Author: Mordy Oberstein
To the average person, Google’s search engine results page (also known as the SERP) may not seem that complicated. What’s so hard to understand? Someone enters a query and Google returns a list of options to choose from, right? Not exactly.
As strange as it may sound, Google’s SERP is a complex and multi-layered ecosystem. Understanding what’s on it is important for any site owner to know. What Google decides to show on the SERP for any given keyword can either significantly improve your chances of bringing traffic to your site or seriously jeopardize those efforts.
Here’s a look at what the Google SERP has to offer and how it can impact your site’s organic traffic.
The organic results
Let’s start with the most fundamental element on the SERP—organic results. Organic results are the list of websites we’re all used to seeing Google display when we search for something.
They’re called ‘organic’ because the sites Google displays don’t pay to appear on the SERP. They appear because Google, for a host of reasons, thinks these are the best results to show a user for a specific keyword.
Organic results are typically easy to identify. They include the page’s URL along with a clickable title that sits above a description of what can be found on the page.
That’s not to say this is how organic results always looked on the SERP. Past versions of Google’s organic results included the page’s URL showing in green and the title resting above the URL. This means that you can expect the appearance of the organic results to evolve in the future as well.
In fact, organic results look a bit different on mobile. The most notable distinction is that mobile results contain a favicon. (The mobile and desktop version of the SERP differs in many ways and we’ll get to that later on in this article.)
Not all organic results are created equal
It all sounds pretty simple and straightforward, but it’s not. That’s because Google employs what is known as rich results. Rich results can include all sorts of additional information and even visuals. Consequently, a rich result can be far more noticeable and therefore clickable than your “standard” organic result.
Take this result from Edmunds.com, for example. It is visually distinct from standard search listings and provides users with a preview of the tutorial.
A rich result like the one above takes up a lot more real estate on the SERP. That means it can be significantly more noticeable than your “average” organic result. The more noticeable it is, the more clicks it might get (in theory).
The additional content and the amount of space it occupies on the SERP is only one advantage that a rich result presents. At times, rich results present visual elements that make them stand out from other results on the page.
Let’s take the result below as an example. It contains review stars as well as an image thumbnail. Imagine this was the only result on the page with the review stars and image thumbnail, wouldn’t it immediately stand out? What if your site was the only one without these elements, how much harder might it be for your page to get noticed and attract visitors?
As is the case with standard organic results, rich results also look different on mobile than on desktop.
How can you turn your organic result into a rich result? The short answer is by using structured data.
Believe it or not, we haven’t even cracked the tip of the iceberg yet. Along with organic results, Google displays what is commonly referred to as “SERP features” on the results page.
This is where our story gets a bit complicated. There is an almost countless number of SERP features that Google employs. Sometimes these features can take on various forms or include any number of secondary elements. In fact, there are often SERP features within other SERP features.
So, what is a SERP feature? Well, Google hasn't provided us with a formal definition. That leaves us to form a working definition. To that end, let’s call any element that is not an organic result but offers the user content or leads the user to new content a SERP feature.
Sounds a little confusing, doesn’t it?
Have a look at the image below. Do you see all of the elements placed within the red boxes? Those are all SERP features.
As you can see, the results page can contain a heap of SERP features. There were also one or two things within the organic results that could have technically counted as SERP features as well. Not only are there a significant number of SERP features that can appear on any given results page, but there are also far-reaching implications as to why they’re there.
Instead of rattling off the dozens of SERP features, let's instead try to categorize them. In doing so, we’ll get a better understanding of the various types of features as well as what they mean for your site.
The categories we explore are not part of any official breakdown. Also, as you will see, there are some features that don’t fit well into these categories. Still, categorizing the features Google shows will help us quickly get a sense of the complexity they bring.
Here are five categories of SERP features you may commonly come across in the search results:
01. Paid SERP features
Paid elements on the SERP are literally the exact opposite of organic results. Despite this, they may very much look like organic results.
At times, the only thing that makes a paid result distinct from an organic result is the word ‘Ad.’
What you see above is an example of what is known as a Google Search Ad. Like with organic results, these ads do come in various shapes and sizes. There are various elements that are, at times, added to Search Ads to make them more visible.
Search Ads that appear on mobile may appear differently. These differences include elements that allow users to call the business directly from the ad, the ability for the user to send the business a text message, the insertion of image thumbnails and more.
It’s important to note, that while Google used to show ads to the right-hand side of the organic results, as of 2016, this is not the case.
Search Ads now appear either above or below the organic results. That means the first thing a user often sees is not your site (even if it is ranking #1 organically), but an ad. This is why it is important to keep tabs on the ads that appear on the same SERP as your organic results.
There is another ad format to be aware of–Product Listing Ads (PLAs).
PLAs are often a scrollable carousel of products that presents an image of the product, reviews, and even information related to shipping or sales, etc.
Unlike Search Ads, it’s possible for PLAs to appear to the right-hand side of the organic results on desktop.
It’s entirely possible that all of the above-the-fold content on the SERP contains sponsored content and for there to be additional sponsored content to the right-hand side of the results. Such is the case in the image above. Certainly, it can be hard to compete on a SERP like this.
There are a whole host of places where sponsored content may appear on the SERP. At times, the presence of sponsored content may be more or less obvious. In either case, it is important to understand the competitive landscape paid results might present to your site.
02. Navigational SERP features
Let’s move away from the impact of paid SERP features and discuss ‘navigational SERP features’ (a term I’ve invented). I call them ‘navigational’ because this group of features helps users navigate to additional content or even the content they initially intended to find.
Imagine you searched for the term ‘rangers.’ Did you mean the Texas baseball team? The NY hockey team? The army rangers? It can be hard for Google to know. So, Google offers a Disambiguation Box. Clicking on an item inside of the box takes you to a new SERP about that topic.
What we have here is a SERP feature that helps users navigate to either additional content or the correct content they originally wanted.
The ‘Related Searches’ feature is a set of additional search terms that are related to the one the user originally searched for. Google often displays these at the bottom of the SERP to help users navigate to additional or more refined information.
People Also Search For
The ‘People Also Search For’ feature can also help users get closer to the information they’re looking for.
This feature can be shown as a standalone element or as part of other SERP features.
Features to broaden or refine search queries
More recently, Google has expanded its repertoire of navigational SERP features. This includes features that enable users to either broaden or refine their initial search queries.
To that end, there are a wide variety of carousels and filters that enable users to explore related topics, products, and the like.
Many of the navigational features Google employs are not standalone features. Google often utilizes a set of filters above its Image Packs and Video Boxes (and at times even as an independent set of filters shown at the top of the SERP).
03. Features that present organic opportunity
While certain SERP features are pay-to-play and others merely whisk the user away to a brand new SERP, some features can drive a serious amount of traffic to your site (or other properties). Of course, with great opportunity also comes great competition.
So, what exactly are SERP features that offer you organic opportunity? Well, they’re SERP features that showcase your page’s URL or link to your other properties, such as your social media accounts. The best example of this would be the Featured Snippet.
A Featured Snippet is a box that contains a snippet of content from a website along with the URL for that page. This box is placed at the very top of the SERP (although it has been known to appear beneath ads) and takes up a large amount of space on the SERP.
In short, a Featured Snippet is extremely visible and often very clickable (i.e., they can bring a significant amount of traffic to your site).
Featured Snippets can come in a wide variety of formats. There is the list Featured Snippet shown above, along with Featured Snippets that utilize table data and those that present a short paragraph of content.
There are even Featured Snippets that present YouTube videos.
Various elements can be added to Featured Snippets. There are Featured Snippets that include a carousel of images, ones that include a set of filters and more.
There are all sorts of other SERP features that direct users to your site or one of your other properties. Take the People Also Ask feature, which is basically a cousin of the Featured Snippet.
People Also Ask
These generally appear as a series of four cards (each reflecting a question) that can be expanded to reveal a short snippet to answer each question. Like the Featured Snippet, the content snippets here also contain a URL to the page where the content was pulled from.
Fun fact: As you expand a People Also Ask card, more question cards automatically load beneath it.
Organic opportunities for your other properties
There are also a host of SERP features that can drive traffic to your other properties (aside from your website). This highlights the importance of having a well-rounded content strategy.
Google often shows video content within a standalone SERP feature. The Video Box presents a series of videos that overwhelmingly come from YouTube. Being featured here could be a nice way to direct users to your YouTube channel and can make you relevant in the event you don’t rank organically.
Social media also comes into focus. For example, if you Tweet often enough, a carousel of your recent Tweets may appear. This helps you control your own narrative when users search for branded keywords.
Since we're talking about various media, one thing to consider is the appearance of images on the SERP. Google, in various ways, presents users with a series of images when the query’s intent calls for visual media. When clicked, these images can bring you to Google’s Image SERP, where your URL might be displayed.
Meaning, you can get site traffic from the placement of images on the SERP.
Again, there are too many features to list here. The main takeaway is that there are opportunities for your URLs inside of SERP features. Sometimes these opportunities might apply to specific types of sites (such as Google’s news carousel) while at other times any site may have an open opportunity to garner more site traffic.
04. Features that don’t present organic opportunity
The SERP, as you’ve seen thus far, is complicated. It’s also a bit controversial. Google has a series of SERP features that don’t present any page’s URL. These features also don’t lead to a social profile or even YouTube. Rather, these features directly answer the user’s question. For that reason, they are often referred to as Direct Answers or Answer Boxes.
Here’s the situation: if Google answers the user’s question, why would that same user visit any of the sites among the organic results? Direct Answers can, and often do, limit the amount of traffic sites pull in.
The matter becomes more complex when you consider the variety of Direct Answer Boxes Google has in its arsenal.
There are Answer Boxes that present:
Sports scores and schedules
Conversions (currency, units of measurement, etc.)
Stock prices and trends
This is not to say you won’t get any traffic if your page ranks on the same SERP as an Answer Box. It just means that your traffic potential might be diminished. It really all depends on the user, the keyword, and what Google presents as a Direct Answer.
The most important thing to know is whether you are potentially competing with an Answer Box so that you can research the impact and adjust accordingly.
05. Local features and Knowledge Panels
There are some SERP features that don’t really fit into the categories we’ve described above. Some features don’t have a URL per se but lead users directly to your Google business panel. Some features contain URLs, just not to your site.
The two main features to discuss here are Local Packs and Knowledge Panels.
‘Near me’ queries are one of the most common types of searches. This is where a user might search for things like “best pizza near me” or “florist near me.” These kinds of queries almost always trigger a list of local businesses that generally appears towards the top of the SERP.
It’s called the Local Pack and it gives the user a direct pathway to a local business.
Notice, there’s a lot of information packed into each business's listing. This information comes from properly setting up a Google Business Profile. Without doing this, your business may not appear in a Local Pack. If your business does not appear in the Local Pack, there’s a good chance that most users will never see it, even if it ranks well within the organic results.
Clicking on the listing brings the user to the Local Finder (shown below) and automatically brings up a full business panel for the listing (which includes a link to the business’s website when applicable). Here, the user can see a fuller set of local listings (the Local Finder is also accessed by clicking “View all” at the bottom of the Local Pack).
Actually, the business panel you see above is the perfect segue to our next topic: Knowledge Panels.
Google has a way of understanding the relationships between things and topics in order to present users with a fuller set of information and connect them with other relevant material. Moreover, Google has a way of knowing that some words aren’t just words, but are also “things” or “entities.” It’s how Google, for example, knows Wix is not just a website but an entire product and corporation. This is called the Knowledge Graph.
The most visual representation of Google’s ability to understand words as “things” and to understand the connection between related “things” is the Knowledge Panel.
The Knowledge Panel is a collection of all sorts of information related to anything from household names, like celebrities and politicians, to companies to sports teams to products and far beyond.
In fact, one of the more common forms of Knowledge Panels looks a lot like the business panel we saw above. It’s called the Local Knowledge Panel.
On desktop, Knowledge Panels appear to the right-hand side of the organic results. This means that they do not impact which results do or don’t appear above the fold.
Your typical Knowledge Panel may contain a link to a webpage. However, that webpage is usually Wikipedia, as the site is a major source of Google’s entity-based information.
On mobile, Google places the Knowledge Panel above the organic results (as a rule) thereby pushing the results significantly further down the SERP (and generally out of initial view).
It’s worth noting that the Knowledge Panel can and does act like a Direct Answer Box in many ways.
Look back at the above example for the movie A League of Their Own, there is a good deal of information that the user gets without ever having to click on a website.
For instance, the user can see who the cast of the film was, the ratings the movie received, etc. All this without even clicking on the other tabs within the Knowledge Panel.
The bottomline is that the Knowledge Panel is an important part of what users see when they search for your brand (at least, it should be). It’s also a huge source of information that often replaces the need to visit an actual website.
The mobile SERP
We’ve already taken a peek at the mobile SERP throughout this post. That said, it’s worth mentioning that the mobile SERP is is different from the SERP on desktop. The reason for this ranges from the amount of space available on a mobile device to user intent being potentially different on mobile than on desktop.
It’s possible that your ranking on desktop may not exactly align with your mobile rankings for the same keyword(s). Not only that, due to the format of the mobile SERP, what might appear above the fold on desktop might not rank above the fold on mobile.
When it comes to the SERP, different features have different capabilities, content, and elements on mobile than they do on desktop.
The mobile SERP even contains some SERP features that do not appear on desktop at all (at the time of this writing).
For all of these reasons, it’s extremely important to pay attention to both the desktop and mobile SERP independent of each other. That means monitoring your site’s organic performance across both devices.
The SERP’s constant evolution
Google’s SERP is constantly evolving. Each year, there are hundreds of tests and upgrades Google makes to the look of the SERP and to the features found on it. Some of these changes can be quite significant and can impact your site’s organic performance. That means it always pays to keep an eye on the SERP and how it’s evolving. This can involve anything from comparing your site’s organic performance across devices, monitoring your rankings on desktop vs. mobile, or simply paying a visit to the desktop and mobile SERPs every now and then.
Mordy is the Head of SEO Branding at Wix. Concurrently he also serves as a communications advisor for Semrush. Dedicated to SEO education, Mordy is one of the organizers of SEOchat and a popular industry author and speaker. Twitter | Linkedin