Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) are constantly evolving. Google is getting better at understanding what people are searching for and determining what content satisfies that search.
But that isn’t the only way Google is changing the landscape of SERPs.
The way they present that content is evolving, too.
Google has a suite of more than 20 Search Engine Results Page (SERP) features designed to help people find more precise information faster.
Some of these features optimize articles and pages that brands (like you) produce. Some of them pull from a public domain database and don’t link to any other website.
That means your content is competing against Google itself. And yes, Google is potentially using your content to provide something more helpful than your content. (They’ll always link to your content if they use it, though.)
Why are there different kinds of search results?
Depending on what you search for, you’re probably more interested in certain kinds of information about your query. And results that serve only that information are going to be more helpful.
Someone searching for “mexican food” probably isn’t looking for The Complete History of the Taco. Using mountains of data, Google knows this person probably wants to find a good burrito nearby. So instead of showing a list of articles, or even a list of Mexican restaurants, Google Maps shows them the three nearest Mexican restaurants.
And ultimately, providing more helpful results is what Google has always been all about. As they get more data about how we search for information, what sources we turn to, and what kind of information satisfies each search, Google will continue to discover new, better ways to give us what we want.
So what are the different types of results? We’ve broken them into four big categories:
- The Knowledge Graph (AKA Google’s database)
- Advertising results
- Organic search results
- Local search results (technically still organic and the Knowledge Graph)
The Knowledge Graph uses public domain information to provide quick answers, and it usually doesn’t link to external websites.
Advertising results are paid for, and appear above organic results.
Organic results are earned by the best content, and come in a wide variety of forms.
Local results use location-based data to show nearby businesses that satisfy the query.
We’ll cover what each feature is and when they appear in SERPs, and you’ll find plenty of tidbits about how to work them into your content strategy.
What is the Knowledge Graph?
Google’s Knowledge Graph draws information about people, places, and organizations from authoritative sources and reorganizes it to fit search intent. “Authorized representatives” can update this information to ensure it’s accurate, and anyone can give feedback to help optimize the results.
Knowledge Graph results don’t necessarily link to any particular page or article, but they pull information from a variety of sources and put it at the top of some SERPs.
Knowledge Graph features always appear above every other kind of search result.
That’s because for specific types of searches, Google can organize a conglomerate of basic information that provides more quick answers than any one page can.
If you think that sounds like Google is trying to outrank you on Google, you’re right. But they’re not trying to withhold traffic from your website or anything malicious like that. They’re trying to provide the best possible search experience—and let’s face it, if you don’t have to leave the SERP and navigate another page to find what you need, that’s an objectively superior experience.
Thanks to Knowledge Graph, you don’t need to skim a 500 word article or scroll through Wikipedia to find out who’s in the movie Get Out. And where before you would’ve only seen a list of posts that may or may not quickly answer your question, the Knowledge Graph displays:
- A carousel of all the actors
- A quick synopsis of the movie
- Basic facts like when it came out, who directed and produced it
- Up-to-date information on when and how you can watch it
- Snippets from top critic reviews
Parts of the Knowledge Graph link to other pages (the critic snippets link to the full reviews, for example), but the purpose of the Knowledge Graph is to provide immediate answers to basic questions.
As Google continues the transition to a “knowledge engine,” it’s going to become more important for brands to provide in-depth content if they want to bring in organic traffic. It’s not good enough to pull together basic information about a topic—Google’s going to beat you on the short answers every time.
Does that sound depressing? It doesn’t have to.
Taking the time to provide more valuable content is a better marketing strategy anyways. Now you’re just getting a nudge from Google to do so. You have unique expertise Google can’t (or at least doesn’t intend to) replicate. So use it.
And think of it this way: Google is skimming the least qualified leads off the top. If you’ve written about a topic there’s a Knowledge Graph result for, you’re going to get fewer people looking for quick answers. And that means, presumably, that more of the people who show up on your page are willing to stick around, and ultimately, your pages will perform better.
Now let’s look at what types of results that use the Knowledge Graph.
What they are: Knowledge Panels (also referred to as Knowledge Graph cards) splice together the most relevant, basic information related to your search.
They include images, high-level details, and category-specific information. If you search for a company like Amazon, for example, you’ll find stock prices, subsidiaries, customer service, and other key information that you wouldn’t find if you searched for a person or a TV show.
The Knowledge Panel has some pretty snazzy features for prominent events, too. Want to see the winners of this year’s Oscars? Or the results from the most recent Olympics? Searches that encompass more basic information get more elaborate panels, and cards for events-in-progress update information in close to real time.
These panels will continue to evolve into interactive hubs of information, leading people to spend more time on SERPs and less time clicking through your pages.
When they appear: Knowledge Panels appear when you search for specific people, places, organizations, events, movies, shows, books, albums, and . . . things.
According to Rank Ranger, the Knowledge Panel shows up in about 10 percent of all searches.
There’s no guaranteed way for your brand to get a Knowledge Panel, but if your basic information exists on the Internet, and there’s enough search surrounding your organization, Google will likely optimize that information.
There’s no guaranteed way to get featured in a Knowledge Panel, either—but we know a few of the main factors. The Knowledge Graph heavily relies on existing databases that users can contribute to directly, like Wikipedia and Wikidata. And Google gives guidelines for making your site easier for bots to crawl.
So if you want a Knowledge Panel to pop up when people search for your brand (thereby lending credibility and authority to your brand), that’s probably a good place to start.
What they are: A carousel result is a series of images with captions related to your search.
These images are clickable, and selecting one sends you to a new SERP for that specific person, place, or thing. (This will likely also produce a Knowledge Panel result.) Despite being on a new SERP, Google keeps the carousel up top, so you can navigate through all of the people, places, or things associated with your original search.
When they appear: Carousels appear when you search for a list or collection of related items instead of one specific thing. These are generally broad queries with numerous equally valid answers, such as “famous people” or “best business books.”
Carousels may take slightly different forms depending on the number of items in the carousel and the search intent. If you’re searching for the best trucks of 2018, for example, stacking the images and including basic pricing information in the carousel helps people do a little comparison before they really dig into the results.
This is an example of why in-depth content continues to shine, and brief, fleeting posts continue to fall further behind in rankings. If you’re competing against carousels, you have to:
- Write thorough, comprehensive content that answers lots of questions related to your topic or dives deep into a particular area.
- Provide meta descriptions that clearly explain your content and what’s unique or valuable about it.
- Create titles that appear authoritative and definitive, not just click-baity. (Assuming your content can back that up.)
You post will never be a carousel, and you’ll never beat a carousel, but that’s OK because you can still beat everyone else—with a better article.
What they are: Also known as direct answers, rich answers, and quick answers, these are uncited results (meaning they won’t ever link to your page) that directly answer basic questions using public domain knowledge.
You won’t see these quick-and-dirty results as much for niche questions related to your industry. For that, Google may use a featured snippet, which pulls content from a page that provides a clear, concise answer. While some featured snippets might look like answer boxes, they link to the pages those answers come from (i.e. your website).
Answer boxes take many forms, including:
- Reformatted Knowledge Panel (answer plus expandable links)
- Simple answer box (no expand option)
- Unit converter
- Google Translate
Some answer boxes are interactive, and allow you to change units, languages, formulas, etc. If you think about it, calculators are like search engines for math. When you search math problems on Google, they cut to the chase and give you a calculator.
While they rely on public domain knowledge, there’s a lot that these answer boxes can do. If you want to see more of the kinds of questions they can answer, check out Moz’s exploration of more than 100 different answer boxes.
When they appear: Answer boxes take different forms depending on the questions people ask. Some questions result in what is basically a reformatted Knowledge Panel, framing the panel around the question (or in the case below, the implied question.)
Similar to the calculator box, Google can also produce an interactive units and measures box.
In a sense, every Knowledge Graph result provides some form of direct answer. Carousels directly answer broad categorical questions. Knowledge Panels directly answer a variety of questions related to more specific queries.
Answer boxes are just one of the ways the Knowledge Graph contextualizes information to provide immediate, helpful results.
Note: According to Rank Ranger, direct answers show up in less than 1 percent of all searches.
See results about
What they are: Moz calls these “disambiguation boxes,” which is a pretty accurate description of what this feature actually does. When Google first introduced the Knowledge Graph, one of the key talking points was that it would be better at understanding searches for ambiguous terms, such as personal pronouns that are also totally unrelated words.
Originally, this primarily relied on user feedback, and certain search terms would prompt Google to basically say, “Wait, what did you mean?” when you got to the SERP. Today, the disambiguation process largely happens while you’re still typing your search.
But Google has also grown up a lot over the years, and it’s much better at using context clues (and a pretty big database) to determine what you probably mean on its own. Plus, with all these new SERP features, Google can easily address several possible searches at once.
When they appear: If you’re determined to make an ambiguous search, you’ll probably see a “see results about” callout to clarify which kingfisher you meant. These are typically tucked away below the Knowledge Panel (on the right on desktop, way down on mobile).
Despite its noble purpose, this SERP feature is still far from perfect. Let me know when they figure out what to do with searches for “seal”.
What they are: Google Posts first launched during the 2016 election to help people learn about presidential candidates—directly from the candidates themselves. Now, all established brands and people can use this unique SERP feature.
Think of Google Posts like social media for SERPs.They can include images, videos, and text, and they’re intended to share recent updates about your brand.
When they appear: Google Posts are connected to your brand’s Knowledge Panel, so they only appear in branded search. Verified organizations and individuals have complete control over what these posts are, and they start showing up in search results within minutes of publishing.
Here’s how the NFL uses Google Posts to share about what’s happening during the NFL Combine.
Organizations that don’t have a lot of branded search may find it harder to justify spending time on Google Posts. But with a small commitment each week, this can be a great way to direct traffic to your latest content and showcase stories people won’t otherwise find when they look for your brand.
Google Adwords lets you advertise to targeted audiences in a variety of formats, but only a couple of these apply to search results. On any given SERP, you may find ads at the top, bottom, or right-hand side of the page.
What they are: These are some of the most basic ads you can create in Adwords. You’ll see them at the top and bottom of SERPs with a little tag that says “Ad.”
As the name implies, these are text only. But ad extensions make this format more dynamic by adding information that may appear if Google predicts it will improve your ad’s performance. (Meaning the extension is relevant to the query.)
Google has a strangely meta video showing how ad extensions work:
Here’s a text ad with a few extensions:
When they appear: Text ads can appear in just about any SERP as long as it meets two conditions:
- You’re willing to pay the price for it.
- Google determines that an ad is appropriate based on the search intent.
If someone searches “why does my desk make my back hurt,” an ad probably isn’t going to answer that question. But if someone searches for “adjustable desk,” all of a sudden there’s a pretty high commercial intent, meaning people are expecting to find products or services, not a an article explaining why adjustable desks are better for your back. (Is that really why people get those? I don’t know. I don’t get it.)
What they are: These are ads that prominently display your business’s phone number with a special link that starts a phone call. A text ad can display your phone number with a link like that too, but the difference is, a call-only ad makes the phone number the primary link.
When they appear: Call-only ads appear in searches where:
- Commercial intent is high.
- Someone is likely looking for a specific company or a specific kind of company.
- The search happens on a device that can make phone calls.
You’re most likely to see these ads on a smartphone, where making a phone call may be the most convenient path for the searcher to get what they want.
Product shopping ads
What they are: Product shopping ads are for when someone knows what they want to buy, but they’re not sure where to buy it from. These ads are image-focused, but include some text. Google uses your inventory in the Merchant Center to create more visually appealing ads for individual products. Product shopping ads will always contain an image, but they may also include product ratings, Google reviews, and special offers.
This gives people several at-a-glance options to choose from in a carousel (your competitors appear here, too). If someone selects “view all” at the end of the carousel, they’ll jump to a Google Shopping SERP for the same search.
When they appear: Product shopping ads appear when someone searches for a specific product.
Showcase shopping ads
What they are: Like product shopping ads, showcase shopping ads are image focused, and present your ad in a carousel with competitors. Google creates these ads using your Merchant Center inventory.
The biggest difference between product shopping ads and showcase shopping ads is where the searcher is on the buyer journey. Showcase shopping ads are more likely to appear when Google determines someone hasn’t decided what they want to buy or where they want to buy it from.
When they appear: Showcase shopping ads appear in SERPs when someone searches for a category of products, as opposed to a specific product. To the person searching, they look the same as a product shopping ad—the difference is that they display a wide variety of products that meet the search criteria.
“Many searches on Google Shopping use broader search terms that don’t include a specific brand or product—for example, women’s athletic clothing or living room furniture,” Google says. “Terms like these are broad and usually mean that a person hasn’t decided what product to buy or from where to buy it. Use Showcase Shopping ads to reach these potential customers and get them thinking about your brand and products while they’re still trying to make a decision.”
Organic search results
Organic results used to mean the blue links that appeared below the search bar. Today, organic results come in numerous forms. While they all come from the content on websites like yours, Google changes the way it presents organic results depending on what someone is searching for.
What they are: At first glance, featured snippets often look like the answer boxes that the Knowledge Graph generates. They’re designed to provide only the information someone is looking for.
But unlike the Knowledge Graph, featured snippets link directly to a webpage. This is not information that comes from a public domain database—someone published it online. And while anything generated by the Knowledge Graph appears at the top or side of a SERP, featured snippets only appear at the top of the organic results, which means sometimes ads can push them below the fold.
Take this shameless self-plug for example: at the moment, when you search “fastest online degree,” a post I wrote for another site gets a featured snippet, which shows up after four text ads.
Searches with high commercial intent are more likely to be packed with ads, pushing all organic results down the page. Whether or not your post gets a featured snippet depends on if your page arranges the right information in the right way.
When they appear: All featured snippets are designed to answer a question, whether it’s explicit or implied by the search.
“When we recognize that a query asks a question, we programmatically detect pages that answer the user’s question, and display a top result as a featured snippet in the search results,” Google says.
Featured snippets come in a variety of forms, depending on what kind of information someone is looking for.
But not every question is explicitly stated in the search, either. In the example above, my featured snippet is a list, because there isn’t one definitive answer to satisfy the query, and the pages that all best answer the query are lists. List snippets may be bulleted or numbered, depending on the query.
Featured snippets may also come in the form of:
People also ask
Moz has an amazing breakdown of which types of questions generate which types of featured snippets.
What they are: Formerly known as “In the news,” the top stories section hops over from the news tab to show you recent articles about your topic from (mostly) trusted news sources. (Every once in a while satirical sites and fake news sneak in there.)
“The ‘In the News’ and the ‘Top Stories’ section in the search results are completely algorithmic and based partially on the content, partially on the queries, partially on how we think it makes sense to show websites with that kind of top stories set up there,” Google Webmaster John Mueller says. “Some of this I believe also depends on whether you are using AMP on your pages, valid AMP or not, so all of these things kind of come in together.”
Using AMP is part of the reason non-news sites sometimes look legitimate and wind up outranking news sites on trending topics. That’s scary for undiscerning consumers, but for brands, it means that when you publish stories about trends within your industry, there’s potential for you to appear in a “top stories” callout, even if you aren’t an established news source and you didn’t write an amazing press release.
When they appear: The top stories section only appears when you search for things people are actually talking about. Top stories aren’t going to pop up for searches about niche topics and industries, but if those same niche topics can appear in stories for other, more popular searches. This is probably more of a PR opportunity for most B2B organizations.
While simply not having a top stories section on your ideal SERPs means there’s one less thing to compete against, that could also be an excuse to launch a PR campaign or put in some work to get your industry in the news. However, without knowing how frequently new stories need to come in for Google to justify a top stories section (and without knowing how long it would last), you’ll probably have to focus on the other benefits of that work.
What they are: Some organic results include a rating out of five stars and the number of ratings. These ratings only come from Google Reviews. (Yelp and other review sites won’t show up this way.)
When they appear: Google says Reviews show up under your business listing once you have at least one. They’ll appear in searches related to your business, including local packs (which we’ll talk about later).
What they are: Occasionally, you’ll see a special SERP feature that includes recent tweets from a brand or person. This shows that a brand is highly active on social and provides a more informal source of information in the SERP. And since tweets are 280 characters or less, they can appear in full in a SERP without taking up too much real estate.
When they appear: According to a Twitter indexing study from Stone Temple, only about 5 percent of tweets get indexed, and popular tweets are more likely to fall under this 5 percent.
What they are: There are two video features that may show up in regular search results: featured videos and video thumbnails.
Featured videos get a huge, prominent screenshot right at the top of the SERP with a link to the video on YouTube, the title of the video, and the name of the YouTube channel it comes from. (These can only be YouTube videos.)
Interestingly, the video above was posted by a third party and has fewer views than the official Bud Light ad. The title and keyword-stuffed description appears to outweigh the authority of the brand and the video itself.
Google normally penalizes copycats, so these featured videos should eventually point to the original sources.
Video thumbnails are significantly smaller (they’re thumbnails after all), but they include a more detailed description. These videos don’t have to come from YouTube.
When they appear: Featured videos only appear when someone searches for a specific video. Strangely, as in the Bud Light example above, third parties can outrank brands in searches for their own videos by writing more relevant titles (Bud Light gave their commercial a specific name, which people won’t search for as often) and by writing more relevant descriptions. Unfortunately it looks like for now, keyword stuffing descriptions may help. Gross.
Video thumbnails appear when the video’s title, tags, and description indicate that it can satisfy the search, even when someone isn’t explicitly searching for a video. Also, if someone searches for a broad category of videos, they will likely have several video thumbnail results.
What they are: There are several ways images may show up in SERPs.
Thumbnail images appear beside the description of a page. The image links to the page it comes from.
Image results include a series of top results from Google Images, with a link to the Google Images SERP for your search.
Moz uses the term image “mega block” to describe the block of images that appear in some results. These function the same as regular image results (they link to Google Images, not the pages they come from), but there are several rows of them.
When they appear: Image thumbnails almost always appear in recipe-related searches. Can you imagine following a recipe without knowing what the end result was supposed to look like? Adding image thumbnails to the SERP helps people compare recipes directly in the SERP.
These aren’t likely to appear in searches with commercial intent, but businesses may find applications where someone is looking for content that includes a visual representation of the final result of some task.
Google Image results appear in searches for specific products and product categories, as well as other queries looking for visual information.
Image mega-blocks generally only appear in a specific situation: when the search includes a phrase like “pictures of” or “photos of.” That’s obviously a pretty strong signal that someone is specifically looking for images.
If you want Google to use your images in SERPs like this, first of all, you need to incorporate images into your content. To show up in relevant SERPs, your images need focused titles related to your target keywords and alt tags that clearly describe the image using keywords.
What they are: “Google Search uses breadcrumb markup in the body of a web page to categorize the information from the page in search results,” Google says.
Translation: breadcrumbs help people understand a page’s relationship to the categories on your website. URLs sometimes provide this information, but it’s clunky and can be hard to understand sometimes. Breadcrumbs only display your site’s hierarchy, and they appear in place of your website’s URL.
When they appear: Breadcrumbs only appear on mobile devices, and only if you have the correct breadcrumb markup on your site.
What they are: A Sitelinks Searchbox lets you search all of a website’s pages right on the SERP. This search happens within Google, not the website itself (unless the site has the necessary structured data), which means using this search box will create a new SERP. This SERP will only display results from the website that had the Sitelinks Searchbox.
When they appear: Sitelinks Searchboxes only appear in branded searches. They’re designed for people who are definitely trying to get to your website (they just can’t remember that pesky URL), where they’ll likely navigate to a specific page. This is intended to serve as a shortcut to what people are really looking for.
But just because you have a search bar on your website doesn’t mean you’ll get one of these. Google provides a step-by-step process to get one for your website, but it basically comes down to this:
- Set up a search engine on your website.
- Add the necessary structured data to tell Google what to do with it.
- Verify that everything is correct.
What they are: Similar to a Sitelinks Searchbox, sitelinks help people navigate to a specific page of your website. These additional links appear below your URL and description, and they link directly to your pages.
When they appear: “We only show sitelinks for results when we think they’ll be useful to the user,” Google says. “If the structure of your site doesn’t allow our algorithms to find good sitelinks, or we don’t think that the sitelinks for your site are relevant for the user’s query, we won’t show them.”
In other words: these are most likely to show up in branded searches. But they may show up in other SERPs as well. If someone is searching for businesses in your category, sitelinks can help them find exactly what they’re looking for without leaving the SERP (which could give you a pretty big edge over the competition).
To help Google understand how to navigate your website, they say, “for your site’s internal links, make sure you use anchor text and alt text that’s informative, compact, and avoids repetition.”
NEW: AMP stories
What they are: AMP stories are currently still in the experimental stages, but it looks like Google intends to roll them out on a larger scale.
These media-heavy posts provide a unique way for brands to tell stories. Filling your entire screen with a carousel of static images, GIFs, and looping videos, AMP stories provide brief, highly-consumable content.
Here’s what that looks like:
When they appear: Anyone can experiment with creating AMP stories, but Google currently only displays them in search results on mobile devices at this link: https://g.co/ampstories. You have to search for publishers that use them in order to find them.
But just because they’re obscure now doesn’t mean that marketers can ignore them. When AMP stories start showing up in the wild, they could be pretty disruptive in the mobile space.
“At a later point, Google plans to bring AMP stories to more products across Google, and expand the ways they appear in Google Search,” Google says.
Local search results
Google uses your location data and Google Maps to serve more relevant results for searches that are explicitly or implicity looking for a location.
There are a few ways Google uses your location to change your results. A couple of these are technically organic results, and one is a Knowledge Graph result, but location-based results are pretty distinct.
What they are: Local packs show Google Maps results, Google Reviews, hours of operation, and phone numbers for local businesses, with links to their websites. These results completely depend on where the searcher is located.
Here’s what the local pack looks like when I search for “window washer”:
When they appear: Local packs appear when the search intent appears to indicate that someone is looking for a physical location. “Window washer” is a little vague, but Google understands that I’m probably looking for a business that cleans windows, and if that’s the case, I’m probably looking for one close by, even though I didn’t explicitly say “near me.”
You can only appear in local packs if you’ve listed your business with Google, but doing so doesn’t mean you’ll automatically appear in one. There are three factors Google uses to determine what to put in a local pack:
When Google looks at all the relevant businesses that would satisfy a search, it considers which of those businesses are closest to the searcher and which are “the best” results to satisfy the query. This is where your SEO strategy impacts your local business, because Google uses links to your site to determine if you’re the best. However, Google uses Google Reviews to determine “prominence” as well. The more reviews and backlinks you have, the more likely you are to appear in a local pack.
What they are: In 2013, Google launched “local carousels” that served the same function as regular carousels, but for location-related searches like “best restaurants in nyc.” It’s a hybrid of the Knowledge Graph and Local Results functionality. It was a brief experiment that’s now almost extinct from SERPs.
When they appear: The last vestiges of this basically defunct category are the results for museums, monuments, local celebrities, and a handful of other categories. (I haven’t seen or heard of others, but let me know if you find one.)
If you search for “museums in [city]”, you’ll see a carousel of all that city’s museums (assuming they have more than one).
Interestingly, when you search for “monuments in [city]”, you get a local carousel. But change monuments to “sculptures” or “statues”? No carousel.
For a brief time, there were ways for businesses to optimize their websites for local carousels, but Google discovered pretty quickly that there was a more relevant way to display this information. The vast majority of local carousels were replaced with “Local Packs.”
Local Knowledge Panel
What they are: Local Knowledge Panels are a special feature of the Knowledge Graph. They’re automatically generated, like regular Knowledge Panels, but they display information like location, business hours, contact information, and Google Maps.
Interestingly, when I search for “Moz,” I get a regular Knowledge Panel result for Moz, and this mysterious unclaimed Local Knowledge Panel:
I called the number, but it was after 5pm, which is apparently when “Moz” closes. (Why doesn’t Google know this?) But then I looked up the number. It’s THE Moz. The SEO people. Who haven’t claimed their Local Knowledge Panel. So strange.
When they appear: Local Knowledge Panels appear when someone nearby is looking for information about your company. If you’ve listed your business with Google and filled in all the information, that should be all you need to have a Local Knowledge Panel. If you see one for your organization and it’s not filled in, you can claim ownership and edit it yourself.
Which SERP features is your website best suited for?
You can’t pigeonhole your content into specific SERP features. And you can’t trick Google into thinking your content is more relevant to a query. But you can optimize your website and the content you create to take advantage of the biggest SEO opportunities in your industry.
Right now, your target audience is searching for solutions to their problems and content that helps them aspire to be better at what they do. Your job is to explore what they’re searching for and design the content that best satisfies that.
That doesn’t always mean writing thousands of words about a topic (although longer content does tend to rank higher). It might be a how-to video with an optimized title, tags, and description. Or maybe it’s short, concise answers to complicated questions.
Whatever your audience is looking for, there’s probably a Google SERP feature that could help your content become a better result than the competition. And if you’re still struggling to map out your SEO strategy, we’d be happy to help you put that together.