Understanding search engine results pages (SERPs)

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Understanding search engine results pages (SERPs)


So, we’ve seen how Google works.

And we’ve looked at how it ranks different pages.

It’s now time to turn our attention to the holy grail of all SEOs: the sacrosanct SERP, or search engine results page.


Here’s a typical SERP:




We’ve all seen it but let’s take a look at exactly what goes onto it.


SERP personalisation


The first thing to note is this: a search for ‘guitar lessons’ made from a mobile or computer in the UK’s seaside city of Brighton will return results relevant to the location the search was made from, even if this was not spelled out in the search query.

So, you don’t need to type, for example, ‘guitar lessons Brighton’ to get results returned that are relevant to your location.

The second thing to be aware of is that this is not the only way that Google personalises results.

  • It will prioritise sites you have visited in your history (assuming you are signed in).
  • It will use your search history to influence its results.

This means that if you want to accurately check how you or your competitors appear in the search engines you should use a website rank checker or a rank checker tool.

You can find five tools that check how websites rank for keywords here.

Failing that, the best and easiest (though far from fool-proof) way is to use the Chrome browser in Incognito mode, as this prevents you browsing history from being stored.


SERP Search types


Look again at the typical SERP.

The first purple box, at the top, shows the types of searches that Google offers to let you refine your search.

All of these results may be included in the universal search (‘All’) and they include:

  • Videos
  • Maps
  • Images
  • Shopping
  • News
  • Books
  • Flights
  • Apps

Below this you can see how many pages Google has indexed that it feels are relevant to this search: nearly eight million in this case.

What the… that’s some pretty stiff competition!


Paid search on the SERP


The second box, the orange box, heads the list of search results themselves, and it contains results from Google’s pay per click (PPC) platform AdWords.

These are adverts that are paid for – they cannot be affected by SEO. Nor will they affect SEO, as we have already discovered when we looked at Google’s philosophy in an earlier post.

As well as being at the top of the results, these adverts also often appear at the bottom of the SERP as well. They used to be draped all over the right-hand side of the main search results but Google wants this space to be free for other search features now – and we’ll look at what they might be in just a moment.


Organic (or natural) search on the SERP


The third and fifth boxes, the red boxes, are the organic listings: it is these that you are looking to influence through SEO.

These are unpaid search links (i.e. you can’t pay to influence your ranking).


Organic clickthrough rate (CTR)


It is generally agreed that 70% of SERP clicks go to its organic listings and 30% to its PPC – which is to say that the best chance of getting a great volume of traffic is through optimising your site.

However, of these organic clicks, which SERP positions are best?

There are countless studies analysing this and, although the headlines tend to coincide, there is a great deal of variance in the actual figures reported.

Let’s take a look at just one so we can get a sense of the lay of the land.

(You can find this study here and see others here.)


organic ctr graph


To break this down:

  • The organic listings on page one of the results attracts 71% of the clicks from a search query.
  • Page two: 4%.
  • Page three: 2%.
  • And there is a diminishing law of returns for pages beyond this.

In terms of the positions on page one:

  • Position one receives 31% of all clicks resulting from the query.
  • Position two: 14%.
  • Position three: 10%.
  • Position four: 7%.
  • Position five: 6%.
  • Position six to ten: 4% (combined).

Indeed, you can see the importance of position one to five in this heat map that tracks users’ eyes as they look at a SERP.



Some recent studies have suggested that searchers are increasingly prepared to look (and click) deeper into the search results than traditional CTR research suggests.

Yet, the fact is that being on page one and in one of the top five positions of a SERP remains critical.


Local results on the SERPs


Back to our typical SERP page and we’re now looking at the map and links in the fourth box, the green box.

These are determined by Local SEO.

This feature of a SERP is sometimes called a ‘local three pack’.

I’ll take you through Local SEO in a later post but, for now, just concentrate on how they look on the page.


Other SERP features


OK, those are the main features.

But Google is adding and prioritising more all the time. You’ll probably recognise these from your own searching on the internet.


Rich snippets


Some search results may have enhanced listings, such as pictures, data or other media next to them.



Rich snippets such as these are available for things like:

  • Reviews
  • People
  • Products
  • Businesses
  • Organisations
  • Recipes
  • Events
  • Music

The trigger for thesefrom your site is something called Schema markup and you can find out all about it and how to use it in my Fast track SEO course.


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Knowledge graph


Increasingly Google tries to answer a search query on the SERP itself, without the need for a user to click through to a site.



These knowledge boxes can be used for things like:

  • Recipes
  • Definitions
  • Lists
  • How to guides
  • Cinema listings
  • And many other things.

Sometimes they take the form of a carousel:



Consider what this may mean for the future of search: answers are now on the search page itself. There’s no need to visit the site.

It’s a game changer.


Let’s change those SERPs


A SERP is not a static thing.

It changes regularly and, just like changes to Google’s algorithm, there is no set calendar or announcement that things will change. Keeping your eye on the SERPs is the best way to make sure you are benefitting from all they offer.


In the rest of the posts in this series I’m going to focus on exactly how you can change those SERPs and place yourself riding high on them.

Stay tuned!

But, first, it’s important you grasp just how much SEO has changed – and, as we saw with the knowledge boxes, how much it is changing.

So before we dive into the waters let’s just make sure they are still there!


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