There are millions of pages on the web, but none are more important to digital marketers than search engine results pages, or SERPs.
Search engine optimization specialists and PPC advertisers alike vie for the same precious real estate in the most prominent parts of the SERPs, but competition is fierce and technological developments in search mean it’s more important than ever for digital marketers to know how search works and what they can do to maximize their visibility.
Search Engine Results Pages: What They Are and How They Work
Search engine results pages are web pages served to users when they search for something online using a search engine, such as Google. The user enters their search query (often using specific terms and phrases known as keywords), upon which the search engine presents them with a SERP – search engine results pages.
Every SERP – search engine results pages – is unique, even for search queries performed on the same search engine using the same keywords or search queries. This is because virtually all search engines customize the experience for their users by presenting results based on a wide range of factors beyond their search terms, such as the user’s physical location, browsing history, and social settings. Two SERPs – search engine results pages – may appear identical, and contain many of the same results, but will often feature subtle differences.
The appearance of search engine results pages is constantly in flux due to experiments conducted by Google, Bing, and other search engine providers to offer their users a more intuitive, responsive experience. This, combined with emerging and rapidly developing technologies in the search space, mean that the SERPs – search engine results pages- of today differ greatly in appearance from their older predecessors.
SERPs – search engine results pages – typically contain two types of content – “organic” results and paid results. Organic results are listings of web pages that appear as a result of the search engine’s algorithm (more on this shortly). Search engine optimization professionals, commonly known as SEOs, specialize in optimizing web content and websites to rank more highly in organic search results.
The box on the right side of this SERP – search engine results pages – is known as the Knowledge Graph (also sometimes called the Knowledge Box). This is a feature that Google introduced in 2012 that pulls data to commonly asked questions from sources across the web to provide concise answers to questions in one central location on the SERP – search engine results pages. In this case, you can see a wide range of information about Abraham Lincoln, such as the date and place of his birth, his height, the date on which he was assassinated, his political affiliation, and the names of his children – many of which facts have their own links to the relevant pages.
Some SERPs – search engine results pages – will feature significantly more organic results than others, such as the example above. This is due to the differing intent of various searches. There are three primary types of Internet search:
Informational searches are those in which the user hopes to find information on a given topic, such as Abraham Lincoln. It wouldn’t make much sense to place ads or other types of paid results on a SERP – search engine results pages – like this, as the search query “Abraham Lincoln” has very low commercial intent; the vast majority of searchers using this search query are not looking to buy something, and as such only informational results are displayed on the SERP – search engine results pages.
Navigational queries are those in which the user hopes to locate a specific website through their search. This may be the case for individuals searching for a specific website, trying to locate a website whose URL they can no longer remember, or another type of navigational objective.
Finally, transactional searches are those in which paid results are most likely to be displayed on the SERP – search engine results pages. Transactional searches have high commercial intent, and search queries leading to transactional SERPs – search engine results pages – may include keywords such as “buy” and other terms that suggest a strong desire to make a purchase.
In contrast to organic seo results, paid results are those that have been paid to be displayed by an advertiser. In the past, paid results were almost exclusively limited to small, text-based ads that were typically displayed above and to the right of the organic results. Today, however, paid results can take a wide range of forms, and there are dozens of advertising formats that cater to the needs of advertisers.
Search Engine Optimization
As its name implies, search engine optimization is the practice of optimizing websites and web pages for discovery in search engines and, as a result, more visible placement on search engine results pages. This is accomplished through a variety of means, from what is known as “on-page” SEO to “off-page” techniques.
On-page SEO refers to best practices that web content creators and site owners can follow to ensure their content is as easily discoverable as possible. This includes the creation of detailed page metadata (data about data) for each page and elements such as images, the use of unique, static URLs, the inclusion of keywords in relevant headings and subheadings, and the use of clean HTML code, to name a few.
Unlike on-page SEO techniques, off-page SEO refers to strategies that affect the site as a whole. Common off-page SEO techniques include link building and exchange, social bookmarking, content marketing, submissions to directories and search engine indexes, and the creation of online communities on social media.
Although the full scope of SEO is far too broad to cover comprehensively here, all you need to know is that SEO focuses primarily on achieving higher rankings from an organic perspective. Businesses may hire an SEO agency or SEO professional to perform their SEO work, but beyond this investment, no money changes hands and all the emphasis is placed on ranking more highly in organic search.