Tag Archives: search engine results page

Written by Caroline Cox on May 2, 2022

Search engine algorithms change almost constantly. But your digital marketing plans don’t have to.

Here, you’ll find:

  • How search engine algorithms work
  • Why updates are nearly impossible to predict
  • Ways to prepare for search engine algorithm changes
  • Why content marketing still reigns supreme

In a way, the search engine algorithm is like rocket science: we know it’s important, but most of us aren’t exactly sure how it works. 

Every year, Google rolls out numerous updates (often with little-to-no warning) that manage to change the playing field for marketers in big and small ways.

But even for pros who have been working in paid search for years, understanding the search engine algorithm can be tricky. Knowing the basics allows you to react to new changes quickly or prepare your campaign for them in advance. 

When you figure out how these algorithms can affect your marketing tactics, you can take steps to prevent them from derailing your plans.

What is a search engine algorithm?

A search engine algorithm is a collection of formulas that determines the quality and relevance of a particular ad or web page to the user’s query. 

Google reportedly changes its algorithm hundreds of times each year. The good news: only major changes (or updates) have the power to affect SEM campaigns significantly.

One of the biggest mistakes marketers make is focusing all their efforts on frantically adjusting the campaign to these formulas instead of looking at the bigger picture.

search engine algorithms blog - puzzle

Google uses more than 200 ranking factors when determining which results to serve and in what order. (Image: Unsplash)

How do search engine algorithms work?

Search engines make the user experience a top priority. Google managed to become the most popular search engine on the planet by creating complex algorithms that improve the search process using sophisticated tactics that serve users the information they seek.

An algorithm works with all kinds of details for context, from obvious clues like the perceived content quality to the spam history of the website owner.

Overall, Google uses more than 200 ranking factors when determining which results to serve and in what order. 

However, no matter how well you adjust to them, each new update has the power to push your efforts to square one. While updates may be mostly focused on organic search, they can have not-so-clear (but oh-so-painful) implications for paid search as well. 

For example, your ads could stop showing up as a response to a big part of your target audience’s queries simply because the landing page they lead to isn’t specific enough.

Types of search engine algorithm updates

Not all updates are created equal. 

It’s nearly impossible to monitor all the updates Google comes up with and still have time to focus on your marketing strategy. 

  • Major updates: These updates are infrequent and often address a specific search algorithm issue. For example, the recent Core Web Vitals update deals with problems related to user experience on web pages. Search engines usually release them once or twice a year.
  • Broad-core updates: Updates in this category focus on targeting low-quality pages. Usually, they adjust the importance of several ranking factors. For example, they may decide that page loading speed is now more important than the total number of backlinks. These updates usually occur once every 4-5 months.
  • Small updates: These updates don’t usually create major visible changes to your site’s performance and analytics. They’re often minor tweaks that improve the searcher’s experience and don’t affect rankings of high-quality websites. Minor updates can be implemented daily or weekly.

Basically, major and broad-core updates are worth your attention. However, only a few of them are strong enough to make a significant impact on your rankings.

BERT update

In 2019, Google rolled out a major algorithm update dubbed BERT. This update’s aim was to improve the search engine’s translation of natural, conversational language queries to improve its understanding of context. 

This forced marketers to pay more attention to user intent than before. Pre-BERT, if you needed to focus on separate keywords in the search phrase, full phrases became much more important after the update.

For example, the query “cooking your own vegetables” shouldn’t simply give a list of tips for cooking veggies. It should also provide tips for cooking vegetables you grew and harvested on your own. In turn, paid ads had to become much more specific targeting the intent of the audience to stay relevant to search queries.

With each new Google update, search engine algorithms are working to become more useful to the searcher. Unfortunately for digital marketers, predicting specific changes is nearly impossible. 

By understanding the overall intent to improve the searcher’s experience, it’s possible to adjust your SEM strategy so it doesn’t suffer as new updates take effect.

MUM update

In May 2021, Google announced its Multitask Unified Model update, or MUM. This AI is designed to analyze content similar to the way a human does. Google calls MUM a powerful evolution of the BERT algorithm.  

MUM’s goal is to process complex search queries that can’t be satisfied with a short snippet. To get answers to these query types, a user needs to do an average of eight searches.

To address this problem, MUM works to predict these searches, and provide answers on the first search engine results page (SERP).

When adjusting your SEM strategy for MUM, it’s wise to focus on:

  • A high-quality internal linking system
  • Leveraging structured data
  • Working to predict complex queries as part of the buyer’s journey so you can provide answers
  • Creating multi-tiered content and splitting it into snippet-friendly fragments

Pro tip: If you’re focused on user experience (as you should be), then these updates shouldn’t have a major negative impact. However, if you do see your rankings take a dive, here’s how to deal.

person's hand holding a solved rubic's cube

Search engine algorithms are a complex system for helping users find the best answer to their queries. (Image: Unsplash)

How to prevent the negative effects of algorithm updates

Search engine updates can be as unpredictable as the weather. The only thing you can know for sure is that they will happen. 

When they do, many websites and ads may see a drop in rankings, even if the change is temporary. Luckily, there are ways to stay prepared and ready when updates do arise. 

1. Focus on landing page quality

Even when updates roll around, it’s hard to understand immediately how they’ll affect the connection between paid and organic search.

 But one thing is always clear: High-quality content on landing pages is likely to affect your conversion rate positively, regardless of algorithm changes.

Just a few years ago, landing pages weren’t as important for paid search because they didn’t play a big role in the ad-clicking process. Today, with Google’s focus aimed at search relevancy and accuracy, landing page quality is an integral factor, particularly when determining things like your Quality Score.

Search engines pay close attention to the landing page quality and relevance to keywords, and that isn’t likely to change. Now, Google even tracks how often a user returns to the search page after visiting the landing page in an attempt to understand whether they were satisfied with the search result.

To stay ahead of the updates, it’s imperative to maintain the quality and relevance of both landing and linked pages.

2. Don’t rely solely on keywords

The overall tendency of Google algorithm updates is to move away from a hyper-focus on keywords to more long-tail phrases and nuance. Of course, keywords are still an integral part of SEM. But building your strategy solely around them can prevent you from seeing the big picture or creating a well-rounded program.

Rather than only focusing on your keyword, you also want to take intent and relevance into account. Look into how you can best answer the questions your audience is asking. Paying attention to when, how, and what they ask can help you design relevant ad and landing page content while satisfying changing search engine algorithms.  

It can help to focus on the buyer’s journey instead of only on single keywords that users type when starting the search.

For example, Google has a different view of relevance with the roll-out of MUM. Now, it evaluates how your content or landing page fits into the context of the subject. This includes relevant backlinks, internal linking for content clusters, and proper Schema markup.

3. Look for update warnings

In some cases, search engines will offer some advanced notice about an upcoming algorithm update. Back in April 2020, Google announced a 2021 algorithm change that would introduce Core Web Vitals as ranking factors.

This gave marketers more than a year to get familiar with these new factors and adjust accordingly. Since Google isn’t always forthcoming about update details, it’s wise to take notice when they are.

4. Keep calm and tweak your content

When search engines change their algorithms, it can cause chaos for marketers. It’s often a mad dash to adjust strategies and make quick changes to curb significant ranking changes or irregular reports. But sometimes these actions can hurt your campaign even further.

Remember, all you can do is implement relevant improvements and follow the latest guidelines. If you’re using Google Analytics, making note of when an algorithm update took place can explain any out-of-the-ordinary results when you pull reports or debrief clients.

5. React carefully

If you discover a recent search engine algorithm update hurt your rankings, try not to panic or start making frantic adjustments.

Rather, the best results will come from taking the time to study what the new update is targeting so you can review how your website doesn’t meet these requirements. 

Most likely, you only need to make a few simple tweaks to get back in the game.

Pro tip: If another company’s site starts outranking you after an algorithm update, you can run a competitor analysis to figure out why that might be.

The takeaway

Search engine algorithms are a complex system for helping users find the best answer to their queries. To improve user experience, search engines change their algorithms regularly. But studying how algorithms tick isn’t as important as understanding what your target audience wants.

By improving the quality and relevance of landing page content while exploring questions your audience asks, you can work to minimize your dependence on algorithm changes and control, to some degree, how drastically they affect your initiatives.

This article has been updated and was originally published in November 2020.

Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox

Caroline is HawkSEM's content marketing manager. She uses her more than 10 years of professional writing and editing experience to create SEO-friendly articles, educational thought leadership pieces, and savvy social media content to help market leaders create successful digital marketing strategies. She's a fan of seltzer water, print magazines, and huskies.

Questions or comments? Join the conversation here!

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Written by Caroline Cox on Jul 26, 2021

By optimizing your messaging to appear in search engine results page (SERP) features, you can whip past the competition and grow brand awareness while you’re at it.

Here, you’ll find:

  • What SERP features are
  • The benefits of appearing in SERP features
  • The most useful SERP elements
  • How to optimize your site for feature placement

Bringing your website to the top of organic search results is tricky. Following top-notch SEO tactics gives you a strong foundation, but there’s more you can do — like priming your site and its content for a SERP feature.

What are SERP features?

Google designed SERP features to enhance the user’s search experience. When someone enters a query, these elements allow them to get an answer as quickly as possible (without the extra clicking) by pulling out and highlighting what the algorithm considers a relevant answer.

While some research shows that placement on certain SERP features can potentially reduce clicks, they’re still worth striving for. These placements show searchers that Google sees your site as an authority, and it puts your content above your competitors’.

The type of feature a user sees on their results page depends on the type of query they entered. If the question is “Who is Shakespeare?”, they’ll see a Knowledge Graph. For the “best dentist in LA” query, they’ll see a Local Pack (we’ll break down what these features are below). After all, a search engine’s key goal is to give the user an accurate answer as quickly as possible.

Luckily, you can work to optimize your website in ways that’ll make it more likely to appear in one of these SERP features. Let’s dive in.

serp feature - shakespeare

A Featured Snippet result in response to an inquiry about Shakespeare. (via Google)

 

1. Featured Snippets

A Featured Snippet is a box that appears on top of all the other search results. It showcases what Google’s algorithm deems the most helpful answer to the user’s query, along with the link to the website that provides it.

Here are some ways you can set up your site for Featured Snippets:

  • Beef up your content marketing efforts (almost all Featured Snippets are extracted from content that ranks in the top 10 positions).
  • Use SEMrush to study your competition and learn what they’ve done to obtain snippet space.
  • Enter the query your audience might use into Google and see what the current Featured Snippet is. If your competition is already hogging the space, go to the “People also ask” section and optimize your content for those queries.
  • Rewrite your content to answer two or more questions instead of just one. This can get your website into Featured Snippets for related queries.
  • Keep your content short and sweet. Use bullet points and a short paragraph structure for easy readability.
serp - CSUN

The Knowledge Graph results for CSUN. (via Google)

2. Knowledge Graphs

The Knowledge Graph is an information box that appears on the top right side of the search results. It generally features an extensive answer to a specific question. Google uses its algorithm to pull the information from its database of reliable sources.

Here are some ways you can set up your site for Knowledge Graphs:

  • Use Schema Markup (a type of structured data) to ensure your website can be crawled properly (Google uses only well-structured websites for its database).
  • Create a Wikipedia and Wikidata page for your brand — Google often uses it for the information to feature in the Knowledge Graph.
  • Work on your backlink strategy to garner links from authority websites. 
  • Optimize your website for local search.
  • Try to get your social media accounts verified.
  • Verify and optimize your Google My Business profile.
serp - vegetarian restaurants in atlanta

Local Teaser Pack results for a search about vegetarian restaurants in Atlanta — the Teaser Pack is similar to Local Packs but without directions or hyperlinks to the website. (via Google)

Pro tip: In 2020, a Google rep confirmed that if a web page listing is included in a Featured Snippet position, the listing will no longer be repeated in the search results. 

3. Local Packs

Queries that specify a certain location often trigger the appearance of a Local Pack box. It features local results along with business information, maps, and reviews. 

This SERP feature is for local companies and establishments. The box features three top locations, called a Local Teaser Pack. The rest is hidden under the “View all” button.

Here are some ways you can set up your site for Local Packs:

  • Boost your on-page SEO efforts and work on mobile-friendliness.
  • Create a high-quality contact page with a clickable phone number and email address as well as a map.
  • Add Schema Markup.
  • Use client testimonials on your website.
  • Optimize and verify your Google My Business page.
  • Create profiles on major review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Foursquare.
  • Make sure your contact information is consistent throughout all of your online platforms.
  • Get as many reviews on different websites as possible (these are also featured in the Local Packs). According to 2020 findings from Search Engine Land, GMB and reviews are the variables that have grown the most in their perceived impact.
HawkSEM SERP features 101 - 1

The “People also ask” results section regarding a search about scrambled eggs. (via Google)

4. Related Questions or “People also ask”

The Related Questions section usually appears under the Featured Snippet or Top Result in an accordion-style dropdown. However, they can emerge in other parts of the search page as well, under the header “People also ask.”

Different keywords can trigger the same related questions, helping you rank even higher. Meanwhile, all the related questions can sometimes feature the same page as the answer, boosting your clickthrough rate (CTR).

Here are some ways you can set up your site for Related Questions:

  • Extract People Also Ask (PAA) questions using ScreamingFrog’s Web Scraper Tool.
  • Check what PAA results appear in response to your competition’s branded queries.
  • Add these questions to your content and address them.
  • In your content, copy the format of the results, which currently appear in the related question sections.
  • Create on-page FAQ sections.
serp - how to grow sunflowers

Video Snippets as results for a query about planting a sunflower. (via Google)

Wondering how to make the most out of SERP features for your brand? You’ve come to the right place.

5. Video Snippets

Featured videos can appear in place of Featured Snippets with the goal of providing the best answer to the user’s question. Usually, they emerge in response to “how-to” queries. These Video Snippets can start running automatically and stop at a point where Google believes the question is answered.

Here are some ways you can set up your site for Video Snippets:

  • Use the main keyword in your video title.
  • Add a video description that contains the keyword.
  • Include a video transcription.
  • Optimize your video content to get as close to the top as possible (Google generally uses high-ranked clips for the featured section).
HawkSEM: SERP features - ads

Google Ads in search results about internet companies. (via Google)

6. Google Ads (top and bottom)

These paid search ads usually appear at the top and/or bottom of the SERP, above or below the organic results. They’re distinguished from the rest of the results by an “Ad” label.

Such ads usually dominate the first positions of Google Search. To occupy those coveted top spots, you can start by building a high-quality Google Ads campaign. You can also pay to place Product Listing Ads so your products (with links, descriptions, and/or prices) appear in the “zero” ranking spots, which are above the top organic listing.

The takeaway

SERP features are an integral part of working toward high rankings and top-notch conversions. Think about them as a big cherry on top of your SEM campaign. 

While it’s possible to appear in the SERP elements without making a concerted effort, the above tips can help you speed the process to see the results you want more quickly.

This post has been updated and was originally published in May 2020.

Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox

Caroline is HawkSEM's content marketing manager. She uses her more than 10 years of professional writing and editing experience to create SEO-friendly articles, educational thought leadership pieces, and savvy social media content to help market leaders create successful digital marketing strategies. She's a fan of seltzer water, print magazines, and huskies.

Questions or comments? Join the conversation here!

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