The Anatomy of a SERP
How Brands Get Listed in Search Engines, and How to Out-Rank Your Competitors
Type a question into a Google, Bing or Yahoo search bar, hit enter and get instantaneous, relevant results. Those results, in fact, are commonly referred to as a SERP – the acronym for a search engine results page.
But how does a search engine decide which results to show you? It might seem like interwebs magic, or something you don’t have very much control over, but I can tell you:
- There are some very specific things happening in the background that are quite sophisticated, and
- You and your brand can influence what happens and where your company appears to a certain degree.
Here, we’ll go over the basic structure of a SERP, and how you can start taking steps to improve visibility, website visits and ultimately lead generation.
The Search Engine SERP Structure
When you make a request in a browser, the list of results and the layout of the page feature components that are programmatically designed. Let’s start at the top and work our way down and to the right of a SERP.
Pay Per Click or PPC Ads
Pay per click, or PPC ads, will be the first three or four results on a SERP. This is content that a brand pays Google or Bing to display, also known as paid search, given certain parameters and criteria. You’ll see these are clearly marked as “ads.” Each aspect of these ads, from the title in blue, to the link in green and description in grey, is created and managed by the brand that pays for it, so in this case Northern Tool, Amazon and Target, respectively. Ads are created, paid for and managed via an account with either Google or Bing, and work through a combination of keywords found in the title, link and description, as well as other rules set forth by the PPC account manager – an example of this might be geographic location, time of day or day of the week. In other words, ads are dynamic in that it’s not a set-and-forget marketing tactic.
In paying for these ads, users are required to “bid” on keywords. Highly competitive or coveted words will generally cost more per click. It’s important to research your customers’ needs, habits and preferences before integrating PPC ads to your marketing mix, as well as regularly monitoring fluctuations in performance. It’s easy to get started, but it can also be easy to waste time and resources if a brand isn’t vigilant. Trust us, we’re PPC experts.
In addition to appearing in the upper left-hand corner of your screen on a desktop, you may also see image ads in the right-hand column of the SERP. This column used to include text ads like you see at the top of the page, but is now reserved for Google Shopping ads when Google interprets a search has transactional intent. If you were to hover over the circle grey “i” you’ll see a small pop-up explaining why Google is choosing to show you this content.
Organic search results are those that are not paid for by a brand, rather they are surfaced by the search engine through a number of factors – hence they’re natural, or organic.
You’ll notice that organic results have the same general structure as PPC ads, but without the “ad” designation; the title is blue, the link or landing page is green and the description is grey.
But if this content isn’t paid for, then how does the search engine know what to show you?
Page Titles, Links, Meta Descriptions, Content and Keywords
What you’re seeing in organic results is actually information that’s pulled from both what’s in a website as well as what’s on it. A little background:
Before Google grew to be as sophisticated as it is now, it used to rely exclusively on software programs called spiders or bots to “crawl” and index websites. These bots would comb through the technical (or meta) aspects of a website (the architecture, links, tags, URLs and so on). This was done because Google couldn’t really “read” what was on a page like a human user could. (This is also how keyword stuffing and black hat spam practices were born, but more on that another time).
Now, not only does Google and other search engines employ spiders and bots to read the “under the hood” components of your site, it can also “read” content like a human would (hence content marketing). Using rules and conditions called algorithms, search engines then index, categorize and rank your site – this is referred to as on-page or on-site indicators.
Search engines will also look at other off-site indicators such as reviews, social mentions and directories to gauge your site relative to the query. How well your website ranks will be a result of optimizing all site technical components, structure, content and off-site activities, also known as SEO.
Outranking Your Competitors
While you’ll start to see results sooner with PPC than you will with SEO and organic search-bolstering activities, you can lay the groundwork with both, right now, to make improvements sooner than later. Begin with a thorough research session; define your brand, audience and products/services/solutions. Know what you’re selling, who you want to sell to and why that matters. Once you’ve done that, you can move on to your website, refining pages or restructuring the architecture to ensure it’s informative, cohesive, user-friendly and search engine find and readable. If your website and on-page components are developed properly, you can then move on to off-site indicators such as review management, directory linking and social media campaigns and engagement.
As for PPC, start small and work your way through; test, test and test more. If an ad performs well, build on its success. And conversely if results are underwhelming then go back to the strategy and refine. The internet and integrated digital marketing, for all its intricacies, is doing a lot of little things right rather than trying to win it all at once.
And of course, for extra assistance, you can always contact us.