- SERP stands for “Search Engine Results Page.”
- Google search results used to all look pretty much the same, but in recent years a host of different features have cropped up to enhance user experience and diversify the SERP landscape.
- Some SERP features can threaten your organic traffic, but others present opportunities for more clicks.
It’s hard to have a conversation about SEO without talking about the Google SERPs – a.k.a. “Search Engine Results Pages.” When the average user looks at a Google SERP, they see information. But when a digital marketer looks at a SERP, they see challenges and opportunities. Google SERPs are the battleground where every content marketer hopes to win their SEO victories.
In this blog, we’ll go over the basic anatomy of a Google SERP, how its design affects traffic and clicks, and which features you can optimize for and which you can’t, plus a few tips for making the SERPs work in your favor.
Anatomy of a Google SERP
In the early days, Google SERPs looked pretty uniform no matter what you searched for. Each page would list about ten “snippets,” or search results. Aside from a few cosmetic changes over the years, these are still the bread and butter of your average SERP. And one more thing that hasn’t changed? Almost all Google searches end on page 1, making the first page of the SERPs the hottest real estate in digital marketing.
A snippet includes the following SEO basics: a URL, a page title (or title tag), and a meta description. Theoretically, the snippets on the first page of the SERPs are there because their titles, meta descriptions, and most importantly their actual content have been deemed by the Google algorithm to be the most relevant to whatever search query the user typed into Google. This is why content marketers are so obsessed with making sure their content targets specific keywords, or search queries.
But these days, the look of Google SERPs has evolved pretty drastically to include a number of additional features aimed at improving the user experience. For example, take a look at page 1 of the Google SERPs for “spaghetti bolognese recipe”:
The top of the page is taken up by a carousel or “pack” of specific types of search results, in this case recipes. The actual results start a little further down the page. Note that this first result is what we call a “rich snippet,” which differs from a classic snippet in that it contains additional visual information – in this case an image and a star-review for the recipe.
These are just two examples of the additional features Google has added to its SERPs that can enhance user experience, but can also affect traffic and clicks by pushing organic search results far down the page.
Below, we’ll break down a few of the most important SERP features and what they mean for organic search.
Paid SERP Features
1. Paid Ads
The most common type of paid search result is the paid ad. These have been around for years, and look almost identical to regular (organic) snippets, except that they include the label “Ad.”
So how do you show up in sponsored results? Paid search results are determined by a bidding process, in addition to relevance and quality. In other words, the obtainability of an ad placement on Google depends on your marketing budget as much as your ad design. To learn more about paid ads on Google, read our blog An Introduction to Google Ads.
2. Shopping Results
If Google determines that you’re searching for a product – for example, if you search something like “French door refrigerators” – it will display shopping results. These are “packs” or carousels of products with rich features (such as pricing and star reviews), usually determined by a bidding process. In other words, they are mostly ads. Landing a Google shopping result requires similar budgeting and planning to paid ads.
Organic SERP Features
Organic search is where a lot of the magic happens in SEO. As Google develops more and more features to show information to users in the fastest, most efficient way, it’s imperative that SEOs understand how these features affect traffic and clicks, and which keywords lead to which kinds of features.
As mentioned, some of these features present opportunities for content marketers while others make it harder for users to find your pages even if they rank highly.
1. Featured Snippets
Featured Snippets sit at the top of a SERP and contain content – usually FAQs, bulleted lists, numbered lists, or tables – that directly and efficiently answers the search query.
As you can see in the example above, Featured Snippets can also include images and other rich features.
At RMG, we’re pretty big fans of the Featured Snippet. While Featured Snippets can threaten your traffic if someone else has a Featured Snippet on the page you rank for – therefore pushing your result further down the page – landing a Featured Snippet yourself can be a boon to your traffic. Moz and other experts agree that Featured Snippets lead to higher CTR than regular snippets.
So how do you snag a Featured Snippet? While nothing is guaranteed, your best bet is to make sure there’s at least one portion of your content that very clearly answers the search query you’re targeting, ideally with a bulleted or numbered list or a clear definition containing the target keywords.
2. Direct Answer Boxes
Direct answer boxes look somewhat similar to Featured Snippets. They sit at the top of the SERP, pushing other results a little farther down the page. However, unlike Featured Snippets, they don’t link to a particular page. This is the kind of result you’d get if you search for information about the weather or what time the sun sets in your city:
As you can see, this isn’t the kind of search result you want to be going for if your goal is to gain traffic and clicks.
3. Knowledge Panels
Certain types of searches will result in Knowledge Panels, or a sort of “card” of information and rich features that appears on the right-hand side of the SERP. This is common with searches of celebrities, historical figures, or famous companies or organizations
So how do you show up in a Knowledge Panel? Information in Knowledge Panels can be pulled from your web page and other content, so theoretically, if you have been using good SEO practices, you can show up in a Knowledge Panel for branded searches.
4. Local Packs
Google knows when you’re doing a local search. That’s why if you search for something like “Korean food los angeles,” you’ll probably get a Local Pack in your search results. This consists of a pack of results in the area, often for restaurants, stores, or hotels, with rich results like reviews, hours, and/or contact information.
So how do you show up in a Local Pack? Showing up in a Local Pack is achievable if you use good local SEO practices.
Most people are aware that you can filter your Google searches by category: you can search specifically for News, Videos, Images, and more. But Google will try to answer your search query in the best way possible, so sometimes you’ll get different types of results under “All” even if you haven’t filtered them. This is the case with Google Image results.
If you perform a regular Google search for, say, “Hebrides” – a group of islands off the coast of Scotland – you can scroll down the SERP to see image results for the islands, even though you didn’t perform an Image search.
Typical of a location-based search, these image results are quite far down the page, after Sitelinks from the Hebrides’ Wikipedia page, a Knowledge Panel, a People Also Ask section (more on that below), Top Sights results, and Video results. This is a perfect example of a SERP crowded with special features. If you’re trying to rank for “Hebrides,” good luck!
So how do you show up in Google Image results? Like text-based content, images have their own SEO rules you should always be following. This means optimizing the file name, file type, and file size, making sure the image is of high quality and relevance, and optimizing image structured data (like alt tags) so that Google can crawl it and actually “understand” what it is.
Like with images, if Google thinks the answer to your search query would best be answered by a video, you’ll get video search results. These are pulled mostly from YouTube and can show up if you search for a specific video – like the newest Harry Styles music video – or for something general, like “how to change the oil in my car.”
How can you make sure your video shows up in Google’s video results? As usual, it starts with optimizing your video content for SEO with the proper use of structured data. Learn more about video optimization for SEO with our blog on the subject.
7. Other SERP Features
The SERP features mentioned above are some of the most common, most attainable, and/or most relevant to the average SEO. However, there are a few others we think are worth highlighting, even if they shouldn’t be prioritized in your content strategy.
People Also Ask
By now, virtually all SEOs and most casual Google users are aware of the People Also Ask feature. This consists of questions related to the original search query, which usually show up between other search results somewhere in the middle of the SERP.
Under each question is a drop-down result pulled from an existing page. Like normal snippets, these pages have been identified by Google as providing relevant, quality answers to the given search query. So, being featured as one of these snippets comes down to the same SEO practices you would use if aiming for a Featured Snippet or regular search ranking.
People Also Ask questions can function as great long-tail keywords to target in your content strategy.
Sometimes, a result will contain specific sections of a larger page – also known as Sitelinks. This was the case with the SERPs for “Hebrides” above, in which the first result was the Hebrides Wikipedia page with several sub-sections of the page featured as unique links.
Sitelinks are also a common result type for branded searches. This means that if your site uses good SEO practices that provide a solid, crawlable site structure, you have a good chance of showing up in a Sitelinks result for branded searches.
Search queries related to current events or newsworthy topics will often result in Top Stories, which are similar to the types of results you would get if you performed a News search. Indeed, these results must be Google News approved. That means it’s virtually impossible to show up in the Top Stories unless you are an established news publisher.
Knowing the Lay of the Land
As you can see, some SERP features are more attainable than others for the average SEO. But no matter what, it’s important to know what types of queries result in what types of SERP features so that you understand the lay of the land when trying to rank for certain terms. SERP features make Google more useful and informative for users, but they change the “real estate” market of SERPs in ways SEOs need to be aware of.
Have questions about SEO, Google, or content marketing? Get in touch with the Redefine team and we’ll be happy to let you pick our brains.