What is the SERP? (SEO & Search Engine Results Pages)

Ron Cierniakoski Senior Project Analyst
Key Points
  • Over time, the SERPs have become increasingly sophisticated, enabling carousels, rich snippets and shopping.
  • Google’s main goal is to provide a great user experience for searchers.
  • Plan your SEO strategy to account for no-click SERPs.

If we could hop in our Delorean and journey back to 1998, what would the Google SERP look like? First of all, we’d still see ten listings per page, a format that has stayed consistent over the years. But back then, every listing was organic, and every link went to a third-party web page.

The internet has evolved since then, and user behavior has evolved right along with it. But what does serp stand for, and what exactly does it mean? Let’s start with a definition.

What is SERP?

SERP is an acronym that stands for search engine results page. In short, it’s the page of results that users land on after searching something in a web browser. Depending on the query, this page may contain a mix of features, including videos, images, news articles, products, traditional websites or even specific answers.

Let’s take a look at what you can expect to see from the Google SERPs in 2020.

THE EVER-CHANGING SERP, EXPLAINED

Those simple search engine results pages in 1998 became a little more complicated when Google introduced AdWords in 2000. This was when the SERP adopted its now-familiar layout: ads up top, followed by organic listings.

At first, AdWords was available to only 350 advertisers. Now, ads are a staple of the SERPs. And Alphabet (Google’s parent) happily profits from those ads. Here’s a simple timeline of the search engine result page:

  • Image search came on the scene in 2001.
  • YouTube took online video by storm in 2005.
  • Google introduced Universal Search in 2007. This feature combined local packs, related searches, images, videos, news, etc. in the main search results.
  • In 2012, Google introduced the Knowledge Graph, a SERP feature that collated information about popular subjects and presented the results at the top of the SERPs.
  • In 2016, the ads in the right rail disappeared.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll notice that Google’s zero-click focus has continued to evolve.

In fact, you could argue that the Google SERP is no longer just a search engine. It’s a stand-alone website.

BIGGEST GOOGLE SERP CHANGES FOR 2020

The 2020 SERPs still haven’t veered from the course Google set in 2012. They continue to evolve the zero-click search experience. But that’s worth talking about, because by 2019, the zero-click SERPs had become a more commonplace occurrence. According to one study conducted through the summer of 2019, more than 50% of searches end without a click to other content.

In 2020, Google will continue adding features that help searchers find the information they need before they have to click on a single link.

Sales in the SERPs

Depending on the industry or the topics, Google is evolving into a sales facilitator – not just a search engine. Its goal is to interject itself into the sales process and keep the searcher on Google properties until the final checkout.

Let’s look at hotels as an example.

Want to book a hotel in Chicago? The Google SERP now provides you with a widget to book your room. What’s more, it also lets you filter results right in the SERPs! Enter the dates. Sort by best match, lowest price, or highest rating. Designate the number of guests. Specify your preference for customer rating or hotel class (or both).

If you’d rather bring your pooch, just let Google know. Maybe you need free parking? No problem. How about a kid-friendly hotel? Yep, designate that, as well.

You can also toggle among options at different max price points, down to the exact dollar amount.

Easier to interact with a map view of your hotel options? No prob, just click into the map that’s listed in the SERP. Sift through your options until you find the precise hotel, room, price, location, and amenities you’re looking for.

Then click the call-to-action button “Book a Room.”

Although the final checkout may be on the actual hotel domain, 90% of the process occurs in the Google SERP. Sometimes you can book the accommodation within the Google environment, too. Either way, the search results page does the heavy lifting for the sale.

Case study: falling Google SERP click through rates

I saw the impact of diminishing clicks firsthand on a long-standing customer. The client’s site held the number one organic position for a 60,000+ monthly search term for the first six months of 2016 and the first six months of 2018.

You might expect the traffic compared across the two time periods to be similar. Not even close.

lower CTR from Google SERP

In the span of two years, the same page with the same organic rankings saw a 27% decrease in organic sessions. For the client, that translated to 26,000 fewer sessions! That particular SERP is now overwhelmed with advertisements and instant answers from Google search.

What’s a traffic-hungry SEO strategist to do? We’ll get there. For now, let’s take a look at the anatomy of the zero-click SERP.

GOOGLE SERP FEATURES

Google SERP layout

There hasn’t been a “standard” layout for the Google SERPs for quite some time now. Instead, the layout you see changes according to the search you make. Google will decide which of its features are going to be most helpful for your search, and they’ll present you with a combination of those.

This may yield answer boxes, featured snippets, related questions, see results about, tweets, carousels, shopping results or the knowledge panel. It may yield AMP pages or local listings. The SERP is filled with many of Google’s own creations. The combination of these elements may vary, but there’s a finite set of them.

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The no-click SERP

Many of these elements are designed to get users the answers they need as quickly as possible. There’s no more literal example of this than the answer box. Wondering what the current temperature is? Want to double-check the game time for your favorite sports team? Curious about how old your favorite celebrity is? The answer box is your best friend.

But why is Google so obsessed with zero-click searches? Sure, there’s the simple fact that not clicking away from Google is better for Google’s bottom line. But underneath the more cynical layer is a genuine concern for the user experience.

Google’s success as a company hinges on providing the most accurate, seamless user-friendly experience possible for searchers. Historically, that’s meant presenting users with the very best list of web pages for their queries.

But along the way, Google discovered that people ask simple questions all the time, like “How old is Queen Elizabeth?” In that case, it would be a pretty bad experience to send someone to a random web page to read an entire biography just to find the answer. The best experience is to simply tell them the answer.

For some definitional searches, you don’t even have to actually search. Google’s autocomplete includes the definition in the query bar before you ever hit return.

So there’s a method to the zero-click madness. If it wasn’t good for the user, you can bet that Google would stop doing it.

Knowledge panel

A knowledge panel is an answer box on steroids. Google a person, place or historical event and the search engine will aggregate information from different reliable sources, including human-edited resources like Wikipedia. They can also use data extracted from private data partnerships and their own index. The results look pretty similar to a Wikipedia page, sans the need to actually visit Wikipedia.

example of the google knowledge graph serp feature

Featured snippets

The answer box and knowledge panel are both examples of a featured snippet: a featured piece of information that appears at the top of the search results and contains a link to a website (or websites) to learn more. And rather than viewing featured snippets as their traffic-hogging adversaries, most SEO strategists view them as the creme de la creme: the elusive “position zero” in the search results.

And while the answer box and knowledge panel may rely heavily on verified sources like Wikipedia, other types of featured snippet will pull information from the website that presents it in the most organized, optimized and trustworthy manner. Virtually any form of helpful content is fair game, from how-to’s to in-depth definitions and explanations and “best of” product lists. 

Rich results

Whether it contains a featured snippet or not, almost every Google SERP layout includes the familiar list of ten organic results. Within this list, a rich result is any that goes beyond the standard blue website link. This can be as simple as a link to the website with several links to internal pages nested underneath. Or it can include reviews, carousels or any number of additional features that use structured data markup.

example of rich results in the google serp

The best part is, you can often get rich snippets simply by adding structured data markup to your code. However, it’s worth noting that structured data is not a ranking factor. Yet, it can help your listings stand out, so it’s worth implementing in most cases.

That said, there’s a long and ever-expanding list of structured data options, and adding every single one to your site will be a waste of time. Having the markup in place doesn’t guarantee that Google will actually use it. Look at the SERPs for priority keywords and note the types of rich results that appear most often, or the ones that would logically appear for the search. Focus on those. And follow Google’s structured data guidelines.

Organic search results

By definition, organic results are really anything in the SERP that is not a paid advertisement. However, when most SEOs refer to organic search results, they mean the list of 6–10 blue links.

After the January 2020 core update, the mobile and desktop SERP looks very similar. Each organic listing is now comprised of a Favicon followed by a breadcrumb trail. The page title appears on the next line, and then the meta description beneath that. If your listing has site links, those will appear beneath the meta description.

Top stories

example of top stories feature in search engine results page

Is the subject of your search newsworthy? Then get ready to see some Top Stories included with your results. These are news stories from (mostly) trustworthy sites that are 100% algorithmic in nature, based mostly on keyword, recency and publisher/article popularity. While blog posts and AMP pages do sometimes make their way into Top Stories, the best way to earn one of these spots is to actually be a publisher or media site. Barring that, get them to talk about you or your products.

Video and image results

If Google deems it helpful, it will include video results (thumbnails, with a link to the video) and image results (a collection of images pulled from Google Images, with a link to see more). Are you struggling to crack the first page of Google for a hyper-competitive keyword? Then, optimized videos and images might be your ticket in.

Twitter results

If a search query yields Top Stories, there’s a good chance it will yield top Tweets too. Afterall, social media often reflects trending topics. Like their news counterparts, top Tweets are pulled using a straightforward search algorithm: keyword or hashtag, recency, popularity.

twitter results

Sitelinks

Sitelinks are a form of structured data markup that allows your website to display internal or organizational pages underneath the home page in the SERPs. These usually appear for branded searches. However, you can optimize for them by using jump links (or anchor links) marked up with navigational html.

People also ask

people also ask (paa) example

Sometimes Google will encourage you to go deeper with your search by providing a list of related questions with your results. If you enjoy meta examples, here are the “People also ask” results included with the search query “people also ask Google:”

Because of this element’s ability to expand on a topic, it’s an excellent place to look if you’re hunting for keyword or content ideas.

Local search results

Google a local business (or a business with local brick-and-mortars) and you’re in for a different SERP experience. Here are the elements you’ll see locally:

Google reviews

There are two main types of reviews that may appear in the SERPs: Google reviews and reviews pulled from structured data. Reviews pulled from structured data appear as part of the website’s search results and may include star ratings for products, recipes and more.

Google reviews are Google’s answer to Yelp, and they’ll appear independently from any information pulled directly from the website. As you’d expect, these only appear for brick-and-mortar locations.

In September 2019, however, Google decided that “self-serving” reviews will no longer show up in the SERPs. Essentially, this means that Google is “not going to display review rich results anymore for the schema types LocalBusiness and Organization (and their subtypes) in cases when the entity being reviewed controls the reviews themselves.”

Packs

Also called the 3-pack or maps pack, the local pack features a prominently-displayed map next to/above three local businesses that meet the searcher’s needs.

example of local packs in the serps

Unless your business is in a small town and/or niche industry, the competition to make it into the 3-pack can be fierce. Fill out your Google My Business profile completely and solicit those reviews!

Discover more places

Click on “More places” in the screenshot above and you’ll get, well, exactly what you probably bargained for.

discover more places feature in google search results

If you’re on a mobile device, this list is displayed carousel-style.

Carousels

Speaking of carousels, Google used to provide all their local results in a horizontal carousel display. They dropped the practice in 2014 and moved on to 3-Packs, but they don’t seem quite ready to let the idea go yet. They tried another form of the local carousel in 2017. And in the summer of 2019, they tested local carousels yet again.

Will the local carousel find its way back to us in 2020? It’s anyone’s guess, but our money is on no. The simplified 3-Pack makes for a better mobile experience, and the carousel’s lower selectivity means spammy business listings can creep into the results. Besides, “Discover More Places” is a great compromise.

Related searches

The related search queries at the bottom of the page are an incredible source of data to power your keyword research. You may discover alternative phrasing or overlapping topics that you hadn’t considered. If Google goes out of its way to show them to you, they’re probably important!

Paid search results

Finally, we have the old staples: paid results. These include PPC ads and PLAs (Product Listing Ads – also known as Google Shopping feeds). Google Ads can appear above or below results, but they’ll only allow up to four ads above in the case of PPC ads (PLA carousels can contain more).

1,081% Increase in Google Top 3 RankingsTerakeet Transformed a Student Loan Refinancing Firm’s Website, Increasing Google Top 3 Rankings by 1,081%.See How

OPTIMIZE FOR THE NEW GOOGLE SERP

Search engine optimization in 2020 means viewing the Google SERP as your partner, not a thing to conquer. So, rather than morning traffic you’ve lost to the zero-click SERP, think about how you can develop a digital marketing strategy to profit from this SEO trend instead.

What will you gain from owning a featured snippet? From being in the 3-Pack? From providing the defining answer to the user’s query? Or from dominating the SERP real estate — standard organic listings, Google news, videos, Twitter and images — for a high-priority search term?

The answer is, you’ll still gain traffic. Google will never provide complex information, how-to’s or in-depth articles within the SERP because that would be a terrible user experience. If you want to comparison shop, you’ll have to visit different websites (Google Shopping has plenty of limitations). If you want to look at something close up, read beyond the news headline, or watch a video, you’ll have to click through.

So the new Google SERP is a platform, not a limitation. But optimizing for the SERPs is different from SEO optimizing your website, and you need a holistic approach to be successful. Terakeet’s Enterprise SEO includes a deep online SERP analysis to help you compete for the keywords that actually drive traffic.

Questions to help you dominate the Google SERPs:

  • Which of your queries lead to zero clicks?
  • How can your brand be the source for answers in the Google SERP?
  • What are all of the different SERP features for your target keywords?
  • Which keywords have a higher CTR from the SERPs (and are less likely to be cannibalized by the new Google SERP features).
  • Look for long-tail keywords that are less likely to have an instant answer.
  • Is Google entering the process, making a Google partner program or widget, etc. a new factor in a searcher’s decision-making journey?
  • How can you make your organic listings more compelling and competitive?

Don’t waste too many SEO resources on click-less queries. Contact our team to drive real results!

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