If you’ve spent any time reading about online marketing, you’ve likely seen the acronym “SERP” (Search Engine Results Page) 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.
Table of Contents
The Basics of SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages)
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.
The Main Elements of SERPs
You can think of SERPs as containing two main types of entries: organic entries and sponsored entries.
- Organic entries are links and pieces of content that are shown because they have a high likelihood of being relevant to the search user. For example, these entries might answer the user’s question, be an example of what the user is searching for, or may cover a related topic. Here, the search engine’s job is selectively choosing results that have the greatest chance of making the user satisfied—and therefore more likely to use the search engine again.
- Sponsored entries are ads that are displayed because a company, individual, or organization has paid for their appearance. This is one of the primary ways that search engines like Google make money. Millions of people browse SERPs each day, so SERPs function much like a newspaper or a magazine; advertisers can pay money to get readers’ attention. These ads are served dynamically, rather than statically, meaning the content can change throughout the day and in response to different users.
Anatomy of an SERP (2020)
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:
- Google ads (top and bottom). One of the first things you’ll notice is a section of entries that appear to be organic (more on organic results later). At the top and bottom of the page, there will be a handful of results marked with an “Ad” display in the upper-left corner of each entry to designate them as sponsored. These ads are designed to attract clicks, and are paid for by advertisers who wanted them to appear for this specific search string (or something very similar to it). Note that Google ads don’t necessarily appear for every query.
- Product ads. If you search for a specific type of product, like “new bicycles,” you may notice a different type of ad—one that highlights the product you’re searching for with an image. The formatting for these product ads can vary, but typically, you’ll see a grid of product ads off to the side, each highlighting a different product with a different image and a set price. If you click these, you’ll be taken directly to the corresponding product page on a company’s website. Advertisers here can create entire “smart shopping campaigns” to guide users to a purchase, but as a common SERP user, all you’ll see are the available ads.
- Direct answer boxes. If you ask Google a question in your search query, it will do its best to provide a direct answer. For example, if you type in “who was the first American president?” you’ll see a box immediately below the search bar populate with the answer: “George Washington,” along with an image of the man. Further down, you’ll find organic search results.
- Rich snippets and extended answers. Rich snippets and extended answers also attempt to answer user queries directly, but they provide more thorough information, and are therefore better suited to questions that don’t have a concise answer. These often take the form of a paragraph-long answer (a few sentences at the most), with key sections bolded for emphasis. Again, these answers take precedent over organic search results, but they’re tied to a specific webpage. For example, if you search for “what killed the dinosaurs,” you’ll get an extended answer: “Evidence suggests an asteroid impact was the main culprit. Volcanic eruptions that caused large-scale climate change may also have been involved, together with more gradual changes to Earth’s climate that happened over millions of years,” with a link to the National History Museum page on the subject.
- Lists, tables, and other formatted content. Google is also capable of providing detailed answers to user queries in other formats, and new formats are being added regularly. For example, depending on your query, you might be presented with a list, a table, or even a selection of different product options. The main idea here is to answer your question or address your query as quickly, concisely, and obviously as possible—accordingly, true organic results take a backseat.
- Knowledge Graph/panels. Google’s Knowledge Graph is a system designed to collect and archive information throughout the web. Once indexed, Google can provide this information to users in a compact format, in response to their queries on the subject. Similar to direct answers in function, Knowledge Graph panels take a different format, with an entry off to the side that contains detailed information on the subject. For example, if you search for “The Wizard of Oz,” you’ll see a Google Knowledge Graph panel to the right of the SERP’s organic entries. This box contains information like the genre of the movie, the runtime, the year it came out, its score on popular rating sites, screenshots, and even a brief synopsis. The format changes depending on what you search for; for example, if you search for “theory of evolution,” you’ll see a brief description of the scientific idea with a carousel of different scientists who contributed to the theory’s development.
- Video and image carousels. If you search for something with a visual component, you may see a “carousel” of visuals in your resulting SERP. For example, if you search for “ravens vs crows,” you’ll get a brief description of the differences between these animals initially. Then, if you scroll further down the SERP, you’ll see a small collection of YouTube videos on the subject, and a grid of images that showcase differences between the two birds.
- Tweets and news results. After searching for a trending topic, or something newsworthy, you may find tweets and news stories (usually in the form of accelerated mobile pages, or AMPs) near the top of the SERP. This is especially true if you search using a trending hashtag. Each news story in the carousel typically comes with a featured image and a headline.
- Local results (the “Local Pack”). Google wants to provide local results to people who are searching for a specific business, or who have a specific need. If your query meets certain criteria, like including locational information (like “near me”) or being relevant for local businesses only (like if you search for restaurants), it will call up a “Local Pack” of entries above the fold of organic search results. For example, if you search for “taco bar near me,” you’ll see a new format of entries. This format includes a map, showcasing where these locations exist, and usually the top three examples of institutions that match your query. These institutions will have names, ratings, descriptions, and more information; in some cases, you’ll be able to click directly to visit a website, get directions, or place a phone call.
- People also ask. After searching for a broad topic, or asking a specific question, you may see a small table of optional queries designated “people also ask.” These are commonly searched topics associated with your initial topic. If you click the dropdown arrow for each question, you’ll get a brief answer, and an option to view an entirely new SERP.
- Organic results. After wading through all the relatively recent SERP innovations, you’ll get to the true heart of the SERP: the organic search results. Typically, you’ll find a list of 10 webpages that match your search string as closely as possible. For each entry, you’ll see a clickable title (in blue), a URL for the webpage (above the title), and a brief description of what the site offers.
- Expanded links. In some cases, you may see one or more organic entries near the top of the SERP with an “expanded link” format. In this scenario, you’ll see a brief description of a website with links for individual internal pages, like “Products” or “Contact.” This frequently appears if you search for a specific business or company page.
SERPs of other search engines, like Yahoo and Bing, are structurally similar, but may not offer the same robustness.
How Do Search Engines Choose Results for SERP?
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 Google Ads 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:
- Keyword context and relevance. Google will only display results that are relevant to your query. This is called matching search results with search intent. For example, if you search for a “shoe store,” it’s not going to direct you to a gas station, and vice versa. Thanks to semantic search and other high-tech innovations, Google has gotten remarkably good at determining user intent.
- Authority/trustworthiness. There are likely millions of pages that could conceivably match your query, so how does Google choose between them when assembling its SERP? The tiebreaker, so to speak, is authority/trustworthiness. Pages that are seen to be more authoritative or reputable will always rank higher.
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.
Snippets and knowledge
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.
How to Make Use of SERPs
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:
- Increase your organic rankings. The most obvious and commonly used approach is to increase your organic search rankings with the help of search engine optimization (SEO). These tactics increase your rankings for competitive terms in the SERPs, which in turn generate more traffic for your site.
- Optimizing your appearance. Sometimes, ranking high isn’t enough. You’ll also need to think about optimizing your appearance within SERPs so your organic search entry can attract more clicks.
- Paying for ad space. If you want to bypass the organic search route altogether, or complement your SEO efforts, you can get more SERP visibility by paying for the space through direct advertising.
Increasing Your Organic Rankings in SERPs
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:
- Ensure your website can be indexed easily. Google and other search engines rely on an “index” of pages to consider for their SERPs; accordingly, if you want a chance of being ranked, you need to make sure you’re in this index. Properly coding your site and making appropriate use of a robots.txt file can ensure this is the case.
- Improve site speed. Faster, better functioning sites tend to get a ranking priority. You can speed up your website by streamlining your coding, eliminating unnecessary features and content, introducing caching, optimizing for mobile, and more.
- Improve site security. If you don’t have SSL encryption for your site, you’ll need to get it; secure sites get favoritism in SERP rankings.
- Optimize for mobile. You’ll also want to optimize for mobile devices. Even if your primary audience relies on desktop interactions, having a mobile version of your site can give you a ranking boost.
- Add keywords throughout your site. Your website should be full of content relevant to its purpose; it should be clear to both search engines and human users what your area of expertise is. You can increase your likelihood of appearing in the “right” SERPs by peppering valuable, relevant keywords and phrases throughout your site. Be sure to include at least one strong page for each strategic keyword phrase you want to target.
Google prefers websites that offer lots of in-depth, high-quality onsite content.
- Write onsite content regularly. As part of a blog or news page, it’s in your best interest to develop new content regularly. Keep targeting new keywords and phrases, and make sure your content is better than your competitors’ content in at least one way. Aim to produce new content at least once a week.
- Refresh and expand existing content. If you’ve been writing content for a long time, consider implementing a content audit. Eliminate the content that isn’t helping you make it to the top of the SERPs, and refresh or update the content that needs a little extra support.
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.
Google My Business and Local Considerations
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.
Optimizing Your Appearance
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:
- Title tags. Title tags are associated with each page of your website, and they appear in blue at the top of your organic SERP entries. These are often responsible for forming the first impressions of new prospective visitors, so they should provide an accurate reflection of the contents of the page. They should also be inviting, calling a user to action without being spammy. Something like “Everything You Wanted to Know About SERPs” is better than something boring like “SERP Info” or something spammy like “Click Here Now for SERP Content!” Title tags should be 70 characters or less.
- Meta descriptions. Meta descriptions are also associated with each page of your website, and they appear underneath the title tag in your SERP entries. These afford you more space to flesh out the idea of your page, and they’re frequently used as a call-to-action (CTA). Meta descriptions should be 140-160 characters. You can technically go beyond this limit, but Google will trim your entry to 160 characters.
- URLs. You’ll also need to consider the nature of your page URL, though this is often a secondary consideration—and not something every search engine user notices immediately. Your URL should be short and concise, with clear words that describe the content on the page.
Make sure you preview your SERP entry, and make tweaks as needed to polish your appearance further.
Pay per click (PPC) Ads
PPC ads are a complex topic in their own right, and we’ve written a thorough guide on PPC mareting, 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:
- Keyword selection. Arguably the most important factor here is your selection of keywords. You need to target keywords that are appealing to your customers, while still being relevant to your business (and not currently flooded by competitors). On top of that, you’ll need to consider complexities like whether you want only exact match appearances, or whether you want broader options like phrase matching.
- Competition and budget. If you have an unlimited budget, you can make your ads visible everywhere. But if you’re working with a limited budget, you’ll need to think carefully about the competition you’re facing. Differentiating your brand with unique keywords can save you money, but might limit your visibility at the same time. It may or may not be worth the tradeoff.
- Ad format. Google provides you with options on how to format your ad, with potential extensions like site links, location and hours, call options, products, and prices. Your choice of these formats, and how you use them, can make a big difference in your ultimate success.
- Ad quality. The quality of your ad also makes a significant difference. Not only will it determine how customers who encounter your brand for the first time respond to you, it will also dictate your Google Ad Quality Score, which will determine how you appear in SERPs in the future.
Once a user clicks on your ad, it will be up to you to finish converting them, with a custom, optimized landing page designed for your new prospects. When creating landing pages, make sure you are performing A-B testing to ensure the landing pages are working properly.
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? We’re the SEO company that can help! Contact SEO.co today for a free consultation, and learn how our SEO services can help you climb to the top of the SERPs!