What Is a SERP? The Complete Guide



April 14, 2020 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

iPhone screen with a SERP on it

SERP is a buzzword in the digital marketing world as both businesses and bloggers vie for their high-ranking positions within those pages. Earning your place in on the first SERP requires a general understanding of how they work and why search engines use them. Discover some of the many components of SERPs and the criteria your content needs to meet to rank high in them.

What Is a SERP?

A search engine results page or SERP comes up when users enter a search query. Users input a specific phrase or keyword and the search engine lists all of the results related to or identical to the statement given on a SERP. Most search engines produce results based on a wide range of factors, not just the keyword. This makes for a unique SERP every time a user conducts a search.

Image via Flickr by Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine

How Do Search Engines Work?

Only visible content appears in search engines. Websites considered visible are those who meet certain criteria, such as being publicly accessible. If a search engine can’t find a site, it won’t appear in the SERP. Once a site is visible, search engines perform three primary tasks:


Search engines have digital entities or bots known as crawlers. Their duties involve visiting sites, downloading pages, searching links, and discovering every page on a website they can. The more pages they’re able to visit and explore, the more visible the site is. For crawlers to conduct their job effectively, the site must be laid out neatly and efficiently. This allows users to find important pages in no more than three clicks. Crawlers visit pages frequently, especially if they detect a change in their indexing. This keeps the search engine’s data on the website up-to-date for SERPs.


Search engines organize all information they retain from websites through indexing, making for faster responses to queries. Without this process, search engines would have to scan every document in their database for every search, taking immense computing power and long periods of time.


Search engines rank content they find online through crawling. They consider a wide range of factors such as page layout, keyword usage, average article word counts, and more. The better a website is in each category, the higher a search engine ranks them. The higher the ranking, the more likely a website appears on the first SERP. Those that appear on the first page are the most likely to earn clicks and traffic for their specified keywords.

How Do SERPs Work?

Search engines sort their results by relevance to the queried search term as well as the site’s overall rating. Search engines send crawlers to websites to analyze content and determine if the site uses their preferred parameters. There are two different types of results displayed in SERPs:

Organic Results

Organic search results are those entries that appear due to their relevance to the query. They are natural results that search engines both filter and sort to best meet your needs. Results are also sorted by their format. For example, those that follow writing formats outlined by specific search engines and use best practices are more likely to appear near the top. This measure ensures the highest results are always of the best quality.

Paid Results

Paid results or paid listings are positions specifically for advertising. They often appear before organic search results even if some organic results offer better information. Although they’re ads, their structure is similar to that of an actual result, encouraging users to click. Businesses pay for their ad space on a per-click basis.

What Is PPC?

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is an internet marketing model in which advertisers pay a small fee each time one of their ads is clicked. It is an alternate method of sending traffic to your site through purchasing a user’s click rather than earning it through organic search. Because of its ease of use, search engine advertising is one of the most common places to find the use of PPC tactics. Advertisers choose a list of keywords or phrases and then bid on a search engine’s sponsored placements.

Keyword Research

Proper keyword research is vital when using PPC advertising for clicks in SERPs. PPC campaigns are built around keywords and the most successful ones continue to evolve with further research. The more keywords you find relevant to your content, the more clicks you potentially gain using PPC.

Managing PPC Campaigns

PPC campaigns require regular management and maintenance. This ensures that they stay productive throughout their full life cycle. Analyze your campaign and consider making adjustments in some of these categories as necessary:

  • Omitting costly, underperforming keywords
  • Adding additional keywords
  • Adding negative keywords
  • Redesigning or editing landing pages and other supportive areas

Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of using specialized techniques that stand out to search engines. Following general guidelines and best practices encourage search engines to place your site higher in search results. The closer your site is to the top result for your chosen keyword, the more traffic you potentially earn. Some of those best practices include:

  • Crawler accessible pages
  • Well-written content that answers a question or need
  • Keyword-optimized content to rank in SERP
  • Excellent design and overall user experience
  • Well-developed title, description, URL, and other metadata optimized for crawlers

Types of SEO

There are two major types of SEO to consider when increasing your site’s placement in SERPs:

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO refers to the best practices and other efforts used on individual pages of the site to improve SEO. This includes detailed metadata, unique and short URL structures, use of relevant keywords, and good coding that doesn’t slow down page performance.

Off-Page SEO

Alternatively, off-page SEO refers to any practices or strategies that improve site-wide SEO. Common off-page SEO practices include link building, content marketing, submissions to directories, and social media.

Why Are SERPs Important for SEO?

SEO content earns higher organic results for your site. Optimization takes time, but credibility built over a long period often impresses search engine crawlers, ranking your content higher. Depending on the scale of your competition, earning a high position is challenging. However, you’ll achieve higher rankings by optimizing your site to meet the standards set by search engines.

Once your website appears on the first page of a SERP, your SEO improves automatically. Your site garners attention just by being one of the top results. Although it’s not as major of a consideration, the amount of good or relevant traffic a site receives also improves its reputation with search engines. Well-written content in line with SEO guidelines produces featured snippets in results.


Although they’re used in tandem with each other, there are two primary differences between search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising. The first is that, as mentioned previously, paid ad placements appear at the top of the SERP listing. Your site gets the first opportunity for clicks because you paid for your position. The second is that SEO earns traffic free of charge. Simply using best practices ensures that traffic steadily increases to your site. Below are several other ways that both SEO and PPC aid you:

SEO Improves Organic Traffic

Search engine optimization builds awareness both for the site and for the brand. Your keyword choice makes you more visible in SERPs, getting more clicks and more sales. Used appropriately and effectively, SEO becomes free marketing for your website.

When your site appears in organic SERPs, it establishes and builds trust and credibility. It’s not uncommon for users to scroll through PPC ads and only click organic top results. Users prefer websites that earned their way to the top rather than bought their position. It often means the site has better information as well. Because of this, SEO garners a higher click-through rate (CTR) than PPC. It generates more clicks to your site without having to pay any amount into a pay-per-click campaign.

Gaining traffic in this manner is free of charge, depending on your SEO methods. Earning visibility takes time and money, but it won’t cost you on a per-click or per-impression basis.

SEO also tends to be more sustainable. Building a community through organic search is a great way to encourage users to stay around, even through periods of less content. Paid ads, however, only direct traffic to your site for the length of the ad. Once it completes its full duration, the amount of new visitors you receive dwindles rapidly and your traffic primarily comprises of recurring users.

Organic traffic improves return on investment (ROI) as well. If you choose not to spend much on your SEO methods, ROI tends to be higher than with PPC campaigns.

Using SEO best practices earns you more clicks overall throughout the lifespan of your site. Keyword research is crucial in this regard as it makes a major impact on your SEO performance and your website’s visibility.

PPC Creates Targeted Visibility

PPC allows you to target specific, niche audiences. You can set your campaign to execute on certain keywords, times of day, a specific day, or even by geographic location. You have almost full control over who sees your content and when they see it.

Using a pay-per-click campaign immediately improves your ranking in SERPs. You buy your position at the top, instantly garnering clicks and impressions. Users will always see an ad and a link to your website even if they choose to scroll past them.

PPC ads generally come with a fair amount of customization as well. You choose what page you link to, the content displayed in the summary, and even add a phone number or other helpful link for potential clicks.

Although it does cost money, PPC allows for budget control to ensure you don’t overspend on campaigns. Determine how much you want to spend on the campaign and set the amount within your campaign settings. Once you reach your spending limit, the campaign freezes. If you reach your limit fast, there may be a problem with your campaign set-up.

While SEO takes time, results from PPC campaigns are almost instant. Good PPC campaigns are planned within a few days’ time and implemented in just a few minutes. SEO requires long-term planning and expert execution of best practices that take often a year or more to benefit from.

PPC campaigns also allow for the use of A/B testing. This type of testing compares two varying ideas together and identifies which performs better. Because you don’t have to wait for results, you can test different keywords or ad focuses in a controlled environment with minimal effort. Use the information you gather from these tests in other digital marketing efforts as well. Because of this, you can swiftly and efficiently test new brand messages or products without it making a major impact on your bottom line.

Choosing your preferred method of gaining traffic is up to your personal preferences or business needs. For example, if your website is new and you want to jump-start traffic, choose a PPC campaign. It can get you moderate amounts of traffic for a short amount of time. In the beginning, it may be enough to spark a returning community. If you’d rather have a sustainable site and put forth a long-term commitment, SEO might be your best option.

The common option for most webmasters is using SEO and PPC together. Implement best practices on your site to attract organic traffic. Continue using it to build your brand, your business, and your community. When you’re organizing a special event, a sale, or just want to boost your traffic, implement a PPC campaign. It grants the additional boost you may need to supplement your normal levels of traffic.

Featured Snippets

Featured snippets are a type of result, often separated from regular results, that present clear and effective answers to specific questions posed in a query.  Search engines take the full answer as a snippet of content and place it above all other results. This gives users the exact answer they’re looking for without having to click through to websites. There are three major types of snippets:

Text Snippets

Text snippets only include text answers. If available, they also show the featured image of the article to add further relevance to the provided text. Below the text is a link to the article shown as its headline. Below that is often the direct URL.

Video Snippets

In some cases, the search engine might decide that a video best answers the query. In this case, it provides a full video above the results. Clicking on the thumbnail preview redirects you to the page the video is on. Below the video is its linked title along with a direct URL.

List Snippets

Search engines often decide that a list or table best answers the query. In this case, users get a bulleted list or sample table as their result. They’re able to study the provided list or table for their answer. Below the list is an article title and direct URL. If you use proper structure on your page, some search engines create the list as needed from the content you provided. This means you don’t need any particular code or structure to ensure that your content is seen in a snippet as a list.

Earning a Featured Snippet

There is no finite method of earning a featured snippet. Search engines decide with each query if a snippet is required. They simply take the relevant information from a top result and display it. Search engines that supply featured snippets do offer guidelines for the format of content they look for. Following their guide doesn’t guarantee your site will earn a featured snippet, but it does increase the chances of it occurring.

How to Optimize for a Featured Snippet

Generally, the first step in optimizing your content for use in featured snippets is through the use of thorough keyword research. If you have already set up your website and implemented your SEO standards, you’re familiar with the concept. Use this opportunity to do more keyword research and seek out new trends. Follow the next several steps to further optimize for featured snippets:

1. Consider Question-Formatted Queries

Think about the types of questions your user base asks. Some search engines provide lists of related searches or even common questions using the same keyword. Do this for all of your main keywords and format content around it. Use some of the same phrasing, if not the full phrasing, in your headings. Using a common question as a heading often makes your article much more likely to be chosen for a featured snippet on its own.

2. Use SEO to Rank On the First SERP

Continue using SEO best practices in all of your content site-wide. Research new trends or unique ideas to push your content even further to the top. Earning a spot in a featured snippet requires being as high in a SERP as possible. Search engines only pick from the best results.

3. Consider Your General Article Format

The method in which your format your content is important for SEO and getting featured in a snippet. Research the types of snippets listed above and determine which you prefer your content to appear in. Format your content appropriately for each type, using SEO best practices. For example, if content in a particular article is best delivered in a graph, write clearly and effectively, using appropriate keywords throughout the table. Ensure you code the table properly so that it appears as desired on the page.

4. Use Optimal Word Counts

Most featured snippets average around 40-50 words, suggesting that search engines prefer this range. Keep this in mind when writing your content. The section in which you choose for a featured snippet should have a word count within that range.

Benefits of Featured Snippets

The following list outlines some of the many benefits of featured snippets in a SERP:

Increased Traffic

One of the greatest benefits of a featured snippet is the increase in traffic. Your information appears first in a SERP and includes a link that easily directs all users right to the page. Both bloggers and businesses notice this occurring when they suddenly receive an increase in traffic. Webmasters are able to identify which page, in particular, earns the most traffic and discover the portion chosen for the snippet. If it garners a great deal of attention, they may even shape future content around it.

Increased Authority

Search engines consider a site’s authority on particular subjects when ranking them for SERPs. Sites build their authority by writing long-form, in-depth content that earns traffic on its own. Link building also helps this process. Since search engines only pick the best sites for their snippets, appearing in one increases the site’s authority.

Increased Awareness

Appearing in organic search alone is enough to boost brand awareness for a particular keyword. However, appearing in a featured snippet garners even more attention, sending a high influx of traffic to your site. In this case, snippets become free marketing, showing the world your best work and getting your brand in front of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of new users.

Presence On Mobile Devices

When users ask their mobile devices questions, they only supply featured snippets as their answers. Having a featured snippet is a great way to attract a mobile audience for this reason. Ensure that your site is optimized for mobile devices so that if users choose to navigate to it, they have a proper experience.

Learning More About SERP

Earning a high position in search results requires a thorough understanding of SERP, its features, and its behaviors. These pages have options, such as featured snippets, if you’re unable to reach the top spot. Search engines consistently change their algorithms to meet new standards and trends. This includes their qualifications for websites entering top SERPs. Refer to our blog and knowledge base for all the latest trends and newest information regarding SERP and other search engine optimization concepts.

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