We rely on search engines to answer everything: When we’re hungry, we ask our search engine for local restaurants or popular recipes. When we’re sick, we type our symptoms into a search engine. When we need to buy something, we ask our search engine for the best or cheapest options.
Every time we pose those questions to a search engine, the list of results it shows us is incredibly influential. But the search engine results page (SERP) is so much more than just a list of websites.
What is a SERP?
SERP is an acronym for “search engine results page.” When you type a query into any search engine and hit “enter,” you receive a list of results—that’s the SERP. It sounds simple enough, but as search engines have evolved, so has the SERP.
According to Sridhar Ramaswamy, cofounder of Neeva, “the SERP—especially Google’s—has a huge influence on what you and I as consumers discover on the internet.” The SERP for a particular search query might not show just a list of relevant URLs, but a collage of images, videos, maps, snippets of content from other websites, and ads.
How does a SERP work?
There are typically three types of queries users run in a search engine:
Navigational: Navigational queries are made with the intent of finding a particular website. You might make a navigational query if you forgot (or just don’t know) a website’s exact URL. A lot of navigational queries, however, are a result of how most web browsers automatically take you to a search engine whenever you type something that isn’t a complete URL. This feature makes it easier to type “facebook” into the address bar and then click the result at the top of the page rather than type “https://facebook.com” into the search bar and be taken there directly. These queries can also be geographical in nature, such as “Rite Aid Smith Street”—you know that your pharmacy is on Smith Street, but you’re using your search engine to find the precise address.
Informational: Informational queries are searches for knowledge. These might take the form of “how to” or “what is” questions, or the search terms might be names of people, places, or things. Whether you’re researching your next vacation destination or settling a bet, it’s an informational search.
Transactional: A transactional search is a search with intent to buy. You’ll typically use product keywords to make these searches, like “filters for Roomba” or “black flats,” but transactional searches can also be local, such as when you query “coffee shop near me.” Transactional searches are the most likely to feature advertising.
For each type of query, the role of the search engine is to not only retrieve relevant web pages, but to sort these listings so that you see the best, most relevant results first. Search engines do this using ranking algorithms. Search engines want to show you results that you’ll click on, and they use a variety of factors to rank results according to what they think you’ll engage with. These ranking factors include but aren’t limited to:
Use of keywords. A “keyword” is the word or phrase that you type into a search engine. Your search results should match at least some of the words in your query. Search engines prioritize pages that contain the keyword—and the more prominently, the better.
Page content. Search engines prioritize high-quality content by analyzing the length, depth, and breadth of the page’s content.
Backlinks. Search engines believe that websites that are frequently linked to from other sites are authorities on a topic, so they prioritize sites that are often linked to from other authoritative sites.
User Experience. In addition to the quality of the content, search engines may also rank web pages based on the ease of user experience, prioritizing sites with fast loading times, mobile-friendly options, and/or secure URLs.
What are the different types of SERP features?
When search engines first launched, the results page looked pretty basic: A list with names of webpages, a line or two of text for each, and the URLs. Today, the SERP is a multimedia experience, showcasing a range of different features. Depending on what you’re searching for, the SERP might feature:
Ads: Ad-supported search engines display ads in a variety of ways. For example, Google displays ads at the top of its SERP with a small “Ad” logo to the top left of the URL. Bing and DuckDuckGo also feature ads at the very top of the SERP. On Bing, the “Ad” logo is encased in a small box at the bottom left of paid results, and on DuckDuckGo, the boxed “Ad” logo appears at the top right. Ads can also appear in a variety of other features, discussed below. Results that are not ads are often called “organic results” or “organic listings.”
Knowledge Graph: This feature allows users to get answers to informational queries like “what’s the population of Tokyo?” right on the SERP, without having to click to an external link. Google pulls these answers directly from its own database of facts, called the Knowledge Graph, as well as from other public websites. For example, if you search for a famous person, you may see a “knowledge panel” of information about them pulled from Wikipedia. Many users found this feature useful when it debuted in 2012, while some content creators questioned how Google could use their information without payment—and lamented the loss of clicks.
Featured snippets: Informational queries will sometimes result in content from another website or source being shown directly on the SERP. Google calls this “featured snippets.” For example, if you search “does McDonald’s serve breakfast all day,” you’ll see the answer to that question (McDonald’s stops serving breakfast at 11:00 a.m.) pulled from a Good Housekeeping article. Other search engines, like Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Neeva, have similar features. (Neeva is the only search engine that has committed to paying content creators when their content is used to answer queries within its search engine.)
Video carousel: For searches that may have relevant videos, such as music videos for a song or instructional videos for recipes, some SERPs show a carousel (a horizontal display that you can click through) of video clips. In 2007, Google became the first search engine to integrate several of its vertical search products (YouTube, Google Maps, Google Books, Google Images, and Google News) into its general SERP. This innovation was called Universal Search, and it changed the SERP forever. Other search engines, like Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Neeva, all show video results, typically in the form of a carousel, when relevant.
Shopping results: When you make a transactional query, you may see a carousel at the top of the SERP with pictures of products and pricing information. If you use Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo, these products are all paid ads. (Look for the “Ads” logo at the top left on Google and the top right on Bing and DuckDuckGo.) On Neeva, the products in the shopping carousel come from expert recommendations, never ads.
Related searches: This is a feature that lists queries similar to yours to help point you in the right direction. On Google, Neeva, and Bing, these related questions typically appear under a heading called “people also ask.”
Maps: For queries that might be locally minded, such as “Italian restaurant,” most search engines will place a map near the top of the SERP showing some nearby options. Just how local these results are depends on the search engine and your location-sharing permissions. Google and Bing will default to using the most precise location possible (your neighborhood), while DuckDuckGo and Neeva use your general location (your city; provided by your IP address) by default. (Both DuckDuckGo and Neeva offer the option to allow for more precise location-sharing.) Google and Neeva show results from Google Maps, while DuckDuckGo uses Apple Maps, and Bing uses TomTom.
Images: Most general search engines now have a built-in vertical search engine for images, the results of which they sometimes feature in the general SERP. For example, if you search for “sunset,” Google, Neeva, and Bing will all preview at least one row of sunset images. DuckDuckGo, however, seems a little more conservative when it comes to sharing images—you’ll have to look specifically for “sunset pictures” to see images.
What’s the difference between Google and other SERPs?
Each search engine has its own style of SERP, and the way the SERP looks will change based on the type of query you make. There are three main types of search engines.
Mainstream search engines are ad-supported and personalized, meaning they use data they collect about you to tailor your user experience. Examples of mainstream search engines include Google and Bing.
Anonymous search engines are ad-supported, but they do not collect information about you. There are many anonymous search engines, but DuckDuckGo is the most popular.
Neeva is the world’s first private, ad-free search engine. Neeva collects data about you to personalize your search results, but never sells your data to third parties, and never shows you ads.
Let’s take a closer look at the first page of the SERP for each type of search engine, focusing on the three main types of queries: navigational, informational, and transactional. When it comes to navigational queries, most SERPs look pretty much the same, and the site or location you’re seeking should be the top result. In this instance, which search engine you use matters far less. For informational and transactional queries, however, different search engines can yield pretty different results.
Informational query: “how to make a latte”
When we want to learn something we’ve never done before, most of us turn to our search engine for guidance. Let’s see how three different search engines can help us learn “how to make a latte.”
The top of Google and Neeva’s SERP looks fairly similar: both interpret the search intent behind “how to make a latte” as: seeking a recipe for a latte, and they show recipe cards. They also show related searches on the right.
DuckDuckGo’s SERP is different. Because DuckDuckGo is ad-supported, the top results are ads. The ads are peripherally related to lattes—Starbucks and creamer—but do not answer the user’s search intent. Below that are image results. On the right, a knowledge panel from WikiHow offers step-by-step instructions for making a latte, rather than a traditional recipe. Unlike the other two search engines, DuckDuckGo does not show recipe cards unless the word “recipe” is in the query.
Transactional query: “salad spinner”
Transactional queries have the most potential for advertising, because they suggest that your intent is to buy something.
At first glance, the results for “salad spinner” on Google, DuckDuckGo, and Neeva look similar. All three feature shopping carousels. But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that all of the products featured by Google and DuckDuckGo are ads. On these two SERPs, everything you see above the fold is an ad. You have to scroll to reach the organic results.
Neeva’s SERP, by contrast, is ad-free. The products that rank highly are based on expert recommendations from reputable media outlets or reviews, not which vendor paid the most for an ad.
Can I trust the SERP?
The simple truth is that no search engine—Google included—is entirely unbiased. Ranking algorithms are biased towards certain types of content, and business interests can also affect what types of results appear where. (Think of all those ads for salad spinners!)
Instead of blindly accepting whatever appears at the top of the SERP as the best information or product, we have to think critically about why—and where—content shows up on the SERP. It isn’t always obvious. “Technology has made it possible for sponsored content to look exactly like regular content,” says Sridhar Ramaswamy, cofounder of Neeva. “Being able to distinguish ads from organic content—both on the SERP and all over the web—is an essential skill.” Learning how SERPs work is one piece of the puzzle.
If you want more control over your search experience, give Neeva a try. Neeva is the world’s first private, ad-free search engine. We let you customize what news sources you prefer to see search results from, as well as quick filters for important categories like health searches that lets you only see results from health providers and trusted sources. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Try Neeva for yourself, at neeva.com.