The internet is a well of content, and search engines help ensure the best content rises to the top. Few people go past the first page of search engine results, and most search traffic goes to sites that rank on the top half of the page. To attract viewers to your website, you’ll need to secure a top spot, and to do that, it’s helpful to understand the anatomy of a search engine results page (SERP).
What is a search engine results page (SERP)?
When someone enters a query into a search engine, the list of results appears on a search engine results page, or SERP. Brands and content creators use search engine optimization (SEO) to improve their content and increase the likelihood of ranking at the top of SERPs. In addition to link results, search engines continue to add new features to SERPS, including elements like information-rich panels and paid ads. Depending on the search term, result pages may include links, videos, products, and other featured snippets.
Elements of a SERP
Search engines aim to deliver relevant, informative content to web users. To do this, they include a variety of search features that display different types of media. The following are all common types of results you may find displayed on a SERP:
Paid results appear at the top of SERPs. For example, Google ads show up at the top with a bolded Sponsored tag to distinguish them from organic listings. Other search engines, such as Bing, may use an Ad tag or display paid results in a box. For competitive keywords, ads sometimes make up as many as the top four results on the page. Additional ads may be displayed at the bottom of the page and can also appear in the map stack.
Google search results display questions related to user queries in the “People also ask” section. Google pulls text from relevant articles, and users can read summary answers without leaving the search results page.
Search engines return video results along with links. Videos are more likely to appear in search results if they are embedded on a web page and include keywords in the video title.
For queries related to consumer goods, search engines often display shopping ads at the top of the page. These paid search results include a product image, its price, and the retailer’s name. Clicking a shopping ad takes the user directly to a purchase page.
Organic search results can include links, videos, or images. This content made it to the SERP based on strong page authority, proper keyword usage, and positive user response.
Some search engine results pages add a rich snippet, which is excerpted information that might be drawn from a source such as Wikipedia. This common SERP feature provides the user with additional context before they click on the link. Rich snippets also often highlight how-to content, recipes, and reviews.
The collection of images that appears on a SERP is known as an image pack. Search algorithms use image alt text—a written description of the image indexed by search engines and read aloud by screen readers for the visually impaired—as well as image file names to identify relevant images.
A knowledge panel is a Google SERP feature that displays infographics, charts, or other visual data alongside standard search results.
Search engines return map results for queries related to physical locations. Searches for local services may also return a specialized map of businesses based on the user’s location—these results are also known as a local pack.
For queries related to current events, search engines like Google and Bing curate a “Top stories” section that highlights articles from major news outlets. These results appear on the primary results page and are separate from the Google News tab at the top of the page. Searching for trending topics may also return social media results highlighting popular posts.
What are the key factors that determine ranking on a SERP?
Several ranking factors can help you create web pages that perform well on SERPS. These factors are central to search engine optimization (SEO), the practice of tailoring web content to suit a search engine’s expectations. To optimize effectively, it’s important to understand the ranking factors search engines evaluate when ordering search results.
Page authority is one of the primary ranking signals affecting search placement. Search engines use advanced mathematical formulas known as algorithms to generate an authority score to measure the overall quality and trustworthiness of a webpage. Factors like page loading speed, content quality, and reader behavior all affect a page’s authority score.
Backlinks—links from external pages that direct users to your website—help build page authority. Google believes high-quality backlinks from established, trustworthy websites are a positive indicator of content quality.
Search engines aim to create a positive experience for web users. Websites with a slow load time are considered poor quality and may receive a lower search ranking.
Web pages that include multiple types of content are more visible to search engines. Adding images or videos to text-based pages can increase their perceived value.
A website’s bounce rate refers to the percentage of users that leave the page right after clicking onto it. A high bounce rate is an indication that readers are not satisfied with the content, which may lead to lower SERP placement. Web users may bounce from a page if the content is poorly written, doesn’t align with their expectations, or is blocked by pop-up ads.
5 ways to optimize your website to rank on the SERP
Increase your chances of ranking by optimizing both the content and the technical performance of your website. Addressing the following five elements can help climb search position:
1. Research keywords
Conduct research to understand user intent associated with your target keywords. To rank for multiple terms, use a keyword research tool such as Semrush or Google’s Keyword Planner to identify related searches to target in addition to your primary keywords. Focus on finding keywords with a high search volume.
2. Practice on-page SEO
On-page copy, meta descriptions, title tags, and image tags are all elements of on-page SEO. Incorporating your keywords in an organic way will help make your web content visible to search engines. Optimizing images by including accurate alt text and writing descriptive file names also increases their chance of appearing in Google image search results.
3. Create a good user experience
Decrease your bounce rate by creating informative content and displaying it in an easy-to-read format. Prioritize reader experience over heavy keyword usage.
4. Consider search intent
Google’s algorithm classifies search queries as navigational, informational, or transactional. If a user enters an informational query, such as “Who was the 15th president of Guatemala?” they may have a negative experience if they end up on a product page. Optimize your content for search intent by writing accurate titles and creating content that aligns with the intent behind your target keywords.
5. Implement data markup
Using a schema tool or app to incorporate structured data markup tells search engines what type of content you’re promoting. Proper schema markup increases your chances of being featured in a rich snippet—a quick summary of information that appears directly on the SERP. You can use markup tools to classify content by type: popular types include recipes, events, how-tos, and articles.
Nickaila Daley, content SEO specialist at Shopify, says the best way to top the SERP is to prioritize creating high quality content. “Search engines aim to provide the best search results for its users,” Nickaila says. “Ensuring your content is informative, engaging, and aligns with users search intent is important. This includes optimizing product pages, blog posts, and landing pages with relevant keywords and valuable information.”
Is organic traffic a result of high rankings on a SERP?
Some dedicated readers or customers may go directly to your website, but the bulk of organic traffic is driven by search. Almost all search engine users select links from the first page of results, according to the search engine tool Ahrefs. The higher your content ranks, the more traffic it can attract.
How does local SEO impact the local pack on a SERP?
Optimizing for local SEO increases your chance of being featured in the local pack, also known as the map pack, of a search engine results page. Site owners can optimize for local SEO by maintaining an up-to-date business listing, attracting positive reviews, and emphasizing local relevance in web copy. The local pack appears at the top of the SERP results. Being featured may attract significant business.
How does the knowledge graph feature influence search results?
The knowledge graph is a Google SERP feature intended to improve user experience. This rich panel displays relevant facts or charts next to organic search results. Search engine users can review this panel to quickly access information without leaving the results page. The knowledge graph includes a link to its source material and can drive traffic to featured pages.
Do search engine updates and algorithm changes impact SERP rankings?
Yes. Changes to a search engine’s algorithm can affect both ranking positions and the types of results displayed on a SERP. Search engine providers update their algorithms frequently. Staying up to date with optimization practices will increase your chance of ranking consistently.