There’s gold in them thar SERPs…gold I tell ya!
Now, whether that phrase takes you back to a simpler (maybe? I don’t know, I was born in the 80s) time of gold panning, Mark Twain, and metallurgical assay — or just makes you want some Velveeta shells and liquid gold (I also might be hungry) — the point is, there is a lot you can learn from analyzing search results.
Search engine results pages (SERPs) are the mountains we’re trying to climb as SEOs to reach the peak (number one position). But these mountains aren’t just for climbing — there are numerous “nuggets” of information to be mined from the SERPs that can help us on our journey to the mountaintop.
Earning page one rankings is difficult — to build optimized pages that can rank, you need comprehensive SEO strategy that includes:
A ton of work and research goes into successful SEO.
Fortunately, much of this information can be gleaned from the SERPs you’re targeting, that will in turn inform your strategy and help you make better decisions.
The three main areas of research that SERP analysis can benefit are:
So, get your pickaxe handy (or maybe just a notebook?) because we’re going to learn how to mine the SERPs for SEO gold!
Any sound SEO strategy is built on sound keyword research. Without keyword research, you’re just blindly creating pages and hoping Google ranks them. While we don’t fully understand or know every signal in Google’s search algorithm — I’m pretty confident your “hopes” aren’t one of them — you need keyword research to understand the opportunities as they exist.
And you can find some big nuggets of information right in the search results!
First off, SERP analysis will help you understand the intent (or at least the perceived intent by Google) behind your target keywords or phrases. Do you see product pages or informational content? Are there comparison or listicle type pages? Is there a variety of pages serving multiple potential intents? For example:
Examining these pages will tell you which page — either on your site or yet to be created — would be a good fit. For example, if the results are long-form guides, you’re not going to be able to make your product page rank there (unless of course the SERP serves multiple intents, including transactional). You should analyze search intent before you start optimizing for keywords, and there’s no better resource for gauging searcher intent than the search results themselves.
You can also learn a lot about the potential traffic you could receive from ranking in a given SERP by reviewing its makeup and the potential for clicks.
Of course, we all want to rank in position number one (and sometimes, position zero) as conventional wisdom points to this being our best chance to earn that valuable click-through. And, a recent study by SISTRIX confirmed as much, reporting that position one has an average click-through rate (CTR) of 28.5% — which is fairly larger than positions two (15.7%) and three (11%).
But the most interesting statistics within the study were regarding how SERP layout can impact CTR.
Some highlights from the study include:
SISTRIX found that overall, the more SERP elements present, the lower the CTR for the top organic position.
This is valuable information to discover during keyword research, particularly if you’re searching for opportunities that might bring organic traffic relatively quickly. For these opportunities, you’ll want to research less competitive keywords and phrases, as the SISTRIX report suggests that these long-tail terms have a larger proportion of “purely organic SERPs (e.g. ten blue links).
To see this in action, let’s compare two SERPs: “gold panning equipment” and “can I use a sluice box in California?”.
Here is the top of the SERP for “gold panning equipment”:
And here is the top of the SERP for “can I use a sluice box in California?”:
Based on what we know now, we can quickly assess that our potential CTR for “can I use a sluice box in California?” will be higher. Although featured snippets lower CTR for other results, there is the possibility to rank in the snippet, and the “gold panning equipment” SERP features shopping ads which have the most negative impact (-14.8%) on CTR.
Of course, CTR isn’t the only determining factor in how much traffic you’d potentially receive from ranking, as search volume also plays a role. Our example “can I use a sluice box in California?” has little to no search volume, so while the opportunity for click-throughs is high, there aren’t many searching this term and ranking wouldn’t bring much organic traffic — but if you’re a business that sells sluice boxes in California, this is absolutely a SERP where you should rank.
Keyword research sets the stage for any SEO campaign, and by mining existing SERPs, you can gain information that will guide the execution of your research.
Of course, keyword research is only useful if you leverage it to create the right content. Fortunately, we can find big, glittering nuggets of content creation gold in the SERPs, too!
One the main bits of information from examining SERPs is which types of content are ranking — and since you want to rank there, too, this information is useful for your own page creation.
For example, if the SERP has a featured snippet, you know that Google wants to answer the query in a quick, succinct manner for searchers — do this on your page. Video results appearing on the SERP? You should probably include a video on your page if you want to rank there too. Image carousel at the top? Consider what images might be associated with your page and how they would be displayed.
You can also review the ranking pages to gain insight into what formats are performing well in that SERP. Are the ranking pages mostly guides? Comparison posts? FAQs or forums? News articles or interviews? Infographics? If you can identify a trend in format, you’ve already got a good idea of how you should structure (or re-structure) your page.
Some SERPs may serve multiple intents and display a mixture of the above types of pages. In these instances, consider which intent you want your page to serve and focus on the ranking page that serves that intent to glean content creation ideas.
Furthermore, you can leverage the SERP for topic ideation — starting with the People Also Ask (PAA) box. You should already have your primary topic (the main keyword you’re targeting), but the PAA can provide insight into related topics.
Here’s an example of a SERP for “modern gold mining techniques”:
Right there in the PAA box, I’ve got three solid ideas for sub-topics or sections of my page on “Modern Gold Mining”. These PAA boxes expand, too, and provide more potential sub-topics.
While thorough keyword research should uncover most long-tail keywords and phrases related to your target keyword, reviewing the People Also Ask box will ensure you haven’t missed anything.
Of course, understanding what types of formats, structures, topics, etc. perform well in a given SERP only gets you part of the way there. You still need to create something that is better than the pages currently ranking. And this brings us to the third type of wisdom nuggets you can mine from the SERPs — competitive analysis gold.
With an understanding of the keywords and content types associated with your target SERP, you’re well on your way to staking your claim on the first page. Now it’s time to analyze the competition.
A quick glance at the SERP will quickly give you an idea of competition level and potential keyword difficulty. Look at the domains you see — are there recognizable brands? As a small or new e-commerce site, you can quickly toss out any keywords that have SERPs littered with pages from Amazon, eBay, and Wal-Mart. Conversely, if you see your direct competitors ranking and no large brands, you’ve likely found a good keyword set to target. Of course, you may come across SERPs that have major brands ranking along with your competitor — if your competitor is ranking there, it means you have a shot, too!
But this is just the surface SERP silt (say that five times fast). You need to mine a bit deeper to reach the big, golden competitive nuggets.
The next step is to click through to the pages and analyze them based on a variety of factors, including (in no particular order):
If the page is lacking in any, many, or all these areas, there is a strong opportunity your page can become the better result, and rank.
You should also review how many backlinks ranking pages have, to get an idea for the range of links you need to reach to be competitive. In addition, review the number of referring domains for each ranking domain — while you’re competing on a page-to-page level in the SERP, there’s no doubt that pages on more authoritative domains will benefit from that authority.
However, if you find a page that’s ranking from a relatively unknown or new site, and it has a substantial amount of backlinks, that’s likely why it’s ranking, and earning a similar amount of links will give your page a good chance to rank as well.
Lastly, take the time to dive into your competitor’s ranking pages (if they’re there). Examine their messaging and study how they’re talking to your shared audience to identify areas where your copy is suboptimal or completely missing the mark. Remember, these pages are ranking on page one, so they must be resonating in some way.
Successful SEO requires thorough research and analysis from a variety of sources. However, much of what you need can be found in the very SERPs for which you’re trying to rank. After all, you need to understand why the pages that rank are performing if you want your pages to appear there, too.
These SERPs are full of helpful takeaways in terms of:
These golden nuggets are just there for the takin’ and you don’t need any tools other than Google and your analytical mind — well, and your metaphorical pickaxe.