The Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) have always been rich and feature-filled throughout my time in SEO. I’ve no nostalgic yearnings for days of yore when search results were a simple list of blue links and I'd be lying if I didn't admit to relying solely on Google's Knowledge Panel when trying to figure out where I’d seen some obscure actor before.
However, that isn't to say that the evolution of the SERP over the past few years hasn't caused me to pause and take note of the surroundings. With this month's theme of transformation front and centre, it’s the perfect opportunity to review how the SERP has changed in the past few years and where it might go next.
While organic traffic, sales and revenue, alongside other business metrics, usually form the basis of SEO KPIs, keeping tabs on keyword rankings is still an essential part of any SEO reporting or strategy.
Getting to the number one ranking is SEO’s slogan, and still the easiest way to explain my job to most people. However, even the term 'number one spot' means various things, as snippets on the SERP can vary widely from search term to search term, day to day and even user to user.
These variations can muddy any rank-tracking metrics, as ranking within the top ten organically (the traditional first page) can still result in being hidden behind a slew of images, map packs, knowledge graphs and news stories, to name a few. If instead you opt for tracking position on the SERP, fifth position might be the first organic ranking and the best you can achieve in one SERP, but at the bottom page for another.
Instead, many rank tracking tools offer pixel tracking, measuring the number of pixels between the top of a page and a URL listing. In this view, a position two organic ranking can vary between being above the fold, around 300px down the page, to below the fold around 1,700px down the page buried under various snippets.
However, even pixel tracking struggles to illuminate the success of a keyword, as the same pixel position does not guarantee the same click through rate across two SERPs.
For most, the simple answer to this tracking issue is to aim to capture as much SERP real estate as possible. Indeed, we've had plenty of success figuring out what triggers each snippet and revising content or implementing structured data on our client's websites, helping them win rich snippets across the SERP and expanding the size of their organic listings. But it's never a guaranteed path to SEO success.
Finding opportunities to rank on SERP features often feels like seeking the entrance to the Cave of Wonders. Suddenly, with little rhyme nor reason, hundreds of snippets can appear for certain keywords, only for these same snippets to be removed a few months later, lost forever in the shifting sands of the SERP landscape.
Even if snippets do remain, determining the impact and benefits of owning these listings is challenging. On occasion, owning a snippet can actually decrease organic traffic, as user queries are answered within the SERP, so they don’t need to click through to the site. The exact number of ‘zero-click searches’ is difficult to discern, with industry figures claiming over 65% of searches compared to Google’s own claims that they send more traffic to websites than ever before.
Both have an agenda, but the water is murky, as even for SERP features you own the data to measure, success isn't always there. For example, the 'Find results on' snippet lists alternative directories and sits above the map pack for local search; this means the top of the page and pride of place on the SERP.
However, Google Search Console provides no click data for this feature and a Yelp eye-tracking study suggested the Map Pack remains the main attraction even when this feature is present. In many cases, no matter how well you optimise your content, Google gets the lion's share of the SERP.
Google's takeover of the SERP is nothing new. When I was at Brighton SEO in 2018, Rand Fishkin's keynote speech warned that Google was now the biggest SERP competitor across multiple industries. Genius allegedly caught Google red-handed scraping their lyrics, and many searchers won't ever leave Google SERPs when searching and booking flights, accommodation, or even jobs.
Since then, Google has made some concessions, adding links to their source for some snippets and some new features such as the 'Find results on' are thought to have been introduced due to EU regulations on Google’s Antitrust practices.
However, as the pandemic raged on, Google introduced additional features to the SERP for COVID-19 related searches. The completely new SERP offers every rich snippet under the sun for searchers. Immediately, searchers can filter by various topics, including News, Statistics, Symptoms, Treatments, and Testing and the knowledge graph has a map of cases based on your location. These SERPs only list two ‘blue link’ organic results within the 'Top Results' section; others are pushed below various other snippets, including a Local News carousel, Vaccine dropdown boxes, Health information, Announcements and Videos. On these SERPs, even ranking in third position has a low chance of anyone seeing your page.
Whether this is the future face of SERPs or a one-off for Google is still up for debate, but it certainly shows one potential future where the Google SERP is your one-stop-shop for all information.
Ultimately, Google is going to continue to change up the SERP landscape however it sees fit. Sure, it can be confusing and frustrating at times when you optimise for SERP features which can appear and disappear at random, but we’ve had success more times than not.
Google still processes billions of searches per day and the top five organic search results can still expect to get roughly 80% of all search traffic, so the opportunity to capture a slice of the market shouldn’t be missed. Most sites can aim for a share of organic search and rich snippets through targeted keyword research, content optimisation and best practice technical SEO.
No doubt in a couple of years’ time, we’ll have an abundance of additional features, and maybe I’ll be the one yearning for a more simplistic SERP. For now, the best bet is keeping on top of the latest developments and ensuring you’re best placed to take advantage of the latest SERP developments.