SERP Guide: Understanding the Search Engine Results Pages
In this article you’re going to learn:
The search engine results page (SERP) is one of the most important and valuable pages that exists on the web. We’re going to focus on the SERP provided by the Google search engine as it is overwhelmingly the [most prominent]. It is also constantly changing and evolving with searchers as it collects more data and improves. The results are dynamic and can fluctuate widely based on dozens of factors.
If you’re a business owner, advertiser, or anyone involved in SEO, then understanding how the Google SERPs work is something you needed to know yesterday.
What is a Search Engine Results Page?
Let me show you before I tell you. Then we’ll break it down section by section.
When you search for something on a search engine, like Google, the results are displayed on a page that we call the search engine results page.
Search Engine Results Page Definition
The search engine results pages (SERPs) are the results returned by search engines in response to a query by a searcher.
There’s a lot going on here (and that’s only the top half of the page), so let’s look at each type of result that can appear.
Understanding How Google Search Results Vary
The Google search results can vary quite a bit depending on several things such as:
- Your search query (i.e. what you’re searching for).
- Where Google thinks you’re located.
- What type of device you’re using.
- What you’ve searched for previously (your personal search history).
- Whether you’re signed into a Google account or not.
- Whether you’re searching incognito or not.
- What type of browser you’re using.
- What other people are searching for.
A lot of folks who try to do their own SEO without hiring a professional fail because they do not account for nor know how to deal with this variability.
Google Search Results Page Layout
In general, there are three basic types of results that can appear on the SERPs.
- Paid Results (advertisements)
- Organic Results (the natural results)
- Google Search Enhancements
This last category is created and curated by Google and is slowly starting to eat away at the available real estate of the organic listings.
We’ll focus on the first two before we deep dive into the various enhancements Google has been adding to the organic search results.
Paid results are exactly what they sound like: advertisements. These are the results that people pay real money for to display.
You appear in these results whenever you engage in a Google Ads (formerly known as Google Adwords) campaign.
Each time someone clicks on one of these ads it costs the advertiser money. We call this pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.
These ads can appear in a few different places on the page depending on the search terms being entered.
All ad types are indicated in some form or fashion by either an icon that says Ad or a bit of text that says “Sponsored.”
These are the regular results. We call them organic because they occur naturally. Though a better way to think of it is that they’re the results don’t directly pay Google to appear in. There are typically 10 organic listings for every SERP.
A page you’ve created can appear in these results simply by publishing it on the web and waiting for Google to find and index it or manually indexing it yourself.
That being said, just because you can appear in these results doesn’t mean you will appear on the first page. Google’s algorithm is designed to rank the results in the order it thinks is best to satisfy the searcher’s intent.
If you want to rank higher in the search results or at the top of the SERPs then you should invest in a digital marketing SEO campaign that focuses on creating quality content, excellent structured data, and building high-quality backlinks.
Each organic listing is comprised of 3-4 main parts (but may have additional elements depending on their use of structured data):
- Meta Description
Structured Data within Organic Results
The organic search results can be enhanced by site owners through the use of structured data. Properly used structured data can dramatically increase your click-through-rate for a particular page and I would highly recommend every site owner learn or hire someone experienced with SEO to do this for them where it makes sense.
There are over 1,100 different types of structured data that can be utilized. Many of them are highly specific to a particular types of sites (e.g. a florist can specifically use the Florist schema to let Google know what type of business they are).
Here are a few examples of structured data I’ve seen help businesses stand out on the search result pages and increase their CTR:
You’ve probably seen these rating stars at some point while searching online. These rich snippets are often used for any recipe type content but businesses can utilize them as well if they meet Google’s Quality guidelines. Adding them can dramatically improve your search engine optimization by improving click-through-rate (CTR).
Whenever you search for a particular company you may see a result where a link has its own search bar and submenu of links. The search bar is just known as the Search Box and the additional links are called Sitelinks.
To set these up you need a working search engine installed on your site and then utilize the website structured data element on the homepage of your site.
Every business that operates locally needs this type of structured data added to their site. If someone is nearby and searches for your brand name it can trigger this type of result to appear. It can also appear if someone searches for your brand name and the location you operate in.
If the knowledge graph has your social media associated with the local business it can display in these results as well.
Adding FAQ structured data lets you take up more of the SERP real estate and provides searchers with something interactive to click on. These types of rich snippets can be a double-edged sword because if you provide the searcher with the answer they were looking for they may not visit your site. It’s up to you to determine whether or not this type of outcome is right for you.
Local Search Results
If Google thinks the search query has a local intent it will trigger the results to include a map and 3 organic local listings.
The local search results are every local business’s best friend because they give them the opportunity to appear above the big brand names and aggregators in the regular organic results.
The only way to appear in this section of the results is to have a verified Google My Business listing.
Getting one set up isn’t too difficult but to get the most value from it be sure to learn how to optimize your Google My Business page.
You can advertise to show up higher in the local results using Google Ads as well. That’s what these businesses are doing below.
There are a ton of additional features that appear in the search results depending on the query. The following 16 are the most common that show up. The icon is the unique icon used in Ahrefs to identify them.
Google creates answers to searcher’s questions by pulling information from your web page (and sometimes images from others), and displaying it directly on the SERP as a rich snippet. These featured snippets (also known the Google answer box) are pulled from the HTML code of one of the top 10 ranking pages.
In the past, the page included in the featured snippet would also appear in one of the 10 organic listings as well — not anymore.
As of January 2020, whichever URL is selected for the featured snippet will not appear a second time in the search results.
If a web page listing is elevated into the featured snippet position, we no longer repeat it in the first page of results. This declutters the results & helps users locate relevant information more easily. Featured snippets count as one of the ten web page listings we show....— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) January 23, 2020
Determining the Real Rank of a Featured Snippet URL
Now that the URL ranking for the featured snippet is no longer duplicated in the search results, many people are curious where they would rank without the featured snippet so they can determine whether or not they want to opt out of featured snippet results.
Because the featured snippet may not always get the most clicks for a query.
If you want to figure out what the real rank of the URL of a query’s featured snippet do the following:
- Search for your query on Google & note the URL of the featured snippet.
- Click into the address bar and go to the very end of the long URL.
- Add the following to the end of that URL and then hit enter:
This will cause the page to refresh without a featured snippet. Find where the URL of the featured snippet is ranking to determine it’s real rank.
While you can prevent Google from using your page’s content as a source for a featured snippet using the no-snippet tag, there is no way to force Google to grant them to you.
You can stack the deck in your favor by structuring your content in a meaningful way that is easy for the search algorithms to understand though. You can learn more about how to find and obtain featured snippets here.
Image packs trigger anytime Google thinks that visual content is valuable to the searcher. They can appear anywhere on the SERP and may take up a SERP position as a scrollable horizontal row of images. Clicking one of these images will redirect the searcher to the result on Google Images (not necessarily your site).
Knowledge cards are a part of the Knowledge Graph and can appear for a wide range of search queries where hard data is involved. These only appear whenever there is a data agreement between Google and the parent company of the data. Don’t get these confused with the Knowledge Panel, which we’ll discuss next.
The Knowledge Panel is the result of years of data collection by Google and a monumental effort to assemble it all into a meaningful graph of information. They can appear for a wide variety of results but require either human-edited data or data agreements between Google and the owner of the data. Typically a specific search about a company or person (if they’re prominent enough) will trigger this type of result to display.
Content that is submitted to the Google News Publisher Center can appear in these results. Content here is almost always time-sensitive in some manner and is typically structured as a horizontal scroll bar.
Related Questions (a.k.a. People also ask or PPA) may appear anywhere in the SERP and take up one of the available organic positions. Additional questions will be algorithmically added as you click on the drop down buttons to learn more (notice how the Related Questions began with 4 results but quickly expanded to 9 as I began clicking).
The ultimate goal of the SERP is to conclude the searcher’s journey by providing them with content that satisfies their reason for searching to begin with.
The worst thing you can try to do as a business engaged in content marketing is trying to force a piece of content in a SERP where it doesn’t belong.
If the SERP is dominated by resources that direct users to some interactive online tool then don’t attempt to rank a piece of information content about that tool into the SERPs. If it’s dominated by tool resources then that’s a clear sign that is what people are looking for when they search for that term. Relevancy is key here.
Let the results guide you and inform how your content should be structured and created. Whatever is showing up on the first page is showing up there for a reason.
If you want to leverage software to help you analyze the SERPs you’re in luck. There are several tools out there that have this functionality built in.
Instead, we’re going to let you know what we think are the best tools available and that we currently use.
Ahrefs Keyword Explorer
This is one of the best ways to analyze the SERPs and a whole suite of additional data all in one place. We use this on a daily basis. Ahrefs is, for us, a critical component of our SEO business.
Ahrefs SEO Toolbar
We use this in Chrome a lot (available for Firefox as well) to get quick stats about a SERP. You have to have an Ahrefs subscription to make it work. It will display key data under each organic listing as well as some broad overview data directly under your search query.
The SEO Quake overlay is another Chrome extension we use (available for Firefox, Safari, and Opera as well) a decent amount as well to get data from alternative sources such as Alexa, SEMrush, and Bing as well. It’s also displays the age of the domain.
The layout of the SERPs change quite a bit. Google updates how things are displayed several times throughout the year in an attempt to provide searcher’s with a better experience and to satisfy its own goals as a business.
Staying up-to-date and knowing how each section of the SERPs work is important for anyone attempting to rank on Google.
If you know of any changes I haven’t included here, please let me know via the form below we’ll do our best to keep this guide updated for everyone.
A philomath who loves to teach. Often too sarcastic in meetings. Head of Content Marketing & Search Optimization at Ardent Growth. CMO of RunDoyen. B.S. in Computer Science & B.S. in Philosophy from MSU.