Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) contain links to websites that the search engine deems relevant to a user’s search query. You’re also likely to find Google Ad listings at the top and bottom of the page — these allow brands to appear in search results for keywords that are otherwise difficult to rank for. But what about everything else you see on a SERP?
Knowledge graphs, videos, images carousels and Rich Snippets are known as SERP features. The type of features you see on a SERP depends on your query and other contextual factors that Google uses to understand your intention.
What is a Google SERP?
A SERP is the set of results sent by a search engine based on a user’s search query. SERPs are designed to help users quickly and efficiently find the information they need.
Today, search engines are sophisticated enough to understand a user’s intent behind their query, and adapt the SERP accordingly. For example, when a search engine interprets a query as having high commercial intent, the SERP will have product or service listings near the top of the page. Alternatively, if the search engine interprets the query as asking about a process, the SERP might contain a video providing step-by-step instructions.
A Google SERP usually includes:
- Organic results.
- Google Ads.
- Featured Snippets.
- Knowledge Graphs.
This is just a sampling of the features you’re likely to encounter in Google SERPs. In this article, we’ll provide you with everything you need to know about Google SERP features and how to rank for them. But first, let’s explore exactly what these features are, how they work, why they’re important for search engine optimization (SEO).
What are Google SERP features and why are they used?
A SERP feature is any non-organic result on a SERP. Back in the early days of web search, every Google SERP looked almost the same — they were uniform lists of links to external websites. Over time, Google added additional features to its SERPs to help users satisfy their intentions.
SERP features through time: an example
If you open a new tab now and search Google for something like “ice cream shops” you will likely see a Google Map of your local area with a list of ice cream shops below it. Underneath that, you’ll probably find links to review sites like Yelp and perhaps the websites or social media pages of local ice cream businesses.
If you were to travel back in time to the year 2005 and type the same query into the Google search bar, you would see quite a different SERP. There would be no map, and likely no links relevant to your geographic position.
Here’s a comparison of how SERPs have changed over the years:
As you can see, the earliest SERPs consisted solely of links. And while there are still quite a few similarities between SERPs of yesteryear and today, the image on the right shows just how much things have changed. The modern SERP contains much more than links. Users can see information about their query in the knowledge graph, get links to related queries and even see relevant social media posts.
Why SERP features are important
The purpose behind SERP features is to provide users with as much relevant information as possible while offering a smooth user experience. For instance, the Knowledge Graph, which we will explain in detail further on, is there to provide general information at a glance. In addition, social media results help users understand up-to-the-minute trends.
SERP features make it easier for users to get exactly what they need so they can take the next step as quickly as possible. So, if a user is driving around town and searches for ‘ice cream shops’ on their mobile device, Google will help them find the best ice cream shop within driving distance. SERP features provide depth and context to organic results.
Every Google SERP feature you need to know in 2021
Direct Answer Box
The aptly named Direct Answer Box provides a clear response to the user’s query. These usually take the form of short pieces of information that are public-domain facts. This feature does not cite a direct source or contain any backlinks, which means there is no value in it for brands.
How to optimize: To put it simply, you can’t optimize for this SERP feature. Brands are ineligible to be featured in the answer box. Plus, users who get the immediate answer to their question aren’t likely to click further for more information — it’s more of a get your answer and leave type of situation.
Featured Snippets (multiple variations)
These are snippets of added context that typically credit a source and are deemed by Google to be the most contextually relevant result. Featured Snippets are served in many display formats based on the intent of the search query and the type of information to be featured. Those formats include:
Paragraphs (e.g., FAQs, how tos, “Who is,” “What is”)
Bulleted lists (e.g., rankings, “best of” lists)
Numbered lists (e.g., recipes, how tos, DIY tasks)
Tables (e.g., prices, rates, data)
How to optimize: Although Google has the ability to pull information from your web pages and reformat it for SERPs, you can make it much easier on the search engine if you pre-format your content with the intention of it qualifying for a Featured Snippet opportunity. If you want to win a Bulleted Featured Snippet, for example, you would ideally format a chunk of text into bullets and include the target keyword in a subheading. The same process follows for Tables, Numbered Lists and other forms of Featured Snippets. In general, the higher up on the page your keyword-centric copy appears, the better.
A Rich Snippet provides additional lines of context to organic search results. This can include information such as product or service ratings, prices, availability or a brief description of an offering.
How to optimize: Rich Snippets require the use of schema markup, a semantic tagging vocabulary that Google uses to parse through web pages and best serve users’ results. Tagging your product pages with schema alerts Google that it should display your result with the additional rich result context.
Similar to Rich Snippets, a block of in-depth articles is a set of organic results that provide additional context to help searchers understand a little more about the page before they click into it. These results tend to be from major content publishers, making it difficult for brands to compete here.
How to optimize: Again, your entire site will need to have a high authority ranking before it will appear here. However, some things you can do to improve your chances include writing long-form content, using schema markup and answering as many questions as possible.
You will see these results appear for product searches. These appear as image cards at the top of Google’s SERP. Each card usually contains an image, a one-to-two word title, a price and a star rating.
How to optimize: This is a paid placement. You’ll need to create a Google Ads campaign to appear in shopping results. If your brand doesn’t run ads, it’s still good to know when your pages are competing with these results, which will always appear above organic search results.
Sometimes, Google will display a video result as the top answer to a question query. The video is typically hosted on YouTube. In some cases, Google will queue up the video at a specific timestamp where the related question is answered.
How to optimize: When uploading videos to YouTube, ensure that the video — and your channel — have complete metadata. Check out our guide to YouTube SEO to learn more.
Rich Cards (for mobile search)
In mobile search, Rich Snippets appear as clean, formatted cards that lend themselves to smaller screens. They can contain images, ratings, prices and small amounts of text. As mobile channels become more important with each passing year, getting your content featured in rich cards should be a goal for many brands.
How to optimize: Similar to Rich Snippets, you’ll need to employ structured data markup via schema. Google provides free tagging help, HTML coding plugins and testing tools to ensure accuracy and implementation of schema.
The knowledge Graph appears to the right or above organic Google results. It displays images, factual information and more. Google scrapes data from internal and external sources (notably, Wikipedia) to feature here. This feature first appeared in a 2012 Google algorithm update.
How to optimize: Updated Google My Business accounts, websites and online directories are great ways to make information easily available to search engines and searchers. Google may pull data from a brand’s About Us page, Wikipedia page or various business listings, among others. Structuring the data on a few organization-specific pages of your website can also cue Google to properly categorize your information as eligible for Knowledge Graph results.
Visually, Knowledge Panels look nearly identical to Knowledge Graphs. The main difference is that Knowledge Panels only pull data from Google Maps or Google My Business listings. These panels usually feature images, a snippet of a map, relevant business information and a link to Google Maps.
How to optimize: Because websites, social media channels and other directories do not impact Knowledge Panels, the only way to optimize for this SERP feature is to update your Google My Business and Google Maps – both properties of the search engine itself. In this way, if you want Google to feature you, you have to play its game and appropriately fill out all relevant info on these web applications.
The Local Pack features location-specific results displayed as Rich Snippets beneath a Google Map with location pins. These appear in high-intent search queries. They offer searchers relevant images, reviews, hours of operation and phone numbers.
How to optimize: Local Packs are based on locations, so you can show up in SERPs only if your business is geographically relevant to the search query. Updating your social media channels and generating positive user reviews through Google My Business and Yelp will provide enough information for Google to quickly serve your business to users in a Local 3-Pack format.
People Also Ask
These are questions related to the initial search query. They usually address another aspect of the topic or expand upon the original search term. These appear as collapsible snippets and are usually positioned directly beneath the first few organic results.
How to optimize: People also ask (PAA) operates based on relational topics and machine learning. Adding semantic search terms and similarly related keywords to your content provides more depth and context to your web pages, which Google will use to populate its manifold PAA dropdowns. What are the follow-up questions one could logically ask in reference to your target keyword phrases? Include those questions and answers in your content to stand a better chance of being featured in SERPs.
Queries that specifically refer to photos or ones that strongly necessitate relevant imagery (such as storefronts or homes) often return an Image Pack. These can take the form of a horizontal carousel at the top of a search result or as a panel of images within the SERP.
How to optimize: Use descriptive file names, alt tags, image captions and associated copy to make your images as rich and search-friendly as possible. The pages your images live on should also have relevant page titles, URLs and unique metadata.
Organic Google search results can contain an expanded pack of related links. This typically occurs when someone searches for an organization, signifying intent to glean more information or perhaps make a purchase. These links tend to be top-level domain pages such as About Us, Blog or Contact Us.
How to optimize: Site links are auto-generated by Google based on website optimization best practices and how relevant additional links may be to a search query. That means a coherent, navigable site structure and unique page-level metadata help Google understand which site links should be featured.
This feature takes the form of a carousel of square Twitter cards showing the most recent links from a brand or particularly relevant tweets about a specific search term. For example, when users input a query related to a trending news story, they might see a carousel of tweets from authoritative news sources.
How to optimize: A regularly updated Twitter feed allows Google to cycle through trending tweets from your brand and feature them in search results. You do not need to have a verified blue checkmark on Twitter or even have a huge social following – all you have to do to be featured in SERPs is post often and encourage engagement. Tweets that have a lot of comments and retweets send strong signals to Google that your Twitter profile is relevant.
This feature is a carousel of cards showing trending or breaking news related to a search query. These cards typically link out to authoritative sources of news.
How to optimize: Usually, only larger news-based publishers appear in Top Stories because the intent behind this feature is to report breaking news and ideas in relation to a search query. You can still set yourself up for a chance of appearing at the top of SERPs by posting timely content on a hot topic or current event, in addition to following SEO best practices. Organizations that don’t generally publish news may find little value in Top Stories.
Google Ads Top
Through Google Ads and based on Quality Scores, several paid ads are featured at the top of SERPs, above an organic result. The green “Ad” label informs searchers they’re clicking on a paid advertisement.
How to optimize: Ad position is dictated by a number of factors, including expected click-through rate, relevance to the search query, quality of the ad landing page and the amount of money you’ve bid within Google Ads, to name a few. You can influence Google to rank your ads at the top by bidding more, improving UX of the Google ad and targeting keywords that match the intent of your ad.
Google Ads Bottom
Paid ads featured below organic results are often cheaper, as the four most coveted ad positions (the very top) are more expensive and more competitive. They serve the same purpose as above-the-fold ads but don’t contribute to SERP crowding.
How to optimize: Ads at the bottom of SERPs are not ideal, as the overarching goal is to be the first visible listing for a keyword. However, Google may determine that organic search results actually serve the user more value than paid ads, despite your bidding on a keyword within a Google Ads auction. On the other hand, ranking above other bottom-SERP ads is still preferable, whereby you’d want to follow the same optimization tips presented in the “Google Ads Top” section.
How do Google SERP features fit into your SEO strategy?
If the goal of SEO is to get people to find and visit your website, it may seem counterintuitive to try to get your content into a SERP feature. After all, if your information is directly available within the SERP, won’t people be less likely to click through to your site?
Yes and no.
If your web pages do not earn a featured spot in SERPs, it means someone else has provided information that is more relevant to searchers. It also means that Featured Snippets and the like will appear above all other results, pushing your content further down the page. This is bad for your SEO, as the former glory of being on Page 1 holds less significance if you don’t actually own Position 0 (aka Featured Snippet).
Conversely, you can drive higher click-through rates, site traffic and search visibility by winning SERP features, thus improving your SEO.
And as your click-through rates rise, Google’s RankBrain algorithm will begin to recalculate the value of your listings and may subsequently adjust your rankings upward.
So think of it this way: If your content is featured on a SERP, it means you’re producing relevant, useful content! That means Google sees your site as authoritative. That’s good for your SEO, and your commercial goals, in the long run.
Optimizing your content with SERP features in mind: What to know
By design, web developers should update all relevant web pages with schema markup, as this will help structure page data so search engines can more easily crawl and scrape information to serve to users in SERPs.
In the past year, however, there have been instances of brands winning Featured Snippets without utilizing schema, which can be taken as a sign that Google’s algorithms are evolving quickly. So quickly, in fact, that they’re able to scan, compile and serve information that’s unstructured, as long as those respective web pages most closely match search intent and topical relevance. However, you shouldn’t count on a bot understanding your content — structuring your web pages is always a good idea.
Getting featured in SERPs is a great way to build your website’s authority and ranking. With the right strategy, you’ll drive more traffic to your website where you can convert users to paying customers.
Now that you know what SERP features exist and how to optimize your website to win them, get out there and try it out! Let us know how you do in the comments below.
Editor’s Note: Updated March 2021.