There are literally millions of pages out on the web these days. However, none are more important to digital marketers than search engine results pages (SERPs). If you’re new to digital marketing, SERPs are one of the most important concepts in the field.
Search engine optimization specialists and PPC marketers both strive for the same valuable spots at the top of the SERPs. Competition is fierce and technology developments in search mean it’s vital for marketers to know how search works and how to maximize their visibility.
Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs): What Are They & How Do They Work?
Search engine results pages (SERPs) are web pages served to users when they search for something via a search engine, such as Google. The user enters their query – often using pointed terms and phrases known as keywords – and the search engine provides a SERP.
Every SERP is unique, even for queries performed on the same search engine using the same keywords or key phrases. This is because most search engines customize their user experience by presenting results based on a wide range of factors beyond their search terms. Variations on the user’s search terms include the user’s physical location, browsing history, and social settings. Two SERPs may appear identical at first blush and contain many similar results. However, there are numerous subtle differences in most cases.
The appearance of SERPs is constantly fluctuating due to experiments conducted by Google, Bing, and other search engine providers. These experiments are designed to provide users with a more intuitive and responsive experience. These experiments, paired with the rapidly developing tech in the space, make for SERPs that are immensely different from their predecessors.
SERPs typically serve two types of content – organic results and paid results. Organic results are listings of pages that appear as a result of the search engine’s algorithm. SEO professionals specialize in optimizing content and websites to rank higher in the organic search results.
The figure below highlights the organic results:
The box on the right is known as a Knowledge Graph (sometimes called a Knowledge Box). This feature, which Google introduced in 2012, pulls data for commonly asked questions from the web to provide succinct answers to questions in one central location on the SERP. In the example above, you can see an array of information about George Walker Bush, such as when and where he was born, his presidential term, his political party affiliation, and the name of his wife. Furthermore, most of the facts have their own links to the associated pages.
Some SERPs will feature many more organic results than others, such as the example above. This is typically due to the different types of user search intent. There are three major types of searches:
Informational searches are those in which the user’s goal is to find information on a given topic – e.g. George Walker Bush. It wouldn’t make sense to place ads or other types of paid results on SERPs like this due to the low commercial intent. Most users who enter this search query are not looking to buy something, so it makes sense to only show informational results on the SERP.
Navigational searches are those in which the user hops to locate a specific website. This may be the case for users searching for a specific website, trying to locate a website whose URL they can’t recall or another type of navigational goal.
Finally, transactional searches are those in which paid results are most likely to populate the SERP. Transactional searches typically have high commercial intent. Furthermore, searches resulting in transactional SERPs often include terms such as “buy” and other terms associated with making a purchase.
Paid results, on the other hand, consist of content that firms have paid a pretty penny to show at the top of the SERPs. In the past, paid results were almost exclusively limited to small, text-based ads that were typically served above and to the right of the organic results. However, paid results can take a number of forms and there are dozens of advertising formats that cater to the needs of advertisers today.
All of the results on the above SERP are paid results, except for the last one. The top result features second-tier site links, where are secondary links from the top-level domain.
Ranking Signals and Search Algorithms
Organic results are listings that have been indexed by a search engine based on a number of factors. These factors are known as “ranking signals.”
For instance, the search algorithm that Google uses features hundreds of ranking factors. Nobody outside of Google really knows what factors contribute to how content ranks. Most SEO professionals will agree that some factors are more important than others. In the past, the link profile of a website – the number of external links that link to a specific page from other sites – was an important ranking signal. A website’s link profile is still important today. Wikipedia pages typically have a strong link profile since they rank high in organic results for many search queries. However, search algorithms evolve at such a rapid pace that ranking signals that were important yesterday will likely carry little weight next week. This constant change is a major pain point for SEO professionals.
Search Engine Optimization
As its name states, search engine optimization is the practice of optimizing websites and pages for discovery via search engines. The more optimized a page, the higher it will rank on the SERPs. You can optimize your content through a variety of methods. Two of the major factors that contribute to better rankings are “on-page” and “off-page” SEO techniques.
On-page SEO refers to the best practices that content creators and site owners typically follow to ensure that their content is easy to discover. Furthermore, on-page SEO includes the creation of detailed metadata descriptions for individual pages and images, the use of unique static URLs, the inclusion of keywords in relevant headings and subheadings, and the use of clean HTML code. Please note that these are just three of the more common methods of improving on-page SEO.
Contrary to on-page SEO tactics, off-page SEO refers to methods that impact the overall website. Common off-page SEO techniques include link building and exchange, social bookmarking, and content marketing.
The full scope of SEO is far too extensive to cover in this post. However, all you need to know is that SEO focuses on achieving higher rankings from an organic perspective. Many businesses hire an agency or SEO professional to perform their SEO work, but beyond this investment, no money changes hand. Furthermore, ranking higher in the organic results is the primary emphasis.
PPC and SERPs
Unline SEO, pay-per-click marketing focuses on the investment of advertising dollars to achieve top positioning on the SERPs. However, it isn’t as simple as throwing more money at a campaign. Marketers need to think strategically in order to achieve their goals via PPC marketing.
Paid search is essentially an auction. Marketers bid on keywords that are relevant to their business that can trigger their ads to show when users search for said terms. A wide array of factors determine where an ad will show on the SERP. Some ads will display above the organic results and others may show to the right of the organic results. Some marketers chose to limit their ads to mobile search only and others exclude mobile results altogether.
Like SEO, paid search is a complex topic. However, what you need to remember is this – paid search focuses on optimizing ads so that they show as high on the SERPs as possible.