The SEO's Handbook for Interpreting SERPs and Snagging SERP Features [The Lost Draft]
Using SEMrush to explain how SEMrush could use SEMrush and the SERP to rank higher for the keyword "SERP" 🤯
If you’ve made it to this page, it’s likely because you saw yet another marketing acronym you have never seen before. We’d also bet it’s from one of your favorite SEO or PPC marketers on either Twitter or LinkedIn.
If the above scenario is true, you were searching for SERP.
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What is a SERP (Search Engine Results Page)?
Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) are the pages that a user (searcher) is delivered after typing a query into a search engine like Google, Bing, Yahoo, or DuckDuckGo.
Below is an example screenshot of a Google SERP. For obvious reasons, the remainder of this article will focus on only Google’s results pages.
These results pages are where you, as an SEO, will perfect the art of interpreting what users want to see and what search engines will rank your URLs for.
What Search Engine Marketers “Do” With a SERP: Interpretation 101
A SERP is littered with all the context clues for you to rank your content. It will initially take time to learn to interpret what you’re seeing, but slowly you’ll begin harnessing the SERPs' ever-changing environment.
Let’s break down some of the main components of a SERP by reviewing the results page for the keyword we’re trying to rank for right now.
The SERP for “SERP”
Lesson 1: Identifying Paid vs. Organic Search Results
Paid SERP Results
If they’re present, they’re always positioned at the top of the SERP. Occasionally, they’ll also appear at the bottom of the results page for highly competitive queries.
You’ll also find that some results pages do not generate an ad. This indicates that companies don’t believe that a particular keyword generates a meaningful ROI via PPC ads.
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a useful keyword to target via an organic SEO content strategy if it can play a role in the conversational flow of your marketing funnel.
Pro Tip: You can also leverage these paid ad positions on the SERP for organic rankings.
Example: Some companies like to run paid ads on high-value blog posts to help them gain backlinks. Statistic-rich content can be particularly effective in this strategy as these are interesting to SEOs and journalists alike when searching for data sources.
The benefits of paid ad spots:
If you’re willing to pay the money, Google will place your ad at the top of the page
There is very little effort involved in getting an ad live
There is almost no wait time once Google approves a paid ad
The disadvantages of using paid ads for SERP control:
Paid ads are becoming increasingly more expensive as more companies compete over the most valuable keywords
When you stop paying, Google stops showing your results
A few other paid ad spots that you’ll see on SERPs and can leverage depending on your business type:
Ecommerce Product – “Google Shopping” Ads
“Google Screened” Ads
Local Map Pack Ads
Organic SERP Results
Once you’ve moved below the paid ads, you get into the organic search results. These are the result positions that you’ll be building and optimizing pages for.
The benefits of achieving ranking success via organic search results:
After you pay the upfront cost to have a page built that is optimized to rank, that webpage could potentially be in that spot for years without you paying for every click/view
You avoid the rising cost of paid advertising as more and more companies compete for limited paid spots
There are almost endless opportunities to creatively decide which keywords are worth targeting – giving you control of the narrative around those topics as they relate to your business or industry
The negatives of organic SERP success:
Requires patience as ranking on the first page can often take several months or longer + that timeline is relatively unpredictable
Google’s primary financial interest is in paid ads. Therefore, the paid ad experience comes with more granular data
Organic rankings on SERPs are still rental spaces on Google’s property. As more SERP features continue to take up space, fewer people are clicking on company websites
Over the past 2 decades, Google has dramatically increased the number of SERP feature types that searchers are exposed to. These are all meant to enhance the accuracy and the speed with which Google can return results.
Due to the sheer breadth of SERP features, we’ll save our section on that later in this blog post.
Lesson 2: Analyzing the SERPs To Understand Search Intent
Now let’s go from a beginner interpretation of the SERP and step it up to an intermediate analysis of search intent.
Being able to identify which search intent is associated with a keyword will help you:
Decide whether or not a keyword has the right intent for your business goals
Consult internal stakeholders or agency clients on what type of page you’ll need to create
Identify which stage of the funnel a person searching for that keyword might be in
Before we dive into the SERP analysis, let’s take a look at the 4 types of search intent:
Informational - This tells us that a user is attempting to learn more about a topic.
The query, “SERP,” as illustrated in the image below has “informational” intent. A searcher, like yourself, searches this term to learn more about what a SERP is, what they need to know about it, and why it’s important.
Navigational - Implies that a searcher is trying to find something specific. It might be a location, a type of tool, or a specific brand product.
The query, “SEMrush academy,” represents navigational intent because the searcher is looking for our specific academy which implies they want to be directed to our free courses.
Commercial - Communicates that a searcher intends to make a purchase but is still learning what’s available on the market.
The query, “SERP rank tracker,” has commercial intent. The searcher is looking for the available rank tracking tools on the market but is likely still in the comparison stage.
Transactional - Illustrates that a user is trying to complete a specific action like logging in, buying a product, or signing up for a service.
The query, “SEMrush free trial,” has transactional intent. The user is attempting to complete the action of logging in on our website.
Understanding intent is so important that we built in an intent feature that is pretty darn useful (image below). It will help you reduce time manually crawling all of those SERPs.
You can get a sense of the search intent by reviewing the title tags and features on the SERP.
For example, look at the top results and titles from our SERP for the query “SERP” again.
The title tags imply that these are “informational” in nature. They’re top-of-funnel blogs or subfolder articles. As we mentioned, someone at this stage is looking for definitions and reasons they should know about a SERP.
Additionally, look at the “People also ask” questions. They’re almost all asking for definitions related to SEO and SERP-related topics.
To show you the difference between search intents as represented on the SERP, look at the results for our commercial intent example, “SERP rank tracker.”
The results contain specific rank tracker tool pages to allow the searcher to learn about a specific tool they might wish to download or pay for. Additionally, it has a blog post that compares “...My 10 Favorite Rank Trackers.”
Product or service comparison lists indicate that we’re probably in the middle or bottom of the funnel and should prepare content for someone searching with commercial intent.
Lesson 3: Analyzing Title Tags and SERP Features for Contextual Intent
A SERP also communicates to an SEO the contextual intent of a page.
Contextual intent tells you what you need to talk about on a specific URL for it to rank - aka the words to use on a page/sections worth including.
To do this comprehensively, you’ll either need to scrape all the headers of the top pages, manually scan and document the sections of everyone’s posts, or use one of the many NLP tools that help to keep your content contextually in line with similar top-performing articles.
Try our free SEO Writing Assistant to avoid missing opportunities to help your content perform its best.
Let’s return to our SERP example for the keyword “SERP.”
In position 1 (image below), we have “SERP 101: All about Search Engine Results Pages.” Clues in the title that we can draw on:
“SERP 101” is a reference to the most basic college courses. This is likely a beginner topic
“All About Search Engine Results Pages” most likely means they’ll be going broad (keeping information high-level) and staying out of the weeds
In position 2 (image below), we have “What Are SERPs and Why Are They Important for SEO …” Clues we can draw on:
“What Are SERPs” is in line with our assumption that this is a beginner-friendly post and we’ll need to discuss the definition within our post.
“Why Are They Important for SEO” implies that we’re going to get into the “why” of how this topic is relevant to the reader (likely an early-stage SEO). If we’re lucky, this section will come with illustrative examples that help us understand why they’re important
In position 5 (image below), we have another helpful title, “What is a SERP feature?” A clue to draw on:
“What is a SERP feature” introduces granularity into what parts of a SERP are most important to understand. This post is going to cover what a feature is and likely some examples of the different types
In position 7 (image below), we have my favorite title tag on this SERP, “What is a SERP: A Visual Guide to Google Search Results …” Clues to draw on:
“A Visual Guide to Google Search Results” tells us they’ll be going the extra mile to show us photos, videos, or both SERPs and features
This is a great way to boost click-through rates (CTR) even if you’re not in positions 1-3
A quick scan of the top results’ title tags will give you a much clearer understanding of what searchers are looking for and what topics your competitors are providing.
Your only task now is making your content more useful/valuable than what they’ve built.
Recommended reading: Analyzing Google SERP Volatility Across 25 Industries
The Most Common Organic SERP Features and How to Land Them
As mentioned above, more and more SERP features continue to appear as Google continues testing out how to improve the experience of the searcher.
Google’s emphasis on delivering results to us faster, more conveniently, or more accurately means you’ll want to pay close attention to the valuable features, rich snippets, carousels, etc.
Different SERP features depend on whether you’re on a desktop or a mobile device.
When evaluating the SERPs, it will be important for you to evaluate both - especially if you have data on how most of your users come to your site through search engines.
A list of the many available SERP Features:
People Also Ask
Review rich snippets
Local Map Pack
FAQ rich snippets
Sports Scores and Start Times
Things to do
Times, Names, and Exact Information (0-click information)
…and we could keep going, but by the time we reached the end, we’d be missing new ones that have come and gone.
Recommended Reading: What SEMrush Tools Can I Use to Research SERP Features?
Featured Snippets appear at the top of the organic results in what is considered “position zero.”
It’s typically reserved for queries about lists, definitions, personalities, events, scientific facts, sports, conversions, calculations, etc.
Sometimes featured snippets may pop up as a widget — for example, if your search query says “weather” or “convert inches into centimeters.”
If you’re in the search engine optimization and content marketing game, the two most popular featured snippets you’ll come across are the list snippets and the definition snippets.
Recommended Reading: What are the Different Types of Featured Snippets
How do you put your website in a position to land in these featured snippets spots? A lot of it comes down to better formatting than the competition.
Check out our study on featured snippets to learn more about optimizing for them.
For “list” featured snippets - we recommend using your headers to emphasize the importance to Google. Use a header to introduce the main prompt. Then you can use additional header tag nesting for each list item (image below)
For “definition” or “what is” featured snippets - Concise, simple sentence structure with enough context for Google to understand that you’re providing a definition is the key. You can increase the odds of landing one of these by placing your concise definition directly after a header that tells the reader a definition is coming.
Check out our study on featured snippets to learn more about optimizing for them.
What Google giveth, Google can taketh away - Featured snippets are generated when Google’s algorithms meet an undefined threshold of searches. That means that a featured snippet can completely disappear if a topic loses popularity or intent for a keyword/query changes. Don’t count on that position to always be there.
People Also Ask (PAA)
The People Also Ask (PAA) feature generates questions Google understands to be connected to your search query.
The position of this feature on a SERP should tell you just how important/relevant these questions are to a searcher.
Evaluate the questions on this list for their relevance to your article or page that you’re creating. They typically make for great FAQ sections at the bottom of the content or headers throughout a blog post.
To get your website listed as the answer to these questions, we recommend formatting to clue Google in.
Make the question a header - similar to our last featured snippet advice above, we recommend making the question you’d like to qualify for a header. Then immediately respond to that header with a concise answer (1-2 short sentences).
Check out our guide - How To Maximize ‘People Also Ask’ SEO Opportunities [Study]
Knowledge Panels from Knowledge Graphs
First, if you’ve questions about knowledge panels, you should consult Jason Bernard on how to land one of these spots for you or your business.
Knowledge Panels are informational features that often appear on the right side of the SERP and display a plethora of relevant information about that person, artist, or company.
Acquiring these SERP features requires helping Google understand what you/your company is across authoritative connected web profiles.
Having a Wikipedia page (and listings from many authoritative websites), highly active social media accounts (with detailed company information), and an undisclosed level of popularity are all important parts of having a stable Knowledge Panel.
Image Packs appear when Google thinks visual content will serve a more comprehensive results page.
Additionally, products from eCommerce stores also tend to show up in image packs when Google believes that a visual search might also be connected to transactional intent.
There are a few ways to help the right image and page show up as part of the SERPs image feature and in Google’s images search.
Provide detailed alt-text - Applying alt text that features your keyword or the intent of your keyword will help Google appropriately place that image on the SERP and within an image search.
***We can’t stress enough the importance of not abusing alt-text for ranking images. Remember that people using screen-readers need alt-text to be accurate so they understand what is visually being presented on your website.
Product schema/structured data - In addition to the alt text, taking advantage of product schema will let Google inform searchers that the image they’re looking at is also a product that they can purchase.
Site links are the extra links that show up underneath a search result. These are often displayed based on how Google understands your website's navigation.
Helping Google understand which web pages to direct people to from the SERP via site links is about UX and any signals you can offer to help.
Put important pages in your main navigation - Your website's main navigation should be prioritized to help users get to the most important pages.
By prioritizing these pages within your website's overall structure via internal links within the global navigation - Google should be able to interpret the best pages to display in the site links.
Local Pack For Map Results
For local businesses with brick-and-mortar locations or local service ranges, you’ll grow familiar with the importance of showing up in the local map pack on the SERP. The top 3-4 results are displayed on Google’s SERP alongside the map.
Acquiring local map pack positions can be challenging for various reasons, but the following tips will get you started. You’ll want to work with an experienced local SEO professional to ensure all the important signals and criteria are met.
Have a detailed Google Business Profile - You must set up a Google Business Profile that is both detailed and accurate (Get started here).
Request customers descriptively review your business - components of your Google Business Profile help bring your company into the map results. Reviews that say more than “great experience!” will help prospective customers and Google understands what service you provide.
Begin to understand the weighting system of map results - A number of the other parts of a GBP are more heavily weighted than others. For example, your business name is one of the search's weightiest parts.
Because of this, competitive industries like personal injury law have traditionally practiced spammy naming conventions and keyword stuffing to improve their positions in the map features.
Similar to images, video SERP features are meant for searches in which a visual medium is a searcher's preferred result. These are common in the “review” and “how-to” spaces.
Acquiring a video spot often depends on the descriptiveness of the title and the context clues you provide Google and searchers about your video.
Create a descriptive accurate video title - This should tell a searcher exactly what the video is about/will teach them.
Include context clues like “key moments” - As Google gets better at identifying what videos are about, you can help by providing key moments (time stamps) where a searcher can quickly navigate for specific information.
Embed your videos from YouTube to your relevant web pages - If you’d like people to find your videos on the SERP and have an opportunity to land on your website, embed them on relevant URLs. This will also ensure your video and website appear under the video search tab on Google.
Recommended Reading: How to Target and Win SERP Features
How to Find SERP Feature Opportunities Without Manually Searching
While manually searching through the SERPs will always be the ultimate source of truth, we’ve made it easier for SEOs like yourself to identify SERP feature opportunities.
Conveniently plug your keywords into our Keyword Magic Tool to see available SERP features and sort for keywords that generate specific features.
And conveniently check whether any of your pages are currently in SERP features when you plug that page's URL into our search bar.
Explore some of our content pieces below and linked throughout this post for more helpful introductory content related to learning SEO.
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SERP features is SEO trend for next year