Google has been around a long time, since 1998 in fact. Many of us don’t remember a time when we couldn’t “just Google it” and have millions of search results populate at our fingertips. Through its lifetime, the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) has gone through quite the glow-up. What started as just an index of web pages has grown to encompass all of the photos, videos, books, news, maps and more on the internet. Here’s how things have changed:
1998: A SERP is Born
In 1998, Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed their PageRank algorithm in an effort to help users navigate a web space that was becoming increasingly crowded and confusing. This algorithm ranked pages based on their relevance to the search a user was performing.
At this time, a user could only get organic search results.
2000: Addition of Ads
Google stayed true to their roots for the next 2 years, but in 2000, as the millennium changed, so did the SERP. While Google had experimented with banner ads on the SERP at various times, they never felt like it was the best way to bring in advertisers to the platform. The original mission of Google was to serve up pages that were relevant to what a user was searching, so they thought ads should behave in the same way. But, they didn’t want to force people to click on an ad, just to see the results of their search. So, AdWords was born.
At the time, Google distinguished the ads to the user. They were clearly marked, and set aside in a separate box so that if the user chose to click one of them, they knew that page had paid to be at the top of the SERP. To this day, Google still has a policy of not displaying more than four AdWords links at the top of any given SERP.
2001- 2007: Creation of Universal Search
For the next year, the SERP existed simply. It served up web pages and AdWords. And that was it. But, in 2001, the “big bang” of Google searches happened—Universal Search.
The addition of Universal Search was made possible by the invention of the vertical search function. Serving up web pages was a valuable tool, but it wasn’t enough. Users had started to want more and more from Google and it’s functionality. At this point in time, if someone wanted to Google “what does the color turquoise look like”, they would have been served a list of web pages and a wall of text, which was not an effective answer to their question.
As years progressed, the web had become a plethora of videos, images and content, and Google users began to expect Google to be able to find anything if it existed on the web, no matter the format.
By adding other resources into the search algorithm, the SERP was able to provide valuable assets right on the first page including:
The events on September 11, 2001 gave birth to a new Google category: News. Users began searching for “twin towers”, but since the last index had happened a month earlier, they were not able to get results related to current events.
For a temporary solution, Google placed links to major news networks right on the front page and asked users to visit those sites for updated news. However, several Google engineers had the thought of “what if we could crawl news quickly and provide multiple points of view on a single story?”. They worked quickly to make this a reality, and Google News was launched before the year ended.
2010: Instant Search
In an effort to make Google searches as fast as possible for a user, Google introduced instant search, which meant users no longer had to type out their entire query. While this is great for users because it is faster, it is also great for marketers when we do keyword research. Sometimes, getting back to the basics of seeing what keywords are related to a term is a great way for us to get content ideas.
Quick Answers and No Click Search
Since 2008, Google has added several pieces of information to the SERP that provide answers without a user having to click through to a web page. Some examples of this include weather reports, knowledge graphs, quick answers and image carousels. These features are great for a user because they get their answers fast.
But, it’s a nightmare for marketers because it means that content we work hard may get less traction if a user can get their answer from the SERP. 48% of searches result in a no click search answer.
We see it as motivation to create and promote even more engaging content than in times past. Fast answers aren’t enough. Consumers should be educated about the things they are researching, and educated in a way that provides more value to the answer than what they can get on the SERP. For example, someone may be looking for what makes flamingos pink. Google will give you the answer right on the SERP:
But, an engaging piece of content can take this one step further. If we were marketing on behalf of flamingos, we could create content that describes the advantages of being pink and why we are experts at being pink. By the time someone is finished engaging with our content, then we have established ourselves as a trustworthy source of information, which is more valuable than just providing a quick answer.
The State of Search Now
2019: BERT Update
In late 2019, Google entered a new phase of user intent: BERT (as in Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, not the Sesame Street character). This update was not something that users would have noticed at all, but marketers and content creators saw the impact.
The BERT update was focused around understanding longer, more conversational queries. The goal was to get people to search just like they would when talking to a human, and less by using a string of keywords they think Google might understand. To develop this update, the Google algorithm was “trained” by a lot of coders going rogue on an open sourced platform, teaching it how humans talk.
Image via Google
The algorithm can (theoretically) use prepositions to change the meaning of the query.
Marketers and SEO experts have not seen a huge shift in rankings like past updates. In fact, only about 1 in 10 queries have been affected. The update may have been a play from Google to get marketers to think less about playing to the machines and think more about creating good, thought out content. Previously, some content creators were using tactics that focused on sheer quantity over quality, which is not benefitting anyone. These tactics involved “black hat” methods such as link wheels, duplicating the same content across multiple pages and hiring third party writers to keyword stuff pages full of words that don’t make much sense to a user.
In light of this update, marketers should not try to change the way they optimize content. Instead, they should continue to optimize for humans and how they read and interact with content.
The SERP has also recently started to take Local SEO into account in a big way. Example 1: The Local Pack (some people call this a Snack Pack). When Google determines that you are looking for somewhere near you, such as a “hardware store” in the above example, it will serve up a handy listing of places nearest to you.
But, location isn’t the only factor. Google has been very secretive about the ranking factors used for the Local Pack, but number of reviews, quality of review, accuracy of information and photos are all weighed to some capacity. So, why does the Local Pack matter?
The Local 3-Pack (pictured above) is the #1 result on the SERP 93 percent of the time, and 46 percent of all searches on Google are local-intent searches. This means that if you can get your business to rank in the top 3 on the Local Pack, you can see big impacts on your business. According to ThinkWithGoogle, 50 percent of consumers who conduct a local search on their smartphone will visit within a day, and 18 percent of them will make a purchase within a day.
Dedicating some time and effort to optimizing your Google My Business listing, gathering reviews and making regular postings can go a long way in earning exposure with the local pack.
Local Service Ads
In 2019, Google began to roll out a new feature on the serp for certain service industries called Local Service Ads. These don’t necessarily look like ads (at least not in the same way that ads in 2000 looked), but if you look closely, you can see a small “sponsored” above the listings. These listings are paid for by companies to gather leads. The application process is extensive, requiring background checks, proof of insurance and licenses when necessary. But, once you have met the requirements set forth, you’ll earn a green badge of honor: Google Guaranteed.
These ads differ from traditional Google Ads in that they are not keyword based, but rather industry based. Google will automatically decide what keywords are relevant to a specific industry, and use them accordingly. At this time, none of this keyword data is available to the public.
While this service is still extremely new to Google, it is sure to have implications for businesses who choose to run them. Due to the intense vetting process, companies who run these ads must be legitimate, which builds consumer trust.
As the SERP continues to grow and evolve with human behavior, it’s the responsibility of marketers and content creators to use it responsibly. We closely monitor any updates made to the Google algorithm, and work hard to create engaging, intentional content.