content related to a user query.
Either way, if you want your content to have a chance of being featured as a rich answer in any context, your site needs to be structured correctly, using Schema.org microformatting. In most cases, you’ll have little control over what Google chooses to use for these entries.
SERPs aren’t just a useful tool for searchers to find what they’re looking for. They’re also a valuable opportunity for your business.
There are three main ways to make use of search engine results pages (SERPs) for your business, which we’ll cover in separate sections:
Increasing your organic rankings in SERPs is a long-term strategy with an incredibly high return on investment (ROI)—but there are many things you’ll need to consider to make this strategy work.
Remember, Google prioritizes content based on its relevance to user search strings and its authority/trustworthiness. All your strategies, therefore, need to be centered on improving one or both of these qualities.
For starters, you’ll need to work on the onsite and technical optimization of your site:
Google prefers websites that offer lots of in-depth, high-quality onsite content.
In addition to content and site functionality, you’ll need to think about the number and quality of links pointing to your site. Google primarily calculates “authority” or trustworthiness of websites based on the quantity and quality of links pointing back to them.
If your onsite content is good enough (and you publish it on social media), you should be able to attract some links naturally on your own. However, this strategy is inconsistent, and sometimes unreliable; accordingly, many SEO practitioners advise clients to implement a full offsite SEO strategy, complete with offsite content and strategic link building.
Note that this section merely covers the tip of the iceberg of SEO; a complete SERP ranking strategy demands far more detail.
Local SEO (the process of trying to make your business visible in the “Local Pack”) follows many of the same principles as traditional SEO; functional sites with high-quality content and inbound links tend to get favoritism.
However, there are a couple of additional considerations. For example, it’s a good idea to create a Google My Business account; it’s free, and it allows you to completely describe your business to Google. This will ensure the accuracy of your business’s entry in the Local Pack, and may increase your likelihood of being ranked.
You’ll also need to consider the impact of local reviews. Google Reviews and the reviews of other platforms (like Yelp) are taken into strong consideration when calculating the Local Pack entries; as you might imagine, businesses with lots of reviews take precedence over those with few reviews and/or mixed reviews.
Also, make sure you’re writing plenty of locally specific content; you want Google to associate your business with a specific area.
If you want to increase the likelihood of content from your site making it into a rich snippet or direct answer, the only strict requirement is using Schema.org microformatting throughout your site. Beyond that, you can increase your odds of success by attempting to answer common user questions as clearly and concisely as possible, and by increasing the trustworthiness of your content with the help of inbound links. Because Google is a bit unpredictable on how it selects rich answers, you may need to experiment to succeed in this area.
If you’re like most businesses, your ultimate goal isn’t ranking in SERPs—it’s getting traffic and positive attention from the people who encounter your entries.
Accordingly, you’ll need to think about optimizing your appearance in SERPs.
You can do that with the following:
Make sure you preview your SERP entry, and make tweaks as needed to polish your appearance further.
PPC ads are a complex topic in their own right, and we’ve written a thorough guide on the subject, so we’ll be brief here.
Improving your organic rankings is a process that takes time, but you can practically guarantee immediate SERP visibility by paying for advertising. On the flip side, PPC ads tend to be more expensive, and they don’t offer a path to long-term growth like SEO does. This makes PPC ads and organic ranking-focused SEO perfect complementary strategies if you want to dominate the SERPs for your industry.
Google AdWords is the best tool for SERP PPC ads, and not just because it’s tied to the world’s most popular search engine. It’s extremely intuitive, even if you’re new to PPC ads, and with it, you can target users based on device, location, timing, and other factors. You can also narrow down your target audience, opt for standard vs. accelerated delivery, and choose how to rotate your ads (such as optimizing for conversion or rotating evenly).
Your success in generating SERP visibility via PPC ads will depend on a few main factors:
Once a user clicks on your ad, it will be up to you to finish converting them, with a custom landing page designed for your new prospects.
It’s also worth noting that SERP PPC ads are just one type of PPC ad; you can also place ads with Google’s extended display network, or with different platforms (like Facebook).
Search engine results pages (SERPs) are generated for each user search query. They’re designed to provide users with the most appropriate results for their searches—which makes them a perfect opportunity for businesses to improve their visibility and reputation. Once you understand the mechanisms responsible for generating SERP layouts and rankings, you can use strategies like SEO, SERP optimization, and even PPC ads to increase the likelihood of your business showing up in relevant searches—and ultimately, attract more people to your website.
Are you interested in making your website more visible or more likely to be clicked in the organic search results of SERPs? Or do you just need help getting control of your SEO strategy? Contact SEO.co today for a free consultation, and learn how we can help you climb to the top of the SERPs!