A search engine results page, or SERP, is the page your web browser shows when you enter a query into a search engine such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing. The goal of any search engine is to have the results align with the search query. But search engine results have gotten increasingly complex, and many factors go into what results appear on the SERP. Read this article to understand what components factor into what you will see in the search engine results pages.
Organic search results versus paid search results
The first thing to understand about search engine results is that what displays is a combination of paid and organic results.
Organic Results: Organic results include what the search engine believes to be relevant, high-quality content that matches the search keyword or phrase. There are many factors that go into why and where a website ranks in search results. To perform well in organic results, a company or organization needs to follow Search Engine Optimization (SEO) best practices.
Paid Results: Search engines make their money from advertising, so paid search – also known as pay per click advertising or PPC is important. Advertisers bid on specific terms using a pre-defined budget and get charged when someone clicks on their ad. Paid results appear in multiple spots on the SERP and always have the word “Ad/Ads" near them.
SERPS also have several dedicated areas of the page for more structured results. Below are five features that can also appear on a SERP depending on the search term.
Knowledge Card, Knowledge Graph and Knowledge Panel: These are powered by Google’s Knowledge Graph which gathers information from a variety of sources to enhance search engine results. They appear near the top of the page or on the right side. Their purpose is to provide details on a topic based on the algorithms understanding of the available content. It is much easier for a local business to obtain a knowledge panel than a brand or a person. To obtain a panel, local businesses can open a Google My Business account to verify the business, and provide details such as location, hours, and photos. It is also helpful to verify the business with Google Search Console and add structured data, or schema, to their website. For branded or personal panels, Google decides whether you or your brand should appear based on if you have enough authority.
Local Packs: These appear at the top of the page when a user makes a search with local intent. The algorithm determines the three most relevant results and features them in the local pack. It does this by considering proximity, prominence, and relevance. The pack typically shows an interactive map, address, hours, star ratings, and click to call options. For a business to rank in the local pack they must claim a Google Business profile and optimize it with correct information. The algorithm prioritizes profiles with accurate and up-to-date information as well as relevant information about the business.
Related Questions: This feature is also known as the “people also ask” box. The box displays questions answered that relate to the searcher’s intent. These questions and answers are pulled from trusted entities. When a searcher clicks one of the questions, a drop down shows the answer and new questions appear below. The “people also ask” boxes typically appear below the first organic search result. Most of the time these boxes are triggered by long tail keywords in the form of a question. For example, if you were to search “how do you redesign a website”, some questions that may appear in the box are “what does it mean to redesign a website?” or “when should you redesign your website?” One way to rank for this box is to add an FAQ section to your most valuable pages.
Answer Featured Snippets: An answer featured snippet attempts to answer the searchers question from one of the top-ranking webpages. They typically show right below the ads on the SERP. It can appear in the form of a paragraph, numbered list, bulleted list, table, or YouTube video. Most featured snippets are displayed for longer keywords or direct questions. Optimizing your website for featured snippets can be complicated, but one way to go about it is to go through your website and optimize it for long tail and question-like keywords. For example, “How to redesign your website.” Once you have researched these keywords, add them to the content that is already on your site in the form of headings. Make sure to include the answer to these questions right beneath these headings. This will send a signal to Google letting the algorithm know that your content could be used in a featured snippet since it provides clear answers to those specific keywords.
Rich Answer: These are found in boxes displayed at the top of the search results page. This is a click-free attempt to provide quick and relevant answers to a search query. Structured data on a website is used to tell Google what and how to display the information in the box. Two big differences between related questions and rich answers are that rich answers do not provide site credit and they appear at the top of the SERP instead of further down. The goal of this feature is to provide fast answers to the searcher without them needing to click on a link. The goal of the related questions feature is to show a searcher other relevant search queries and provide you with quick answers to those questions from a specified website.
Understanding Search Engine Algorithms
Now that we know what type of results can show, we can learn about the process behind why and where they show up. Search engines algorithms are constantly evolving so that they can continue to deliver quality search results, weed out bad actors and support their own revenue goals. Overall, Google, Bing, and Yahoo follow the same best practices for ranking websites. When they generate search results, they look at five different factors: search query meaning, relevance, quality, usability, and context. The weight of each factor varies based on the search query. Let’s look at these a little deeper.
Search Query Meaning
All search engines look at the intent behind the searchers query. Their algorithms will work to fix misspellings and determine synonyms to find relevant pages even if they don’t contain the exact words that were used. The algorithms will also try to understand what type of information the searcher is looking for such as images, videos, local listings, and languages. If searching for trending keywords, search engines will understand that more recent pages could be more helpful than older pages.
Search engines will analyze content on websites to see whether it contains the information the searcher wants. The system will look to see if content contains the same keywords that are in the search query. The systems will also check to see if the page contains other relevant content beyond the keywords such as pictures, videos, or lists. The page’s title tag and meta description is important since search engines will use those to match pages to the searchers query, ultimately giving a better result. To do this, Google uses technology to replicate how people think and their search intent, also known as BERT. To best align your content with BERT, make sure your content includes exact match and variations of what users are searching for. It is important to create high quality content with a clear topic that easily solves the search query. If you try too hard to write specifically for the search engine instead of your target audience BERT will recognize it and penalize the page visibility.
Quality of Content
To determine what pages will be the most helpful, search engines will see which content demonstrates expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (known in the search world by the acronym EAT). An example of a factor that helps determine these traits is if a prominent website links or refers to the content. Search engines are constantly reviewing the quality of pages since the information ecosystem is always changing. The engines want searchers to be able to trust their search results.
User experience refers to a variety of website features that ultimately dictate how a user would behave on your site.
Google uses pogo sticking (clicking to several search results), click through rate, and dwell time (how much time is spent on site before clicking back to SERP) to help assess a website’s quality.
A low bounce rate and dwell time can signal to Google that users are engaging with your content.
Google trusts these metrics because they are extremely difficult to manipulate. To strengthen your website’s user experience, it is important to make sure your website is easy to navigate. It should be easy for users to find what they are looking for.
The speed at which your website loads is an important ranking factor. To improve load time you should, remove unnecessary elements, optimize (compress) images, and use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to see how your website is performing and receive additional recommendations.
Lastly, make sure your website is optimized for mobile viewing. Since 70% of web traffic occurs on a mobile device this will help users spend quality time on your site.
Location, past searches, and settings help ensure results are useful and relevant in that moment. Country and location data can be used to deliver relevant content for a specific area. Search settings help the search engines understand preferred language and if they should filter out specific results. Search activity will also be used to present additional relevant information.
If you would like to optimize your website or boost your SERP ranking, contact us. Our SEO specialists are happy to evaluate your unique SEO needs.