The Google SERPs

In the SEO world, a SERP is a Search Engine Results Page. It is the page of links that Google returns when you search for something.

Back in the 90s Google’s SERPs were a list of 10 links, with perhaps some ads showing up at the top or on the right side. Since then Google’s SERPs have grown much more complicated, with different independent segments integrated into the organic results, and more paid placement than ever.

Here is a fairly basic SERP:

Example of Google Search Results Page

Note that everything outlined in red is a paid result. Even the Google shopping results are paid inclusion only — you can’t be there without paying for the privilege. Google is becoming increasingly aggressive about monetizing the SERPs and promoting their own properties within the results.

The good news is that despite this newfound focus on money, most people still click the organic results rather than the paid results (and lots of tests suggest that most people who click on a paid result don’t even realize that they’re clicking on a paid ad).

On average, from 50% to 80% of the clicks in SERPs are on organic results. It varies a lot depending on the search and what kind of paid elements are included: Google’s shopping results attract more clicks; SERPs with four ads on top attract more than SERPs with three. SERPs with only one result on top commonly see over 95% of clicks on organic.

Since paid ads make a big difference in click through rates, let’s take a look at some different ways that Google monetizes SERPs:

Example of Google flight search results

Those flight results below the ads is not Google being helpful and trying to find you the best flight — that is also paid inclusion (notice the gray “sponsored” in the upper right). Everything on this SERP is a paid ad. Google is integrating more and more verticals into the results in this way.

Now let’s take a look at how different organic elements get integrated into the SERPs.

Example of Google dentist search results

Here we’re looking at a search that Google determined has local intent. This can be triggered in a number of ways:

  • If the search includes the name of a city or state, that’s a good indicator to Google that they should return local results.
  • If the search is made from a mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet, Google may take the GPS data from the phone to determine what should be in the search results.
  • Some searches Google has just learned over time are likely to have local intent — looking for restaurants or, in this screenshot, dentists. In these cases Google gives results based on how your location is set in your search settings to deliver local results.

That pack of local listings beneath the ads are all businesses that have Google+ Local Pages, and are tied to the little flags on the map. That local pack is not paid, but it does require the businesses to create a Google+ Local Page account and fill out their info. The local pack is inserted into the organic results, pushing most of them down the page. Ranking within the local pack is an entirely different process than ranking organically (explained more in the Local SEO section).

A similar organic element, though less intrusive, is Google news. A news result might look like this:

Example of Google News search result

Here Google has determined that the search query is likely to be looking for a news result — which must rely on freshness (how recent it is) much more that overall accumulation of links. So Google has inserted the news block into the rest of the organic results.

Here is another search result page that includes image results:

Example of Google results with an image block

Google has determined that some percentage of people searching for this query are likely to want to see image results, and so they’ve shoved a big block of images right in the middle of the organic results. Once again, these are not paid, but images are ranked somewhat differently that web pages (explained further in Image SEO).

Finally, here is a SERP with a Knowledge Graph:

Example of the Knowledge Graph in Google search results

The Knowledge Graph is Google’s effort to become more relevant by delivering answers directly in the search results, rather than directing users to a site to find the answer. The Knowledge Graph is mostly populated off of a few Creative Commons sources like Wikipedia, but Google is increasingly integrating sources from other sites. This has led some webmasters to complain bitterly that Google is essentially scraping their site and delivering their content directly — and of course then Google gets to show its ads on that content (the SERPs) rather than the webmaster. In fact Google has begun experimenting with inserting paid links directly into the Knowledge Graph to better monetize that space.

Google’s response to complaints that it’s stealing data, as always, is that the webmaster has the option of blocking Google from his site, which of course prevents the site from ever showing up in Google’s search results.

In point of fact, Google started doing this long before the Knowledge Graph with direct answers at the top of the SERPs. Once upon a time there were websites who enjoyed decent ad revenue by giving conversions and simple subject facts, but the days of sites like that are numbered, if not already over. Google wants deliver simple factoids itself now.

Here are some shots of Google answers SERPS:

Example of Google answers directly in the search results

Example of Google converting currency in the search results

Example of Google giving answers directly in the search results

The point of this section is to understand that there are a lot of different pieces to the SERPs, even within the organic results.

Google usually shows 10 organic results, plus the paid options, including any additional elements (local pack, images, video, news, etc.). For certain searches, however, Google will now only show 7 results. These are typically searches that Google thinks have strong navigational, or brand intent. For example, if you search online for Zappos, Google will deliver only 7 results, because it’s pretty sure what you’re looking for.

In the world of SEO, when we talk about a site’s ranking position, we’re talking about the raw organic ranking position, ignoring elements like local, news, images, etc, and ignoring paid listings.

Keep in mind that if the local pack appears before your organic result, that’s going to absolutely destroy the amount of traffic you get. But to make fair comparison and because there’s nothing you can do about where Google chooses to insert additional organic blocks, we don’t include them in our position reporting.

We absolutely must, however, be aware of them and how they impact our potential opportunity (a search result with local results, or news, or other elements on top may not be worth the investment to rank #1, when there isn’t a whole lot of traffic from that #1 ranking).

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