Google is always changing how it displays search results. The starting point for any effective SEO strategy is understanding what Google chooses to show and why. Only then can you figure out what you need to create or adjust on your site to show up more often—and in higher positions.
In this article, you’ll learn a key part of that process: analyzing SERPs. I’ll also show you how to apply your analysis to win more relevant clicks.
SERPs aren’t static. They’ve changed—a lot.
Over the last decade, SERPs have changed in two crucial ways:
- SERP features, not blue links, are the top result (or results) more often.
- Searches have become intensely customized for intent.
Beginning in 2013, Google began showing “answer boxes,” an early test of featured snippets. These answer boxes used the Knowledge Graph to show a box that answered a search query. Users no longer needed to click through to get the definition they wanted.
Featured snippets have since expanded the answers that Google can pull directly into search results. By 2018, Google expanded featured snippets show more than one featured snippet for certain queries.
As “a single featured snippet isn’t right for every question,” multiple featured snippets had the potential to answer more user queries—and reduce user clicks. Indeed, by 2019, research by Sparktoro found that more than 50% of searches end without clicks.
Traditional organic results have moved in one direction: down. But not every SERP looks the same, and not every SERP feature sticks around forever—which is why SERP analysis is so important.
Let’s use the query “what is digital marketing” as an example.
Here we can see:
- A “People also ask” section right below the first result.
- A knowledge graph panel for “Internet Marketing,” including a “People also search for.”
- Recommended videos from YouTube related to digital marketing.
In this example, the “People also ask” section and “Videos” take up a significant portion of space, reducing the visibility of organic results shown on Page 1.
The SERP is even more challenging to break into on mobile, which features two ads above all else:
SERP analysis like this can help you gauge the potential organic traffic from a query before you start creating content (or, if necessary, how to tweak existing content).
You can learn:
- What content will target the right people with the right intent;
- Whether you can compete—with SERP features or other sites.
Let’s walk through the process.
How to do a SERP analysis (before you create content)
The goal of this type of SERP analysis is to:
- Confirm that your content plan matches the current SERP content (i.e. will satisfy intent);
- Determine if it’s possible to compete with other sites in the SERP (based on links).
1. Confirm that your content plan matches the current SERP content.
Searching for “Apple” returns a SERP filled with SERP features all about Apple, the technology company. Zero results are about Apple the fruit. Search for “buy Apple,” however, and you’ll get a SERP geared toward purchasing (not learning about the company).
The SERP features that appear are clues to the intent behind the search. If you target the wrong intent with your content, you’ll have a difficult time ranking and, even if you do, any traffic that arrives is more likely to bounce, which has its own (negative) SEO impact.
Search results are Google “showing its hand”—letting you in on what it’s learned about the intent behind a search. If a particular feature dominates results, your content should follow the same form and answer the same questions.
Small query shifts, big SERP impact
Subtle changes to query language can dramatically change the perceived intent. Take the search “my SEO sucks,” for example. The first result is an SEO agency (My SEO Sucks), and no featured snippet shows up.
But a slightly different version of that search, “why does my SEO suck,” returns a Moz article from 2008, and a “People also ask” box shows up. Search “my website’s SEO sucks” and ads, a Quora answer, a “People also ask” box, and a related search feature listing SEO tools all appear.
Search for something that provides Google even less context, like “SEO,” and you’ll get a mix of results that serve varying intent. Google is essentially saying, “I don’t know what you want, so here are several options.”
If your SERP analysis returns a SERP with mixed intent, you probably haven’t chosen a specific-enough target—those mixed intent results are a mash-up of the best results that focus on a more specific intent. Rather than targeting the broad query, you’ll likely benefit from focusing your content in something more long tail (which will still have the potential to rank for that broader query).
2. Determine if it’s possible to compete with other sites in the SERP.
Once you know your term’s intent, the subsequent analysis determines how competitive it is for sites to rank. You can assess your ability to rank by looking at two primary metrics:
- Domain-level link metrics like Moz Domain Authority or Ahrefs Domain Rating (DR).
- Page-level link metrics like Moz Page Authority or Ahrefs URL Rating.
It’s not an exact science, but you should expect higher competition for queries that have greater search volume and/or stronger buying intent.
If the DR of the top sites for the keyword you’re targeting are all above 90, you’re going to have an extremely hard time trying to break into that SERP—unless you have a really strong backlink profile yourself. And there’s no sense targeting a term for which you’ll never see the light of Page 1.
For example, the SERP for “how to do a push up” is dominated by authoritative sites, with The New York Times (not pictured below) claiming the featured snippet, and wikiHow, Men’s Health, and Nerd Fitness all high on the first page:
So what do you do? Target a related term (i.e. get in front of a segment of the same audience) without going up against the same competition. “Push up progression,” a quick SERP analysis reveals, receives significantly fewer searches a month, but the competition is far less stiff:
A newer fitness site can get within striking distance of the top by creating content around a “push up progression.”
Tools to power your SERP analysis
Ahrefs Keyword Explorer is one of my favorites. Their SERP overview of the search “SEO tools” looks like this:
From this dashboard, you can see all the competitive information about the current SERP to estimate what it will take to rank.
Moz and SEMRush also have useful keyword research tools that lay out SERP features and competitors. Ahrefs, Moz, and SEOquake all have browser extensions to show metrics for each result in SERPs, so you can analyze SERP features at the same time you assess competitiveness.
By this point, you should know the type of content that will match user intent and feel good that you can compete with the other sites in the SERP. It’s time to apply your analysis to how you create or improve the page you want to rank.
7 ways to get more traffic from SERP features
Making your search snippets more clickable will get you more clicks from the exact same position in search results. Here’s how to make the most of the SERP features that show up for the keyword you’re targeting.
1. Featured snippets
Featured Snippets answer specific search queries and show up at the top of Google search results. As they’re part of organic results, featured snippets are often referred to as “Position 0.” While there’s no specific strategy that guarantees you’ll land (and keep) one, there are a few things you can do.
For example, let’s take the featured snippet (from the Freshbooks Small Business Resource Hub) that appears for the query “straight line depreciation.”
If you click into the article on Chrome, you can see that Google now highlights the text that answers the question. (This relates to Google’s improved ability to rank passages.)
You can see that Google highlighted the relevant content. A clear, short summary—at the top of a page dedicated to the topic—makes it much more likely that Google will deem your content the best fit for a featured snippet. As Moz notes: “The optimal length of a featured snippet paragraph is roughly 40 to 50 words, or around 300 characters.”
In this instance, the entire page focuses on answering the question, “What is straight line depreciation?” This makes it clear to search engines what the page is about and, as a result, more relevant to people searching for “straight line depreciation.”
2. People Also Ask (PAA) boxes
A PPA box lists questions related to a search query and, below, answers from a page with a link to the source. These boxes show up a lot in SERPs, but they don’t provide much visibility for publishers (compared to featured snippets) because they require a couple of extra clicks.
Even so, PAA boxes give you an idea of the related questions that you may want to answer on your page (to, for example, make it more likely that you’ll earn the featured snippet or simply rank higher). Alternatively, they may also give you an idea of new pages you could create as stand-alone articles or as part of a content hub.
A great way to find pages that you rank for but don’t show up in PAA boxes is to use the Ahrefs Organic Keywords section in their Site Explorer. You can filter results by SERP features and select “People Also Ask.”
For example, if you’re Freshbooks, you can see that you own the first position for “straight line depreciation” but are just sixth for “balance sheet.” Investopedia is a tough competitor from a link perspective—but maybe a sharper focus for your content could improve your position.
The PAA boxes below the featured snippet give you some ideas of what you might need to cover on your page. Do you already answer these questions? As well as Investopedia? Are the answers clearly defined so that search engines can find them?
3. Video carousels and clips
The video carousel gives users an option to preview videos relevant to their search. Clips, currently in (Google’s often prolonged) beta, let users navigate directly to specific points in a video.
Let’s get meta by looking at HubSpot’s video on how to optimize your YouTube videos for search.
You see the common theme across the thumbnails showing up here? They all include a person, a big title, and a colorful background. Also notice that the top two titles are most aligned with the words in our query. That’s not by accident.
For relevant phrases that don’t make it into the title, tags can help. Tags are added by the uploader of a video and are not seen by users—but are easy to find. To look at the keywords a competitor video uses, search the source of the page for “keywords”:
For best results, add around a dozen specific (“how to optimize youtube video”) and broad (“youtube SEO”) tags to your video that sum up what it’s about. It’s a good sign that your tags are fully optimized if you can understand what your video is about just by reading them.
Don’t go overboard with your tags. About 5–8 is plenty. Including too many is counterproductive, as you’ll send mixed signals to YouTube’s algorithm about your video topic.
4. FAQ schema
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) display a drop-down list of questions and answers from an organic search result.
Here’s a brief walkthrough on how to add FAQ schema to your site:
- Know the required properties.
- Validate data with Google’s testing tools.
- Ask Google to recrawl your page using Google Search Console.
When it comes to developing content, you can find questions to answer on your page a few different ways:
- Google’s autocomplete & People Also Ask section;
- Answer The Public;
- Internal site search.
Add only relevant FAQs and keep your answers short and straightforward
5. Map Pack
The Google Map Pack (or Local Pack) appears for local-intent keywords and lists two or three local businesses related to the search. It links to profiles with photos, reviews, and other information about the local businesses.
Local SEO is its own beast, but here are some starting points:
- Verify your business on Google.
- Fill out all the information on your Google My Business profile.
- Get online reviews (+ respond to reviews).
- Build local citations (with a consistent name, phone, and address).
- Build backlinks (local links + relevant topic links).
If we take a peek at the SERP for “wrongful foreclosure attorney near me,” Lawsuit Legal appears at the top of the “regular” organic results but is nowhere to be found in the map pack:
Even if you rank first organically, you’ll lose out on traffic (especially on mobile) if you don’t claim and optimize your Google My Business profile. Thirty minutes of work on the LawsuitLegal profile could yield thousands in new business.
Images appear in multiple places on the SERP—anywhere Google thinks visual content provides better results. Images can appear in rows, blocks, and even between organic listings. (Side note: Always use images in your blog posts as images can boost your conversion rate.)
Want to get more organic traffic from images? Here’s your punch list:
- Name your images (with descriptive language).
- Use descriptive alt text and captions.
- Choose the best file type (WebP for the smallest file sizes, JPEG for the highest quality, PNG to preserve background transparency, and SVG for logos and icons).
- Decrease the file size of your images.
- Create an image sitemap.
- Use schema markup (for recipes, products, and videos).
- Consider lazy loading, browser caching, and/or a CDN.
Sitelinks show up for brand queries, so it’s a space you probably already own. However, optimizing your sitelinks can help get users to relevant pages in fewer clicks.
Google’s advice to improve sitelinks highlights a few standard SEO best practices:
Provide a clear structure for your website, using relevant internal links and anchor text that’s informative, compact, and avoids repetition.
Allow Google to crawl and index important pages within your site. Use Fetch and Render to check that they can be rendered properly.
If you need to remove a page from search completely, use a “noindex” robots meta tag on that page.
If relevant, high-value pages aren’t showing up as sitelinks, you may want to:
- Review your website’s structure and ensure the navigation is clear.
- Check that top pages are in your XML sitemap.
- Build more internal links to key pages.
- Cross check that your page titles are accurate and descriptive.
As Google continuously pushes out new features in search results, keyword research alone isn’t enough—you need to pull data from real-world SERPs.
A SERP analysis needs to be part of every piece of content you create. You need to know what people expect when they use search terms and whether the content you create is competitive with what’s already there.
Keeping up to date and monitoring SERPs doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are a few accounts and groups to make it easy: