More than 90% of consumer traffic goes to websites that rank on the first page of Google search results. If your website isn't there yet, don't worry. There are strategies you can use to help boost your ranking, but first, you have to understand what search engine results pages are and how they rank results.
What is a search engine results page?
A search engine results page, or SERP, is the page you see after entering a query into Google, Yahoo, or any other search engine. Each search engine’s SERP design is different, but since Google is the most popular—holding over 80% of the market share—we’ll focus on their features and algorithms.
What are the different types of search queries?
The SERP features that display after a search depend on the type of search query entered. Search queries typically fall into 1 of 3 categories: navigational, informational, or transactional.
Navigational queries occur when someone is looking for a particular website but doesn’t type the site’s full URL. Unless the searcher is specifically looking for you, it can be difficult to reach the first page of these results. To take advantage of navigational queries for your site, consider buying ads for the keywords you want to rank for—like the name of your business, for instance.
A person makes an informational query when they want to learn something, like background facts on a topic or how to perform a certain task. The searcher isn't usually looking to make a purchase, but the right content often drives them to a particular brand. That’s why it’s important to create relevant content that caters to the wants, needs, and interests of your target audience.
Adding multimedia content to your site can be a particularly effective way to generate traffic from informational queries. Here are some common examples to consider.
- A how-to video that includes mentions of your product or service
- An instructional blog post with helpful tips for your audience
- A shareable infographic
- A downloadable guide or whitepaper
People make transactional queries when they're thinking of buying something, like a particular product or an item from a broad category. Transactional queries have the most revenue potential, so keywords tend to have a lot of bids for pay-per-click spots. That means that in addition to the organic search results for their transactional queries, people will see relevant paid results, too.
Paid ads are popular among businesses because they’re effective; according to research by online advertising group WordStream, almost 65% of clicks on transactional SERPs happen on paid ads.
Paid ads versus organic listings
Paid and organic listings look very similar on a Google SERP. And since they can each help you boost traffic to your site, you should consider creating a strategy that includes both.
The advantage of paid ads
Google places paid ads at the top of the search results page, usually displaying 4 ads on a desktop computer and 3 on a mobile browser. There are typically more than 4 businesses vying for the same search keyword, however, so Google must also determine which ads land on the first page of results.
To make that decision, Google considers several factors: the bid amount, the quality of the page folks are taken to when they click your ad, the quality of the ad itself, and the relevance to the search. If Google concludes that your site is better and more relevant than the competition, you'll appear on the first page.
The value of organic listings
Organic listings earn their place through search engine optimization (SEO), an ever-shifting set of techniques that you can use to help your site rank higher on SERPs. As with paid ads, you need to have a high-quality site to get a good organic ranking. The rules, however, are less explicit. Google is constantly tweaking its algorithm to provide the best results, so it’s important to stay aware of any new or upcoming updates.
What are the features of a SERP?
Today's SERP is more visually varied than it was in years past. In addition to generic search results that simply display the site name and metadata, searches can also return images, shopping suggestions, Tweets, or information cards. Each feature generally fits into one of the following categories:
- Knowledge graph features: These appear in a panel or box on the SERP, often on the right-hand side.
- Rich snippets: These add extra visuals to a result, like stars in product reviews or photos in news results.
- Paid results: You can buy these by bidding on relevant keywords. Paid results will include a label at the top to specify that the result is an ad.
- Universal results: These are special results that appear alongside organic ones.
Below is a list of the features you might see on a SERP. If you want your page to display as a specific feature, think about how you can revise and reorganize your site to achieve it.
Google Ads, formerly known as Google AdWords, most often appear at the top or bottom of the SERP. It's easier to get an ad on the bottom of the page, but you'll get more views at the top.
Reaching the top of the SERP requires a high-quality site and, sometimes, a high pay-per-click bid, depending on how competitive the keywords are. While striving for a top ad requires more effort and often a higher price, there’s a significant benefit, too: folks will see your ad before any organic search results.
The featured snippet appears on the SERP in a box separate from the list of search results. It draws the eye because it displays content from the site that includes the applicable search keywords. If folks find the displayed information useful, they'll be more likely to click on that link.
A site must already be on the first page of search results to get a featured snippet, so reaching that milestone should be your top priority. In the meantime, make sure the content of your page is informative and includes all of the desired keywords.
When Google's algorithm determines that visual information would be particularly relevant to a search, the SERP will include a row of images and a clickthrough to a Google Images search.
Google uses a different algorithm for images than for written content, but adhering to the following best practices can help search engines to find—and rank—your image content.
Be sure to use:
- Accurate and descriptive file names
- Image captions and alt text
- Relevant surrounding text
- An accurate and engaging page title
- A readable page URL
- Rectangular photos of moderate size and dimensions (think 16x9, 4x3, and squares)
And if you can get your image embedded on other sites, you'll have an even better chance of appearing in the SERP image pack.
Google launched in-depth articles to give visibility to longer-form pieces containing evergreen content. They aren't necessarily the newest or most up-to-date articles, but they feature information that doesn't age, and they're often written by credentialed authors or published by reputable publications.
In 2019, people started to notice that the in-depth articles box didn't appear anymore. According to Google, these articles haven't gone away and still receive priority consideration, but they no longer have a separate section.
A knowledge card is a box on the SERP that displays select facts about the searched topic, similar to a miniature Wikipedia page. Google pulls these facts from a library of more than 3.5 billion data points.
They're useful for informational queries because they provide not just the requested information, but also connections that the searcher may not have considered initially. For example, in the knowledge card for The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, you might see links to the books he’s written and to the IMDb profiles of the show’s voice actors.
A knowledge panel is like a knowledge card but more targeted. A navigational search for a specific restaurant, for example, might return a knowledge panel that includes the restaurant’s address, phone number, website, and popular visiting hours.
A local pack appears when someone enters a query with a location name or when Google's algorithm finds that a searched item is available nearby.
The local pack appears as a map with pins indicating businesses that are potentially relevant to the search term. Below the map, Google lists names, ratings, and contact information for the marked businesses.
For example, searching “pharmacies” might return a local pack showing the locations of the closest pharmacies to you along with their contact information.
Local teaser pack
The local teaser pack is like the local pack but has more information about each business. If you click on the photo next to a business's name, you can view details about what it sells.
News boxes pop up if a search yields time-specific results and/or recent news stories. Whether you run a full-blown news website or just have a section for news, you can submit your site to Google's News Publisher Center. Google's news algorithm automatically crawls accepted pages, so the news box is a great way to get views if you have the right kind of content.
For every search, there are a bunch of similar searches that use different words. Google often displays these on a SERP under the heading, “People also ask” or “Questions related to [search term].”
In recent years, the number of clicks on “related questions” results has been on the rise. There's only one link per related question, and for your site to get that spot, it has to be on the first page of results for that related question. Once you're there, you can make some SEO changes to help Google pick your site for a “related questions” answer.
Sometimes review data—displayed as star rankings—will appear on a SERP following a transactional query. Predictably, results with 4 or 5 stars tend to get more clicks.
To get into the reviews feature, you must have reviews with star ratings explicitly posted on your website. Consider adding a plugin to your website that allows customers to share testimonials and provide a star rating to your business.
Shopping results appear in SERPs for many transactional queries. These results—typically presented at the top of the page or in the right-hand column—are limited to 8 per keyword, so there's plenty of competition.
In addition to having high-quality images, impressive sales results for the item, and competitive pricing, you must bid highly enough if you want your business represented in the shopping results.
The one caveat? You can't choose your keyword for shopping results; Google Merchant Center does that for you.
Sitelinks help users find specific pages within a site. For example, if you search for “change my Amazon password,” the sitelinks feature would display a link to Amazon's account page nested under the main Amazon URL.
Google's web crawlers will pick out sitelinks from your website, so make sure you structure your site with clear and relevant headings, like “Products” or “Blog.” The more sitelinks you get, the easier it will be for visitors to navigate to where they want to go.
Google has included tweets in certain SERPs since 2015. Tweets aren’t always present (they’re most likely to appear when a topic is trending), but this feature can help encourage folks to navigate to your Twitter feed.
Google video results appear if a site has embedded video content that's relevant to the search. As with images, make sure the description, surrounding text, and title of your video are accurate and descriptive.
A final word
The more you know about SERPs, the better you can strategize your content and site design. Staying up-to-date with Google’s policies is key to keeping your site in shape to be highly ranked. To learn more about optimizing for search, read some information and tips about SEO in our What's SEO article.