On-SERP SEO: the future of SEO goes beyond blue links!

16 Nov 2020

This year I had the pleasure to be a speaker at Web Marketing Festival, where I presented a deck about the future of SEO beyond blue links.

Unfortunately the presentation is in Italian, but I'll try to go through its main points here as this gives me the chance to talk once again about the so-called on-SERP SEO, an important aspect of modern search engine optimisation that should not be overlooked when we are optimizing a website in 2020 and beyond. 


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The SERPs they are a-Changin'

If instead of becoming a musician Bob Dylan would have started doing SEO, at some point he would have probably noticed that SERPs are constantly changing, and are now very different from what they used to be some years ago.


If back in time we used to see maybe a couple of ads on top of a result page and immediately after our belowed ten organic blue links, now the reality is that, for a growing number of queries, organic results have been pushed down and down over the years by not only ads but a number of other elements that are populating the SERPs.


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The travel industry can be a good one to exemplify this trend. According to a research carried out in 2019 by Authoritas on a set of 3.000 keywords related to hotel, flights and holidays, the 98% of organic results for transactional queries are not visible above the fold on mobile


And by looking at some example it is not hard to understand why. Take a look for example at the query "Vacanze a Parigi" (Holidays in Paris):


The red dotted line is where more or less the above-the-fold area would end on a mobile phone. You can see an ad - before Covid you could see a couple more of them - and then, after the Covid box, a turistic guide with things to do/points of interest and even daily routes with suggestions on what to see if you have one, two, or three days. Then of course we have the knowledge panel about Paris with the main information about the city, the trip planner and related searches. Finally, after many scrolls you can see the organic results (in yellow in the screenshot).


A similar situation can be seen for most hotel and flight-related queries as well. Take a look at the SERP for "hotel a Roma" (hotels in Rome) below:



We don't have any turistic guide now, that's true, but we do have a new module displaying hotel suggestions with a map and the possibility to insert dates and check for availability directly from the SERP.


Finally, one last example with the query "Voli Roma Catania" (Flights Rome - Catania). In this case you'll notice yet another module with prices for flights operating that route and even a bar chart showing you when tickets for this route are cheaper.



The labyrinth of Google's ecosystem

What all of these travel SERPs have in common is what I call the Google ecosystem. What I mean by that is that if a user clicks on one of those features, be it the turistic guide, some elements of the knowledge panel, hotel or flight module, they will be redirected to some other SERP or Google property and will enter in a sort of "labyrinth", making it almost impossible for them to go back to the original SERP and click on an organic result.


Such ecosystem is in this case Google Travel, a hub belonging to Google where users can find flights, hotels, holidays, point of interests and guides.



Obviously, if these features are hard placed above organic results, they will attract loads of clicks which otherwise would have gone into organic results.


I took the travel vertical as an example, but this trend and the presence of Google's ecosystem can be noticed for more and more queries in a lot of different niches. The pattern is very similar, with Google placing different features right above the organic results, pushing them down on the SERPs.



There are also some extreme examples in which Google, for queries that expect an immediate and universally accepted answer, gives the result even before you complete a search directly in the address bar of the browser:



The result of all of this is that users are not only presented with maybe a couple of ads and organic results, but with much more elements on the SERP. If we look at it from an SEO point of view, there are much more "distractions" on the SERP now, and competition is increasingly fiercer. More elements on the search result page mean that there is less space to fight for, and every pixel count.

Why is all of this happening?

One of Google's goals is providing users with the best possible results for any given query. If we look it from the Search Engine's perspective, it makes sense to show an answer box for queries that expect a quick and fast answer, like the current hour. In the end, what a user wants to know when they search for "What hour is it in Italy" is just that, the hour in a specific place. There is no need to read anything else or research a lot here, with just the indication of the hour the search intent is fulfilled.


This is obviously a straightforward example where the answer is just one and it's unequivocal. But there are plenty of other cases in which it's legit to wonder if it's fair of Google to display its own features instead of other websites. Look back at the travel scenario for example, is it fair that Google pushes it's own travel hub instead of facilitating the access to other sites? I'm not sure there's an easy answer.


In any case, this is the trend we're seeing for an increasing number of queries, and the future looks no different. A further increase of SERP features and more presence of Google ecosystem is to be expected in the years to come.


When I talk about this topic, I always make reference to this tweet from Gianluca Fiorelli that exemplifies pretty well the trend and SEOs' bittersweet feeling about it:



The rise of zero-click searches

As mentioned before, having more features on the SERPs and having users wander through the labyrinth  of Google's ecosystem has obviously an effect on the amount of clicks to organic results.


There is a very interesting article from Sparktoro that clearly shows how organic CTR is progressively decreasing over time, while searches which end with zero clicks are rising. The trend is much more accentuated on mobile, where the majority of searches happen.



In such a scenario, how are we as SEOs supposed to react? What is the role of SEO if our perfectly optimized site, with great content and blazing-fast loading times is only visible on mobile after five scrolls for our main queries? 


One way to approach it is to stop thinking like we were dealing with SERPs from years ago and focusing only on the famous "ten blue organic links", but rather being more holistic when doing search engine optimization. Here is where on-SERP SEO comes into play.


If we had to define what the so-called On-SERP SEO is, we could state something like this:


On-SERP SEO consists in a series of activities aimed at maximising the organic presence of a website in the SERPs, utilizing a holistic approach.


Now, what's important to understand here is that we are not talking about maximizing the organic rankings (which is of course still a crucial aspect of SEO), but rather the organic presence. This means that as SEOs, we need to open our mind and eyes and try to be present in as many places in the SERPs as possible on the one side, and capitalize on our current SERP snippets on the other side.

The 3 golden rules of On-SERP SEO

When approaching On-SERP SEO, I believe it's important to focus on 3 aspects that we need to be conscious about, which are the following:

1. Observe and analyze the SERPs

This is a fundamental exercise that every modern SEO has to do. Nowadays, the temptation of relying mostly on tools is real. While having tools is great as it speeds up our work massively, we should not fall into the trap of not looking at SERPs anymore. The reason is simple: it's on the SERP where we can find the answers we are looking for when it comes to maximising our organic presence.


By looking at the SERPs and study them, we will understand what is the intent (or intents) behind every query, and as a consequence why Google is displaying some features or organic results instead of some others. This will help massively when optimizing our existing content or creating new one to ensure the good old organic ranking, but it will also help to understand which opportunities we have to expand our real estate on the SERP.

2. Identify and take advantage of any opportunity

As I just said, analyzing the SERPs will allow us to find out which opportunities are out there that we are not taking advantage of. When looking at search result pages holistically, we need to focus on every element that composes the search result page and think about ways in which we can use that element for our own benefit.


For example, if there is a featured snippet, how can we improve our content so that we are able to steal it from the competitor that is featured there? And again, how can we present content and mark it up so that we get some rich results


I'll leave it here for now, but bear with me as we will look in depth at practical examples of this kind of analysis later in the article.

3. Do not focus only on the standard organic links

This is a direct consequence of the first 2 rules, and something so easy but yet sort of hard to put in practice.


As SEOs, we are historically accostumed to focus mostly on organic rankings and most of our job is trying to rank as high as possible for as many relevant queries as possible. Don't get me wrong, this is still the most important thing we need to keep doing, there's not even space for questioning here. What I'm trying to say is that on top of organic ranking we need to focus also on all the other elements of the SERP where we could potentially fit, or snippet enhancements that could make our organic results bigger and thus more prominent

Some practical examples of On-SERP actions

Now that we have an idea of how we should approach modern SERPs and the importance of finding and taking advantage of any opportunity that they have to offer, let's have a look at some practical examples. I'll just run through some possibilities, but hopefully this will give you an idea of how to apply the same critical eye in your own analysis and on-SERP strategies.

Claim your knoledge panel

Knowledge panels are automatically generated by Google by retrieving information from various sources around the web on the specific entity being featured, which can be an organization, a place, a person or anything else that's considered a "unique and distinguishable" thing or concept by Google.


If for brand searches you see a knowledge panel popping up for your organization, if you haven't done it yet you should claim it in order to be able to suggest edits and changes on the information being displayed. That will give you additional control over this SERP feature and the information it presents to users. 


If you see a button below the knowledge panel saying "Claim this knowlege panel", that is your starting point.

Have a look at this article from Google to know more about updating information on a knowledge panel.


Obtain as many rich snippets as possible

As we said many times already, one of the goals of On-SERP SEO is to try to phisically occupy as much space as possible and consequently take real estate away from competitors in an attempt to maximise clicks to our pages. Having rich snippets for our results is a good way to achieve that.


A rich snippet is basically an organic search result with additional information, like FAQs, prices, reviews and so on. To make it cristal clear, they look like this:


Have a look at your SERPs and notice in which ones rich snippets are appearing and most importantly which kind of rich snippet is present. There are tools like Semrush or Ahrefs that can help you carry out this task in bulk but as a first step I always suggest to have a personal look at the result pages to have a general idea.


The aim should be to isolate for each SERP the kind of rich snippets that your competitors are getting and you are not and try to obtain them. Generally, to obtain a rich snippet you will need to add structured data markup to your content, always paying attention to Google's guidelines which are quite strict and you should follow closely.

Steal featured snippets from the competition

Another common task to carry out when doing on-SERP SEO is an analysis of which SERPs are showing a featured snippet and a consequent strategy to be featured there instead of competitors.


A featured snippet is a sort of special result which is placed on top of the regular organic results (that's why this placement is often called position 0) and shows an excerpts of the page's content and of course a link to the featured page. Unlike rich snippets, they are automatically generated by Google and you won't obtain them with structured data.


You can see an example below:


It comes without saying that on the SERPs where there is the featured snippet, given the great visibility that the featured page gets, most of the organic clicks will probably go to that page. That's why it's important to go fight for our pages to be placed there!


A good way of approaching this is to check the SERPs in which we are ranking and that are showing a competitor in a featured snippet. Once again, if you want to scale this check you can use Semrush or Ahrefs - they both have a specific filter for this.


Once you have identified the SERPs with a featured snippet, you should improve your content and try to steal it from competitor. A hint here: pay attention to how information is presented in the position 0, as it plays a role in your chances to be featured there. For example, in the featured snippet above you can see a bullet list... if you want to steal it you should probably start by providing a list-type paragraph related to the best running shoes on your content as well.


Take advantage of the ecosystem

Yes, you've read it right. There are some cases in which we can take advantage of Google's ecosystem organically. The first example is very specific to the travel sector: Google at some point early this year has stopped charging brands for referral links on Google Flights (detailed info on Search Engine Land).


It's also very recent news that Google has made Google Shopping free, so that's definitely a huge opportunity for retailers to increase their organic presence directly into one of Google properties.



But there's no need to go as far. Without leaving our main SERPs, we can take advantage of Universal Search and increase our organic real estate.


If you are playing in SERPs where image boxes are displayed, you should definitely invest in optimizing your visual assets for a chance to pop up on those boxes, as well as in the Images tab. And that's not over, if you are selling products, you can even add structured data markup to your product images and try to get the special product badge (more info on Google Webmaster blog). That will directly tell users looking for images about a product that your site is selling it, isn't that amazing?



The same applies to videos.. if you are competing in SERPs which are surfacing videos, probably it's a good idea to start creating some yourself! 


We shouldn't forget about local results either. Have a look at this SERP for "hairdresser in Padua". Google is displaying a local pack and also an interesing box with results from Groupon, Yellow Pages, etc.



Claiming and updating your Google My Business listing is an essential step (not the only one) in order to have the chance of being featured in the local pack.


Now, regarding the other box, it's very unlikely that if you have a hairdresser website you are going to be able to have a placement among Groupon, Yellow Pages and company... but here there's the perfect example of holistic thinking when it comes to on-SERP SEO. If you cannot show up in that box, maybe you can try to be featured on those websites that are showing up, so when a user clicks there you have one more chance to be seen!


As I mentioned, these are just some examples on how to attack SERPs with a holistic approach. I'm sure there are many other examples and opportunities out there, but I leave them for you to discover as you try to apply on-SERP SEO to your projects! :)