Google’s search engine results page, or SERP, has been steadily evolving along with all other aspects of the SEO landscape. Staying abreast of all the available features, understanding how they work, and knowing which ones to focus on are all crucial components of any modern marketing strategy.
Google is obviously the most important search engine in the world, with nearly 75% of the total market share (and much more than that if you take China out of the equation).
In 2018, Google has implemented some major changes to their results pages, greatly increasing the variety and customization of the information provided.
Businesses and marketing professionals need to fully grasp these changes and determine how to best factor them into their plans.
What is SERP?
Google’s search engine results page has been increasingly providing more information in “position zero”. This is the first organic result on the page, right after the ads.
As the information shown here is increasingly being formatted as an “answer box” to give a useable answer to the query rather than simply a list of relevant sites, it can result in a decrease in click-through traffic.
Of course, this is one of the less frequent SERP features, with many of the other new formats occurring more often, such as “top stories”, “local packs”, and “ratings and reviews”. Each of these new features will affect current results in different ways.
Of course, all of these changes will have much more effect on those sites that already contained good enough content to make page one, with the lower-ranked results competing less directly with the new formats.
On the surface, the idea of Google offering more information and fewer clicks is a problem for marketers.
However, it is also an opportunity because whenever changes occur those that adapt the quickest stand to improve their market share.
While others just keep doing what they’ve always done—if you customize your methods to fit the new reality, your business could find itself much higher in the search rankings than before.
What are SERP features?
There is a wide range of different SERP features now showing up on a regular basis in position zero. Some are new, while others have been around for a long time and are simply being used more often.
Here is a detailed list of SERP features along with strategies to optimize for them.
The number refers to the percentage of total page one results on Google.com. As many results will fall into more than one category, the percentages will not add up to 100.
Top stories (75.9%)
This is a block of three top stories relating to the search topic, normally coming from large news sources. They tend to be the trending topics of the day.
As the intention is to find extremely current information from trustworthy sources, it is difficult for most websites and businesses to make it into top stories. It is possible, however, if you routinely publish very current stories with immediate relevance.
Local packs (43.1%)
These are lists of three local businesses formatted below a map routinely resulting from a “where can I find…” query. The map will show links to each result and the information will be formatted as structured snippets, meaning they provide more information beyond the initial link.
As these are strongly location-based it is important to include detailed location information in your profile. A large volume of reviews on Google, Yelp and other rating sites will also help your chances of showing up in a local pack.
Google reviews are being increasingly used to rate pages, businesses, and services. It is easy to see why, as they offer both instant validity with regard to the top choices and encourage businesses to strive for more reviews.
To up your ranking in this area it is crucial to encourage satisfied clients to post reviews by providing a review link on your page, including it as a call to action, and displaying your current ratings and reviews to draw attention to the option.
Site links (39.9%)
This is when a domain displays an additional set of links below the main result, offering more information and the ability to click directly to the most relevant area of the site.
This usually happens with general business or web page searches and can be optimized for by ensuring your site has a very clear, navigable structure, and unique content from page to page.
While the top ads are certainly influenced by content, relevance, an excellent landing page, and other SEO factors, they are also significantly determined by click-through rates and Google Ads bids. Maximizing your Google Ads results is a science in itself and worthy of its own thorough discussion.
Related questions (29.6%)
This is generally titled “People also ask” and provides answers to similar queries to provide a broader base of information. It is of particular help for those who may be unsure of the best way to phrase their question.
Including a broad range of search terms and related keywords in your content, as well as any natural follow-up questions, will improve your chances of making it into this category.
Knowledge panels (10.6%)
Designed to provide a great deal of information in one window, knowledge panels take information almost exclusively from Google My Business listings and Google Maps. It usually includes a description, hours, location, etc. The only way to optimize this is to use their systems and make sure your information is complete and current.
Direct answers 8.8%
It is interesting that this feature occurs so far down the list considering it is the development that marketing specialists are most concerned about (although, interestingly, direct answers occur in 40% of page one results in New Zealand).
This is when Google provides a specific answer to a query so that no further clicks are required. These are normally short public domain answers that do not require a source.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do about them. On the bright side, however, they are rarely the type of questions that generate business (i.e. What time is it in Los Angeles?).
Both the occurrence and format of images will depend heavily on the type of query. Questions specifically referring to images or that generate answers which would be greatly enhanced by a photo are most common. To optimize this, make sure the photos on your site are highly relevant to the content and of excellent quality.
Structured snippets (7.9%)
As mentioned under local packs, these provide additional information beyond the link. This can be an important variation when people are choosing between different search results. Structured snippets require specific schema coding that allows the search engine to recognize the additional info such as price or customer rating.
Featured snippets (6.4%)
These go beyond structured snippets to provide another layer of information to enhance the search results. They can be displayed in a variety of formats from written paragraphs to lists and tables. These do not occur often but are very likely to be the page’s chosen result. The way to gain consideration for featured snippets is to format your content to match the desired search result and include the keyword in the heading of the list or table.
Video thumbnails (1.8%)
While rare, video results are very noticeable, including a thumbnail, title, description, and additional info. YouTube, being owned by Google, is by far the most popular video site to be chosen, and you will need to have popular, high-quality videos on your channel to earn a spot.
Not particularly common yet but if you have a lot of followers and regularly provide relevant information there is a chance your tweets will show up on standard Google searches.
Search boxes (0.1%)
While these were theoretically removed from the SERP rotation back in 2017, they still show up very occasionally. Regardless, there is no longer any reason to focus on providing a search box on your site.
It is worth taking a closer look at the most recent SERP statistics broken down by region to see how much variation there is from country to country.
Presumably, the differences in SERP feature generation are based on differences in user preferences, which could provide some important knowledge for companies that operate globally.
In general, however, the statistics in the United States (which tend to be fairly similar in Canada and much of Europe) suggest that much of today’s marketing focus should be on providing detailed information, garnering a large number of reviews and client interaction, and having a strong, clearly structured website.
Those three things will greatly improve your chances of being included in local packs, reviews/ratings, and site links, by far the three most important organic SERP features.
Of course, unique, quality content remains the key to any SEO strategy, as Google only looks to the top ten content search results when producing SERP features. Meaning that if your site has never been good enough to make it to page one, it won’t be making it into any of the new features either.
Therefore, focus on excellent content first to get your site on page one, then start optimizing to match the new SERP features, and increased traffic and improved results should soon follow.