Know Your SERPs: Ranking Where it Counts

Dan is a marketer for WebFX who likes everything tech, marketing, and startups. Follow him on Twitter @ShafferDan.

Google’s ability to send SEOs and agencies on the fritz can be quite amusing. The frantic bustle that follows a major Google announcement or algorithm update is entertaining to watch… that is, if you aren’t directly invested in the matter.

Over the years of these updates, we’ve seen huge movements towards a more knowledgeable search engine with higher quality content and an improved user experience. However, the changes aren’t always welcomed among SEO professionals. With pushes for localization, the Knowledge Graph, and increased usability, SEO has turned into even more of a tangled mess than before. By studying Google’s strategies and understanding how they change each search engine results page (or “SERP”), we just might untangle the mess that has been left behind, giving us clues as to how we should perform our SEO.

If you’re looking for an SEO company, read up on why WebFX is the best SEO company for the job.

Google pays a lot of attention to its user types, as explained in our blog post about email users. This leads me to theorize the same thing about searches. Google Search users are a bit different than Gmail users, in that the same person can very quickly become a different type based on the how they search or interact with a SERP. These use cases all present a unique angle on how someone can use Google Search overall. Based on our own experience and research, we will lay out different search use cases that create contrasting SERPs.

Some SERPs have ads, and some have none at all. This has to do with the type of search the user performs. Traditionally, marketers have broken down the different search queries into three main categories: Navigational, Informational, and Transactional. While the very core of search still holds onto these three types of queries, SERPs vary and exceed the limits of just three silos of search. Knowing how people search and what appears in the following SERPs can tell us how we should shape our content and perform our SEO.

Convenient Searches, Convenient Results

The usefulness of Google Search has increased over the past few years as Google works to become more of a “knowledge” engine than an “information” engine. The more people that have realized this, the more convenient they have found it to be. I immediately think of the phrase often coined as the unofficial Google catch phrase: “just Google it.”

The person using this type of search query needs information and needs it quickly. They might be curious, or they might even be looking for dire answers. For the useful, more convenient side of Google SERPs, there are several different things that might display to accommodate the user’s experience. But the primary driver for this convenience is directly from the Knowledge Graph. This is what allows you to search a historic person’s name and get their complete life history to the right of your SERP…

Lincoln SERP

Find out when your NCAA bracket winner is playing next…


Or quickly find nutrition facts.

pancakes SERP

The main focus of search convenience may, in fact, just be the length of time someone is really going to spend on the SERP. Google knows that these people may not really be buying anything — they just want the information right away. This is probably why these types of searches don’t include many ads, if any, within the top and right sides.

Google wants these users to find value in the fact that they can depend on searches for quick information. This will create more value in return later on (keep reading). Therefore, a higher bounce rate on these types of searches might be more desirable. If someone sees the information they need right away and leaves, that’s fine. It means that Google’s Knowledge Graph did its job.

Beyond the Knowledge Graph, we find deeper evidence of this in the fact that Google has ranked certain things much higher out of pure usefulness. This is why a Yahoo! Answers link may appear before a link to an article going into full detail on the same subject. About six months ago, a Hacker News conversation revealed method of convenience with a sense of usability and quality balance between an individual and a Google employee. He explained the following:

Suppose you search for something like [pinched nerve ibuprofen]. The top two results currently are… and…

Almost anyone would agree that the mayoclinic result is higher quality. It’s written by professional physicians at a world renowned institution. However, getting the answer to your question requires reading a lot of text. You have to be comfortable with words like “Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,” which a lot of people aren’t. Half of people aren’t literate enough to read their prescription drug labels:

The answer on yahoo answers is provided by “auntcookie84.” I have no idea who she is, whether she’s qualified to provide this information, or whether the information is correct. However, I have no trouble whatsoever reading what she wrote, regardless of how literate I am.

That’s the balance we have to strike. You could imagine that the most accurate and up to date information would be in the midst of a recent academic paper, but ranking that at 1 wouldn’t actually help many people.

usability SERP

Take a look at the SERP. He’s completely right! There are absolutely no ads, nothing from Knowledge Graph, and the top results are for quick information.

Are they dumbing down the results? Maybe. But Google’s strategy might be more along the lines of building customer retention rather than throwing an ad in their face. If we had to spend more time looking for that “quick” information, it wouldn’t be convenient, and we wouldn’t keep coming back to Google to do it again. That is why the more “useful” information gets thrown on the top and sides of Google SERPs.

Targeting Convenient SERPs

How can you show up in these convenient SERPs? Well, good luck. Unless you become a major authority in the business or get thrown into the pool that Knowledge Graph takes from, you may never be near the top of these search results. It might not even be worth your time to try and rank for these.

Even if you did get put into a Knowledge Graph result, you would easily lose that traffic anyway. For example, Moz is most likely suffering from this as some of their data has been thrown on top of the SERPs for certain keywords:


Moz probably isn’t getting traffic for that query anymore. But then again, those that are searching for that quick information probably aren’t the high paying customers that Moz wants. Likewise, you might not even want traffic from these types of searches to begin with, let alone have the time to spend optimizing and creating content for these visitors.

Experiential SERPs   

The next type of Google user might actually be more of an offshoot of convenience, but they might interact more with the SERPs and spend more time on them. These searches offer a full package experience to the user. Think about when you search for restaurants in your area. You are usually engaged more with what Google sends you: the restaurants, their location, their ratings and reviews. There is more information, but you keep referring back to the same Google SERP for more results.

Take a look at the SERP for “pizza restaurant.”

pizza restaurant SERP

Look at all the ways you can interact with this SERP! “I want some good pizza and I’m going to find it. I might even click on those little ads you got there on the side.” This type of user is looking for an overall experience. They want information quickly, but they will certainly be looking through all the information given, not just the top result.

The Knowledge Graph can also play a part in this type of search, as it may present additional actions for the user to perform in conjunction with advertisements, images, and even maps.

Google Image SearchAnother perfect example of this — one that hits a sore subject for many — is image searches. Google’s initiative to keep people on the image search page has killed traffic to photographers’ content. However, by allowing users to interact more with images straight from Google, it enables the quick discovery of what they are looking for, rather than having to go to each page to look at the actual image. Google’s argument here is that they are providing a better experience for its users. If anything, you might be receiving higher quality visitors via image search… that is, if they get to your website in the first place.

Weather, news and current events, as well as searches for a good movie to catch, might reflect a similar use case. These searches are a bit broad, but the results offer a combination of quick information with lots of links. These users have more time to spend on their search results, but still desire quick information.

Targeting Experiential SERPs

Tactics for getting in the mix of these SERPs might be difficult. Optimizing your images is still very important, and not a very hard thing to do, anyway, but it definitely won’t bring you the traffic that it used to.

Local search is the best example of this, and probably the easiest to rank for. Driving quality traffic to your restaurant from the carousel or map of pizza places isn’t nearly as difficult as naturally ranking number one. Even if you had the absolute best content for “pizza restaurants,” Google’s convenience factors would still kick in and drop you down a page or ten.

Targeting various local areas with the use of city and state names in your content might also prove to be a valuable strategy. Your business won’t always show up on the map, but it could be a high result for matching keywords for particular locations.

If naturally ranking for local topics is out of reach, then try targeting the same searches with a local PPC campaign. While this isn’t your only chance of showing up on these pages, it might be the most reliable and consistent.

Looking for Quality

Quality isn’t easy and quality takes time. Those who are looking for quality either know where to find it, or take their time looking for it.

This is where quality content comes in. While these users are particular in looking for content, they still may not make it past the first page. Fortunately, their searches might be more targeted, and long tail searches are most common here. The biggest difference between quality searches and the types above is that these users are really looking for something, and they are willing to take the time to find it. I like to think that Google’s idea here is that if you really want something, you will discover it… eventually.

In-Depth Articles about PizzaIf you continue the search for a pizza restaurant near you, it only takes a look at page two and three to find a less cluttered SERP. No more knowledge graph, no more carousel and considerably less advertisements.

This also could explain why in-depth articles and additional related searches are at the bottom of the SERP. If you want that quality content, you’ll go after it, even if it takes going through multiple SERPs via related searches. And if Google placed the best in-depth articles at the top, the searchers looking for quick information would need to spend more time sifting through results, driving them away in hopes of a quicker answer elsewhere. However, if they throw them at the bottom, people looking for detailed information are more likely to find it anyway.

Targeting Quality Searches with Quality Content

Ranking for these searches is where the money’s at. Whether you rank highly for long tail keywords or a few pages down with great content, chances are you will be found.

High quality content is all the rage, and rightly so. Your best customers, and the majority of traffic for your business, might find you from these types of searches. If you aren’t targeting your industry’s low hanging fruit or long tail keywords, you are missing out.

High quality content ranges from in-depth articles to long, detailed tutorials. The options are endless for making high quality content, as long as it is original and useful to your readers. You just have to find opportunities for this type of search. We all know the long tail keyword speech. If you don’t… you could probably use some help.

SERP conversion rate optimization (CRO) factors into this as well. Implementing Google authorship or additional schema markup to your search results can really help out when competing with other high quality search results.

Just remember: when these users search high quality, they expect high quality in return. Be careful not to disappoint.

Ads, Ads, Ads

Let’s not forget about the money making side of Google’s operation! Searches that display lots of ads can be rather annoying. You might have even trained yourself to ignore them subconsciously. However, some SERPs are geared entirely toward directly making a sale. Just take a look at this SERP for “laptop deals.”

laptop deals SERP

It’s a safe assumption that I want to buy a laptop if I search for this term. Google knows this and automatically throws me some ads a ton of ads. There is no Knowledge Graph and no image results or carousels to distract me. They want me to buy! (Or at least click…) The entire right side of this SERP is covered in ads, distinguishing it from other types of searches. This search is for the shoppers out there, and Google is certainly capitalizing on that fact.

Targeting Searching Shoppers

Searching ShoppersThese SERPs are unique. Depending on what product or service you are offering, PPC can be quite expensive… but worth it. PPC is a great way to invest in your brand, but it isn’t always as long lasting as natural SEO is.

Here, long tail keywords once again come into play. However, every single shopper is different. Some are much more impulsive than others. Those that aren’t might take the time to research and dig into information about a product, putting them back into the “quality” column of searches. Others will actually look at the ads for information and the best values, so having a quality PPC campaign in conjunction with traditional SEO efforts will be beneficial to you.

Know Your SERP

google I'm feeling luckyIt is important to know how you should be targeting searchers. If you don’t know which SERP types to go after, then you are just wasting your time or losing valuable business elsewhere. Zeroing in on what SERPs provide the most value, given the work you put in, is an important metric for all of your online efforts.

SERP Diversification

Upon calculating where your opportunities lie in different SERPs, it might be beneficial to diversify your efforts across the different searches presented above. Depending on your business, you might actually be able to spread your efforts across several types of results pages. For example, local businesses can hone in on their local SEO presence, all while performing regular strategies focused on quality searches.

diversificationSome SERPs will be more profitable than others, but diversifying will spread things out if anything wrong was to happen to your SEO. Much like investing in the stock market, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. All it takes is one Google algorithm update and your top keyword will significantly drop. If this is your only traffic driving page, then you’ve instantly lost revenue from SEO.

Diversify your search traffic over keywords and SERP types to buffer the risk in changes to damaging ranking factors. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later.

Google’s strive for a better user experience has created quite a commotion in the SEO industry. No, you don’t rank above Yahoo! Answers or Wikipedia anymore, and you probably never will. But knowing how Google organizes its content can give way to strategies of your own. Look at the SERPs for your own keywords. Are you targeting them properly? Maybe a few adjustments will make all the difference as Google continues to rearrange the way SERPs appear.