Ranking is a benchmark, a marker to note progress in the development of your site’s online reach to the search audience but you need to understand the layout of the SERPs and how the user of Google might now be presented with you or your client’s site. The SERPs of yesteryear of just sites being listed are gone, from Universal results to Search Plus your world. Looking at your keywords data just in analytics, Webmaster tools or a rank tracking tool and not investigating the actual SERP is like studying the maps of the Paris subways and saying you know how to get around the city like a native. Any SEO who isn’t making a SERP analysis part of his site audit process is at best being sloppy, and at worst being negligent.
While there’s a lot of focus on what sites appear in the SERPS, especially after updates like Panda, Penguin 2, and other unnamed updates, there are also some dramatic impacts that SERP changes have made to the result for your site, social media, image and video content. Rich snippets (triggered by Schema and other micro-formats), automatic changes to meta data displayed, and changes to the results based on suspected misspelling can also play a role in the likelihood of a searcher clicking through on your result.
Here’s a map of the terrain including updates, SERP features, and SERP display elements. I’ve divided into relevant sections as possible and included some input from marketers on their current thoughts on some of them. I’ve also hosted all of these images on a Pinterest board with basic details and info on the queries that trigger these types of SERPS that you can share with your clients for some 101 level education.
Location, Location, Location based SERPs
One of the biggest elements that can change the intent of a search query is your location. If you’re searching for Sonic, you could be looking for a hedgehog or the drive in restaurant where you want to get some tater-tots. Google uses your location to tailor their results, so you come away with what you wanted. This is done based on Google’s information about your current location, which generally is actually pretty accurate.
Carousel for Local Results“Starting today, when you search Google for restaurants, bars or other local places on your desktop, you’ll see an interactive “carousel” of local results at the top of the page…[You'll see the Carousel] when you type or say[using Google's voice search] “Mexican restaurants,” or try any similar search for restaurants, bars or hotels. Click on one of the places in the carousel to get more details on it, including its overall review-based score, address and photos.”
Carousel – Google announced through a G+ post on June 19th this change to SERPS for Desktop. Apparently there were some iPad and Nexus Tablets getting this view since December. This type of SERP is mostly focused on restaurants, hotels and bars but it does work in most of the variants of that query space, like Karaoke bar, Sandwich shop and long term motel. It also will be shown for points of interest, and books by author.
7 box Local Results
If your client’s business has a local component, then it’s important to keep track not just how Google has slowly made the move from Google Places to Google Local+ pages but also how local search results appear. The primary local result is a 7 result list of businesses from Google’s local database.When your listing has not been claimed by you, the only photo displayed is from Google’s Street view.
In cases where the query is more directly targeted, just one result with address information will appear, along with links to it’s review data and in this example some contextual site links without description fields.
Travel specific results: directions and flight information
If you’re looking to get to a destination, Google will use your location and try to determine the type of travel you’re doing and either show driving directions or provide flight information from their paid database called Google Flights which is stocked with sponsored results.
Looking for accommodations in a specific city will pull up a result from Google’s Hotel finder which has sponsored results mixed into it.
How Google helps you search correctly to find what you want
It’s not currently possible to say “Okay Google, I want you to find that old realtor website that was hilarious because of the winking “magic” dog” and actually get the right result.
You can however, say “Homes in Franklin” and get a result page as well as a vocal result stating that “There are several listings available in Franklin” in a friendly female voice. This is all part of Google’s continued efforts to improve their results by improving your ability to convey your intent more specifically.
Start typing a query and from the very first letter, Google will start attempting to fill in the blanks.
These suggestions are powered by other Google searches and sometimes these suggestions are shocking or poetic but they’re always helpful in doing keyword research to find other potential related phrases and longtail keywords straight from Google.
Your Google suggestions have sponsored results, and can also be affected by personalization that shows people that match your query who are in your circles.
Calculator and Google 3D Graph
If you don’t want to take the time to open up your applications folder on your PC or Mission Control on your Mac then you can get a basic scientific calculator in the SERP for you basic mathematical needs.
It’s all happened at one time or another, you need to create a 3d graph of [x^2+y^2] but left your Texas Instruments Calculator at home with your abacus and slide rule. Not to worry, Google has a built in 3d Graphing capability for those queries.
We’re just human, and sometimes we’re not to exact with our spelling, either because we’re in a hurry or because we really don’t know how to spell it correctly. Either way, Google will try to compensate either by suggesting a related search or actually showing that result and giving you the option to look up the direct results of your misspelled query.
SERP Shrinkage to 7 Results per page for Brand Terms
Shrinkage is here, and it’s in your SERPs for queries that have a primary brand. These queries now show just 7 results instead of the 10. While this is a comfort to brands that were competing with other properties, it also means they have less opportunity to surface other online properties closely related to their brand. You can also see the Company profile displayed for the result, which is tied to the brand’s G+ page.
Feeling like doing some shopping online? Your search related queries will trigger Google product listing ads with image results. If your client is running e-Commerce on their site, then it is worth looking into the details of the program to see if it could net some additional sales or provide some interesting Adwords data for you to figure into your keyword research and conversion optimization efforts.
What’s the curve of Google’s Knowledge Graph
Queries for Books will graph out details about the publishing date, the author, genre and related books.
Queries for movies will give screencaps, promo images, ratings on Google Play and IMDb, as well as director, cast, and closely related or similar movies.
If you’re wondering just how many calories are in your potatoes O’brian then let the Knowledge Graph for Nutrition Information help you out. These data points are from the USA and are adjustable to serving size and common recipes with a broad number of common foods.
Snippet – Way more than Title, URL and Description
In the beginning there was a simple way for Google to get users the details needed for them to be satisfied with their search. Google has since added a number of elements to individual results.
“Pay attention to how your results appear in the SERPs. Is Google using your intended title and description for your target keywords for that page, or is it choosing to pull something separate from your page’s content? If you’re using structured data on the page, is it appearing as a rich snippet? If its not, why? Use the rich snippet testing tool to figure out if everything checks out…Make sure that everything you are doing to help the user understand your content is accurately displaying in the SERPs and if its not figure out if there is a way to manipulate it to the point where it will.” – Mike Wilton
The SERPs have become more and more interesting and varied since the launch of Universal results. It also means that your content of different media types have a place to get the attention of searchers.
While these videos don’t play in the SERPs they do show off their thumbnail.
Which means that hosted video has a visual edge over most YouTube videos, became many have not become a YouTube partner which would allow them to select a specific thumbnail.
Recent changes in how Google displays images to searchers has caused a change in behavior that now only sends a fraction of the traffic that was flowing previously from Google Image search.
The primary difference is this intermediary page, where visiting the site is just one of three options instead of the immediate result of a click.
When you visit Google, and don’t have an account they prompt users to create an account. As soon as that happens, they start the integration with Google+. They use that information to customize results from queries with results from people in your circles as well as G+ posts.
Looking for your daily dose of news? Google displays news results on queries that match with current events. These results include an image thumbnail, and generally start as a single result but if you linger on SERP for longer it will automatically expand and display additional news results.
There’s a whole body of documents and publications that come from the scientific community and are available online. Google has added markup on these SERP results with the most relevant additional pieces of data which is the Author and the number of citations for the article.
Multiple post snippets Forums and Answers results
Queries, that are answered by forum and answer sites, where the same question may have multiple answers gets it’s own unique snippet.
That favorite recipe of your mother will appear with a photo, cooking time and calories with Recipe schema markup.
“Definitely seeing an increase in author rich snippets as more people set up Google Authorship.”-Steven Shattuck
Google Authorship is an effort by Google to connect content to the people who generate it. Taking the steps to verify your authorship of an article will expand your result so it displays image, snippet containing G+ link anchored with # of people in circles, a few articles and a link to a Google profile search showing all recognized articles by that author.
Long click analysis is being done by Google, if you click an article and spend more than a minute or two on page, it will expand the number of articles displayed to you by that author when you return to the SERP.
Google has embraced the idea of “brands” and given results for queries that seem to be centered around these brand authorities expanded presence on the SERP with Site Links for popular and relevant pages on that domain along with a shortened piece of their meta-description.
Site links will also show on more topical queries where several elements of the site might satisfy the query. These site links don’t have additional description text.
These Jump To: shortcuts are commonly seen on Wikipedia entries, and are triggered by #Anchor links exact matching the search query.
The URL may be displayed as a breadcrumb path beyond the root domain for well structured sites that nonetheless have long URLs.
Changes to the Snippet (Meta-Title and Description)
“There is less meta description replacement that existed previously. Also, more and more of the better websites are starting to use full sentences rather than pipes. I am not sure that this is actually an SEO decision, so much as a SERP differentiation, but it is still an interesting trend. We are seeing less SERP crowding on non-branded terms. ” – Zeph Snapp of Not Just SEO
SERP Results: Algorithm Updates
Of course, studying the terrain of the SERPS also means analyzing the actual sites that are populated into these various types of SERP results and watching the impact of Google’s announced and un-announced updates.
“Google seems confused. That’s a distilled version of everything I’ve been observing so far and it reminded me of this scene from the Simpsons.
In more detail, what we’ve seen in Australia was a clumsy attempt to make local results more relevant by merging them with organic results and taking the “classic” signals more seriously than local signals. This ended up with half-baked SERPs where low quality sites got a second chance despite being affected by Penguin. This is without even cleaning up any links. My initial skepticism was quickly erased after being approached by several webmasters who presented their case to me. It’s unbelievable but true.
Further to that, the frustration in Australia grows as spam keeps being rewarded and whitehat sites in some cases sit at the bottom of the first page…or worse.
Things that seem to work really well at the moment are:
– Footer links with exact match anchor text
– Paid links
– Expired domains
– Link networks
I was under impression that Penguin would be mature enough to tackle these simple and obvious link patterns, but obviously I was wrong.
I’m glad that they keep tweaking things. The worst case scenario would be if Google’s search quality team concludes they’re happy with the results and leave things as they are.
In summary, I look forward to a more intelligent, real-time linkspam algorithm running in parallel with Panda. Hurry up Penguinflux.” – Dan Petrovic of Dejan SEO
What’s next for the SERPs
Google is constantly testing variations on their User Interface on different “buckets”, so if you’re seeing some unique SERP features or display elements be sure to share and describe them in the comments!
Check out our 2014 SERPs Analysis