A search engine results page, abbreviated SERP, is a page of listed articles that a search engine selects from its database when a user enters a search query. Search engines such as Google can give users as many pages of results as they have indexed web content to list. Search engine optimization (SEO) is related to SERPs: it’s the process of preparing and honing web content to place as high as possible on SERPs.
Terminology and information about SERPs in this piece will largely focus on Google and its features.
What does a SERP show?
Each article on a SERP reveals a title, a web page URL, and a brief description, known as a meta description.
Advertisements often reside on a SERP; companies pay Google, for example, to host their ads so that they’ll show up when a user makes a relevant search query.
A featured snippet is a box, typically at the top of the SERP or after the ads, that contains a sentence or few and the featured website’s URL. A featured snippet contains a brief summary of the topic that a Google user has searched. Articles pulled for featured snippets don’t necessarily have to rank #1 on the SERP, but they’re usually on the first page. There are many other benefits of featured snippets too which helps your website ranking.
A knowledge panel, often on the right side of the SERP, includes practical information about a business or a person, for example. This is usually data such as age, birthdate, weekly hours, location, dine-in or carryout, or other details that are brief and important.
People Also Ask
People Also Ask, or “related questions,” is a relatively new feature on Google, released in 2015. This is a set of questions or keywords related to the user’s search query. When a user clicks on a question, it drops down to reveal a snippet and a webpage. One click also populates more questions on the list—if a user clicked “Why is people also ask important?” then another couple of question options would appear on the list.
Typically articles linked in People also ask are on the first page of search results, though not always the first article.
Google’s algorithm for SERP changes regularly; it’s made some recent updates intended to decrease the number of spam websites shown. Google publishes these updates on its search blog, listing new changes to ranking and the algorithm for web content marketers to track. Google has historically made changes to figure out when people are getting around legitimate backlinking, for example, or other attempts to rank highly without actually having quality or relevant content.
Bing uses machine learning to make its search results more relevant. Bing also puts some emphasis on social media sharing, where Google really doesn’t. It also puts some emphasis on websites’ domain authority, also unlike Google.
Yahoo is more focused on exactly matching text than Google, and its main SERP has more media content.
What affects SERP ranking
For a web page to be featured on any SERP, web pages must be thoroughly crawled and then indexed.
Google gives web content producers a list of search characteristics that affect search engine rankings. These include web page usability, content quality, and web page relevance.
Whether a user searches on Google, Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo or some other search engine, the following web content features can affect web page rankings:
- Lists, either bulleted or numbered, and tables of contents are indicators to search engines that compact, practical information is being shared. These can increase a website’s chances of being selected for a featured snippet.
- The number and quality of backlinks in website content affect SERP ranking. Backlinks direct readers to your web page for further information, cited by another website that points to your web page’s URL. The number of backlinks, and the sites that provide them are an indicator of authority to Google; webpages that have them show that they are good enough to be cited on another website.
- Multimedia content on web pages is seen by search engines as providing the user with a richer experience. Images and other content embedded in web pages should have appropriate alt text and other metadata so that Google knows how relevant that content is.
- Page load speed affect ranking. Pages that take longer to load due to large graphics, ad caches, and numerous other factors can be penalized with a lower page ranking.
Also see How Web Search Engines Work in the Did You Know…? section of Webopedia.
This article was updated July 2021 by Jenna Phipps.