What are SERPS and why are they critical for SEO?

John Morton

  | Published on  

May 26, 2021

Every once in a while, which is often, SEO professionals will throw around a term that means everything to them and nothing to everyone else.

SERPs is one of those terms.

I remember when I was just getting started in SEO. SERPs was a new term for me that had me scratching my head. If you're in the same boat, don't worry it gets easier and understandingSERPs will end up being your best friend when it comes to creating content that can rank on the first page of Google.

Hopefully by the end of this article you’ll not only understand what SERPS are, but how you can start analyzing them to put your website in the best position possible to rank and start increasing organic traffic to your site.

If you are fuzzy on SEO in general, give our introduction to SEO post a read and head back here!

What are SERPs?

First off, let’s actually define SERPs.

SERPs is an acronym standing for search engine results pages.

These pages appear when people search for anything online using a search engine like Google. When people enter their search query the page that appears is known as a SERP.

You run a search, you get a search engine results page. Pretty easy right?

To drive home the point a bit more, here’s a picture:

That seems pretty simple, but you might be wondering 'hey that's cool, but how can I use this to improve my own rank?'

To do that, we need to scratch a bit below the surface.

First off, it's important to remember that every SERP page will be different depending on location. Give it a try with a friend now, especially if your friend lives in a different state than you.

This phenomenon occurs because Google customizes the user experience based on a wide range of factors including the user’s physical location, browser history and social settings.

The search results can be highly contextual, which is cool but also makes rankings a tad unpredictable. Appearing on the first page won’t allow for a one-size-fits-all approach, which is part of the fun in SEO.

Adding to this complication is the reality that Google and Bing often experiment with SERPs to offer their users a more intuitive, responsive experience.

Google’s job is to answer questions, so the results that appear on the first page, and even the order, affects the experience they provide. There are rumors that Google will even switch the order of results and record the clickthroughs and site interactions to see how results should be stacked.

Therefore, SERPs constantly change and what appears today may differ if you search the same keyword next week.

What are SERPs made of?

So what are SERPs made of? Search engine results, duh.

Well, have you pad close attention to a series of Googler results recently?

Google doesn't just return straight up organic search results. Google results may also include paid results, featured snippets, images, videos and location-specific results.

Okay that's a lot, let's define some terms again.

Organic search results

Organic results are listing of web pages that appear as a result of the search engine’s algorithm.

These are pages that Google (and other search engines) have deemed valuable and worthy of ranking. They didn't pay to be there, they arejust that good.

That's the goal for any marketer - to rank on the first pagefor target keywords. This is typically what people associate with SERPs, however there are a few other elements to these pages to consider.

Paid search results

In contrast to organic results, paid results are those that have been paid to be displayed by an advertiser.

These results appear in various forms but the most frequent include pay-per-click (PPC) ads that appear as the top results on a page.

Occasionally, at the right-hand side of the SERP are shopping ads that often include images of a product or service. Note this search for 'best dog food for large breeds', we have ads at the top clearly denoted with the green 'Ad' box, but then ads on the righthand side as well:

Location-specific results

Finally, in a separate category unique from organic or paid results are location-specific results. These are common when you search for local businesses or are trying to find something near you. For example, look what happens when I search 'pizza':

We've written on how to rank for 'near me' searches before, a common way to appear in these searches if you are a local business is to set up a 'Google My Business' profile which clearly denotes your address.

Google My Business is a free directory of companies that can help local small businesses increase their visibility based on location.

Featured snippets

Lastly, we have featured snippets.

Featured snippets are the answer boxes that commonly appear at the top of informational searches (questions) as an attempt to provide an answer. That Google is able to do this shows just how adept they are at analyzing and ranking content, as an example see this featured snippet that appears for a search 'when was the declaration of independence written':

Now that we know what SERPs are, how can you start leveraging them to get your own content to rank? We'll dive further into that in the next section.

Leveraging Organic vs Paid SERPs

As you can see, there are two ways to get on the first page of Google: creating content that ranks, and paying for an ad.

Which one is the right strategy for you?

As always, it depends.

67% of clicks in search engine results are on the first 5 results. Seriously, that's nuts. If Google has 1M pages indexed that means two thirds of all clicks are on the first 5 and the remaining clicks are spread over the next 999K.

Ranking organically is hard though, especially if you are a newer company so a Google ads spend may be worth the investment to get some traffic going and get the word out on your site. Ads don't have to be cookie cutter either. You can get creative with your ads to differentiate yourself and build a strategy.

For example, Drizly (an alcohol delivery company) plays off of a common misspelling of their company name 'drizzle':

You can use paid results to target specific locations, ages and income levels. Paid search results can accelerate exposure of your business to prospective customers. Paid search results can increase the click rate on your site.

Dependingon what your business’ needs are can dictate what route you take as a contentmarketer. Of course, you can also incorporate both techniques based on yourcompany’s strategy.

How to analyze SERPs to rank on the first page of Google

Hypothetically, and let's be honest this probably isn't hypothetical, you want to rank higher in SERPs - how do we get there?

As we've seen, SERPs can be nuanced, highly contextualized, and competitive. Analyzing SERPs and improving your rank is an article in of itself, but let's list off a few tips.

First, determine the keywords you are focusing on and the pages that you want to rank for them. You can use Google Trends to see whether search demand has stayed the same or whether it has decreased, which gives a clue as to how much worth it is going after these keywords.

Next it's a matter of seeing what content actually exists out there for these keywords - are there millions of results or thousands? What do the top 10 results (first page) have in common - are they long research articles, or shorter soundbites. Do they have video. More importantly - is there anything you can add that the existing content hasn't already said? And do you reasonably think you could outrank them?

If you have existing content that is not ranking, now is the time to update it and improve it's quality. Don't forget to have Google perform a new crawl and index so it knows you've made the changes. If it's a brand new piece of content, make sure you have a promotion strategy in place to start driving traffic early so that Google will have the page on their radar.

This information may seem overwhelming but there are two helpful tools you can use going forward. First, you can use one of the many products offered by Google such as WhatsMySerp.

You can find more products that can assist in SERP research at this link from Hubspot. A second tool can be to follow this short checklist offered by the Digital Marketing Institute.

Going Forward

So what are SERPs?

Search engine results pages and if you pay close enough attention you can analyze them to unlock the keys to getting your own content to rank.

If you’ve made it this far we hope you’re less fuzzy on the topic of SERPs.

When your goal is to rank higher on Google, understanding the landscape and what’s ahead of you is critical before we start shooting for #1.

SERPs can be nuanced and difficult, but with practice you’ll get a feel for where the opportunities to rank are and how you can best maximize your time. Conducting SERP research into your website can be a helpful way for your business to continue making positive strides.                                    


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