By: Nathan Seppelt on 08-05-2017 in Google, Search, SEO, Studies

In this study, we set out to identify the most probable compositions of Google search results pages for different types of keywords and to identify key optimisation tactics for each formation.

Since the search engine’s inception in 1998, Google’s mission has been “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

SERP Formations Study title

While their mission statement has largely stayed the same (“and make” was originally “making”), Google’s approach to executing the mission has changed significantly over the past eighteen years.

Google’s original approach to achieving this for any given search query centred on discovering where the most relevant and useful information on the web was and providing their users with the means to get there with a single click. Each page of search results contained links to 10 different sources of information.

These were the original ten blue links, and the world of Search Engine Optimisation revolved around trying to get your website to appear at – or as close as possible to – the first blue link on the first page.

10 blue links in Google SERPs

But as the web exploded in both the amount and the diversity of content and information, Google’s approach to organising, making accessible and making useful the world’s information has also had to evolve.

Today, a staggering number of users place higher than ever demands on the search engine. It’s not enough that Google handles more than 5.5 billion searches per day (and it could be a lot more), returning most results in just an eighth of a second.

Going well beyond sheer speed and power, Google presents more information directly in search results in a range of different ways depending on not just the types of information (and content) included in the results, but depending on what they believe the person making the search wants to see.

An obvious example is the way Google displays results for searches about the weather, but this is just one of the sixteen types of ” SERP Features” that might appear in search results.

Adelaide weather knowledge panel

The inclusion of these content-rich “SERP Features” in search results makes them more informative, specific and targeted: by aligning the results much more closely with the intent of the person making the search.

For SEOs and marketers who want to take full advantage of these features to bring more (and better) traffic to their websites, it is immensely valuable to understand how they work, what types of searches they are most likely to appear for, and how to optimise your website for them.

Moz and Dr. Pete have done a fantastic job tracking, identifying and cataloguing the main types of SERP Features that make up Google search results (and their What is a SERP Feature? resource is the best place for a solid overview of what each of the features are), but it’s also crucial to understand which of these SERP Features are likely to appear for the types of keywords you want to target on your website, and how that will affect your overall search strategy.

We decided to study the make-ups of search results for a range of different keyword types. There were two main things we wanted to find out:

  1. What search result pages are most likely to look like and include for each type of keyword.
  2. The best ways businesses and SEOs can work with the way Google presents information in order to get the very best results from their search strategies.

How We Went About It

We began by identifying each of the types of the keywords we wanted to study. We settled on a list of 10 types:

  1. Celebrity Name (as a practice swing: these results were the easiest to verify).
  2. Brand Name (global and very well-known companies)
  3. Brand Name (lesser known companies)
  4. Brand Name + Location
  5. Commercial Keywords (products or services)
  6. Commercial Keywords + Brand Name
  7. Commercial Keywords + Transactional modifier (e.g. “buy”)
  8. Commercial Keywords + Location
  9. Question-Based Longtail Keywords
  10. Statement-Based Longtail Keywords

For each type of keyword, we developed a list of 200 individual terms (for a total of 2,000 terms in all) sourced from both real keyword research for our clients and public data or lists like information from Google Trends.

To get a rough overview of which SERP Features would be most likely to appear prominently for each keyword type, we ran each of the finalised lists through Moz’s Keyword Explorer tool.

As a starting point, this gave us a very high-level idea of which features would be very likely and which would be very unlikely to appear in search results for those types of queries:

Keyword Explorer results showing SERP Features

But on its own, this overview didn’t tell us what the most common “formation” (or make-up) of the SERP for each keyword type actually look like.

So at this point we did a lot of deep-diving, spot-checking a large number of the individual keywords. Keyword Explorer was still useful for a lot of this, but we also checked a lot of real-life Google results (gasp) until we could, with confidence, build the typical result page – the typical SERP Formation for each keyword type.

The rest of this post details the results of our SERP Formation Study. For each keyword type listed above, you can expect the following information:

  • An overview and description of the typical (or most likely) SERP Formation.
  • An example SERP showing each Feature included in the results.
  • Details about each SERP Feature, with insights on how to optimise for that feature.
  • What your “best bets” for appearing in a SERP Feature when targeting keywords of that type.

Mobile Results

You’ll notice that all the screenshots throughout this study are of desktop results. When conducting this study, we found that for all 2,000 keywords, the SERP formations for mobile searches were mostly, essentially, the same as for identical desktop searches. The only significant difference was how the elements were arranged and displayed on mobile screens.

I guess we could have shown some mobile screenshots in this study, but I think your scrolling fingers will thank us for sticking to desktop results!

Celebrity Names

In this section:

  1. Overview
  2. Top Stories
  3. In-Depth Articles
  4. Tweets
  5. Knowledge Panel
  6. Your Best Bets
  7. Key Optimisation Tactics

To ease into this study, we looked at a certain kind of keyword we probably spend a bit too much time searching already, so we pretty much had enough terms just in our recent search histories to build up a solid keyword list. We started with celebrity names.

There are a lot (like, a lot) of actors and musicians on this list, but we also included artists, writers, politicians (some of the most Googled people of 2016 were, not surprisingly, politicians) and even some historical figures.

Celebrity gossip news is a fast-paced world, with today’s top stories being (literally) yesterday’s news by tomorrow. Fittingly, we saw the SERPs dominated by features tailored to this kind of pace, populated with content created by high authority, highly trafficked websites that publish at just as fast a pace.

The typical Celebrity Names SERP Formation includes Top Stories, Tweets, In-Depth Articles and a pretty big, juicy Knowledge Panel in addition to organic results.

The SERP for “Miley Cyrus” shows how all of these elements are displayed on the page:

SERP Formation for Miley Cyrus

Top Stories

Top Stories prominently shows up to three newsworthy and, usually, time sensitive articles related to the search query.

Top Stories SERP Feature for Miley Cyrus

The cards generally display a feature image, headline, the name of the publisher and how recently the story was published – which suggests the recency of the post is likely a strong ranking factor.

In late 2016, the “Top Stories” cards completely replaced “In the News” boxes in Google search results. While the new cards are definitely an improvement on the design of the old News feature, it’s not yet clear whether there has been a corresponding algorithm change.

Google outlines some detailed guidelines any site can follow to improve their chances of being included in their Top Stories but in practice, large and highly-reputable publishers seem to receive preference.

Moz’s Dr. Pete recently studied more than 3,600 Top Stories and found that, while a wide range of publishers were included in the results, the top 10 publishers accounted for nearly 13% of the stories.

Plus, with the emergence of “fake news” as a major problem throughout 2016 and the US Presidential election in particular, Google has suggested that “fake news” should never be promoted, and it’s safe to assume there’s a good chance Google will lean more heavily towards publishers they’ve already established as trustworthy.

The consequence for many publishers is that if your site is not as big or as reputable as a major newspaper’s or magazine’s, say, your chances of appearing in Top Stories is just not that high either.

However, one conclusion that can be drawn from Dr. Pete’s study is that the odds of a smaller publisher appearing in a Top Story increases as the “newsworthiness” of the stories (and therefore the search queries that return them) decreases.

For most marketers targeting Celebrity Name-related keywords, that means the chances of landing a Top Story are very, very small unless you target longtail keywords where competition is much lower.

Particularly for the work involved earning the links and social shares you’d need to appear here, you’d be much better off trying to appear in an In-Depth Article.

In-Depth Articles

In-Depth Articles appear as a block of three long-form pieces of content and look no different to organic search results, although each block of three links occupies just one position in the search results.

In Depth Articles for Miley Cyrus

Although, as with Top Stories, In-Depth Articles are usually dominated by large, well-known publishers and mostly appear on broad search terms, the fact that they are much less time-sensitive than Top Stories presents an opportunity for small publishers.

Because less weight is given to how recently the content was published, you have more time to earn the volume of high-quality links and social shares that would help signal the content’s authority, relevance and reliability to Google.

Particularly for celebrities, longer pieces of content (typically more than 2,000 words) like major interviews or “inside looks” are likely to rank well and remain relevant for longer in search results.

Tweets

Recent Tweets are shown directly in search results in a card format immediately below a link to Twitter.

Tweets for Miley Cyrus

What’s interesting about how Tweets appear in Google search results is that they’re not necessarily always from the celebrity’s own Twitter account.

If you have a large enough following or reach on Twitter, this may be an effective way to land a prominent position in the SERPs. But given that there are around 6,000 new Tweets every second, these positions may be difficult to hold for long.

Knowledge Panel

Getting yourself into a Knowledge Panel for a celebrity is probably the longest of all long shots.

This is a large card containing images, key (and usually high-level) information, social media profiles and things like movies, TV shows, albums, books and related searches.

Knowledge Panel for Miley Cyrus

Unless you’re a Wikipedia editor, your best chances of having any impact on the Knowledge Panel is to rank in the top 5-10 images or uncover a long-lost relation.

Your Best Bets

If you’re trying to appear in any of the SERP features for a celebrity name, we tip our hats to you.

Unless you’re a major news publisher, your best bets will be In-Depth Articles, though you’ll still probably need either an interview with the celebrity, or some A-Grade journalism backing you up.

Key Optimisation Tactics

If you are crazy/bold/lucky enough to target celebrity name keywords, to take full advantage of the SERP features that appear for these searches you should be using at least the following optimisation tactics:

  • Top Stories are mostly dominated by big publishers, but you can improve your chances of appearing in a top story by targeting much more specific longtail queries including the celebrity’s name, instead of their name on its own.
  • Secure a celebrity interview, or write a ground-breaking expose and invest most of your efforts in linkbuilding and content promotion to score an In-Depth Article.
  • Focus on optimising high-quality celebrity images (portraits seem to work best) for a chance of appearing in one of the image slots in the celebrity’s Knowledge Panel.

Big Brands

In this section:

  1. Overview
  2. AdWords
  3. Knowledge Panel
  4. Site Links
  5. Top Stories, In-Depth Articles & Tweets
  6. Your Best Bets
  7. Key Optimisation Tactics

We had a bit of fun Googling 200 different celebrities, so next our study turned to how search results are structured for actual brands. Here, we began by analysing results for some of the most well-known brands in the world.

Our list of keywords came from sources like the Fortune Global 500, similar industry lists, and the most followed brands on various social media platforms.

There are some significant overlaps between the SERP Formations for big, very well-known and smaller, lesser-known brands; but in many cases the formations that appear for big brands can be seen as an ideal for smaller brands to aim for.

We discovered two highly likely formations for big brands. Which one is displayed seems to depend mainly on how newsworthy that brand is (and, perhaps, how newsworthy it is at that particular time).

When there is little or no news for the brand, the SERP contains AdWords (top), a Knowledge Panel, and Site Links in addition to the organic results. The SERP for Louis Vuitton demonstrates this:

SERP Formation for Louis Vuitton

However, when the brand in question is in the news, the SERP may also include Top Stories, Tweets and In-Depth Articles (plus notice the removal of AdWords and Site Links), as seen in the results for Deutsche Bank:

SERP Formation for Deutsche Bank

Big brands (or smaller brands aspiring to growth), therefore, should pay particular attention to the following SERP Features:

AdWords

AdWords, whether they appear at the top or bottom of search results, are a paid search feature.

AdWords for Louis Vuitton

For this reason, we won’t go into too much detail about them in this post, other than to point out that it’s important to be aware of what types of keywords they are likely to appear on, as they will have an impact on the effectiveness of other listings in search results.

The prime AdWords positions are right at the very top of SERPs: above organic and all other types of results (Knowledge Panels, which appear to the right of results are exempt, but paid Shopping results will sometimes appear above these).

As a result, every other result is pushed further down the page, possibly below the fold, and can impact their click through rates. This effect can be even more pronounced on mobile browsers.

Knowledge Panel

Almost all well-known brands should expect to see a Knowledge Panel in their search results: of the 200 large brands we included in the study, 175 had a Knowledge Panel.

The Knowledge Panel pulls information together from a variety of sources, and it’s worth understanding what comes from where in order to ensure you’re properly optimised for a well-constructed panel.

Knowledge Panel for Louis Vuitton

An accurate Knowledge Panel that contains all of these elements is an important asset for any brand to have in search results for their own brand name. Its presence in the results not only captures searchers’ attention, but is an extremely strong authority and trust signal.

Name & Logo

Google looks at schema markup on your website to understand your preferred business name and identify your logo. Ensuring these attributes are correctly implemented per Google’s recommendations is key to displaying these in results.

Business Type, URL & Key Information

When it comes to identifying the business type for your brand (for our Louis Vuitton example it’s Fashion boutique company) as well as the URL (at least as far as the Knowledge Panel goes), Wikipedia is typically Google’s first port of call in practice.

Likewise, virtually all of the key information (which includes a description and other relevant details) will come from a Wikipedia article.

Any big brand should have an accurate and up to date Wikipedia article, but it’s worth checking that it contains all the details you would expect to see in a Knowledge Panel for a brand in your industry.

Social Profiles

One of the best opportunities the Knowledge Panel provides for brands is the potential to include links to all your social media profile accounts in a prominent position of the search results.

There are two key factors that influence how likely these are to be included. The first is making sure Social Profile markup is used on your site, and the second is getting each of your social media accounts verified.

A tick mark will appear on verified social accounts, and lets users know that the account is “official”.

On some social platforms it’s possible to request verification for your account, but for others (like Instagram), it isn’t. Still, big brands will have a distinct advantage in this area, particularly if you have a large number of followers or are likely to be impersonated by “unofficial” accounts.

Site Links

In searches where it’s clear enough that people might be looking for a particular site (like – by searching for a specific brand name), Google may display links to up to 10 different pages on that website in a pack underneath the full result for the home page.

Site Links for Louis Vuitton

Once again, a critical success factor determining whether sitelinks appear is correct implementation of schema markup.

Still, Site Links are driven by their own algorithm, so even if you are able to land them for your site, you may not have much control over which pages are included.

Top Stories, In-Depth Articles & Tweets

Each of these three SERP Features are much more likely to appear for brands that are in the news; and each highlight the importance of strong reputation management.

Having a widely-known brand means having a widely-discussed and written-about brand as well. This can be scary because you don’t have total control over the stories that are told about your brand; and with the inclusion of Top Stories and In-Depth Articles in search results, you’re open to seeing a range of stories appearing on searches for your own brand name.

These examples for Deutsche Bank, where the words “scandal”, “problems”, “penalty” and “self destruction” leap out, clearly illustrate the dangers of this:

Top Stories for Deutsche Bank

In-Depth Articles for Deutsche Bank

On the other hand, positive articles or, heck, even endorsements from influential publishers and websites can do a brand so much good.

Most big brands will have a hard-working and proactive PR Firm on retainer, but there’s a lot of value in finding one that really understands the digital space, and how the right stories on the right websites can improve your online presence.

The inclusion of Tweets in SERPs should serve as a reminder that your Twitter content should be on brand, but more than that they provide an opportunity to have some control over the stories around your brand that are prominent in search results. They can also help you drive traffic to time-sensitive content.

Tweets for Deutsche Bank

Your Best Bets

For big brands, a strong page one presence in search results boils down to two key elements besides organic SEO: schema markup implementation and really solid reputation management.

One of these is easier to nail than the other, but neither’s importance should be underestimated.

Key Optimisation Tactics

Big Brands should be using at least the following optimisation tactics to take full advantage of the SERP features that appear for searches of their brand name:

  • Use the proper schema markup so Google can understand your preferred business name and logo (for your Knowledge Panel) and site structure (for Site Links).
  • Keep an up-to-date and accurate Wikipedia page for Google to source key information for your Knowledge Panel.
  • Be active on social media and, if possible, verify your accounts. This increases the likelihood of them appearing in your Knowledge Panel.
  • Make sure you have plenty of internal links pointing to pages you want to appear under your homepage in your Site Links.
  • Hire a good PR firm (or manage a strong strategy in-house) to build up positive articles and news stories that can appear in Top Stories, In-Depth Articles and even mentioned in Tweets about your brand.

Lesser-Known Brands

In this section:

  1. Overview
  2. Knowledge Panel
  3. Reviews
  4. Site Links
  5. Your Best Bets
  6. Key Optimisation Tactics

For the purpose of this study, we mainly considered businesses with one or just a handful of locations within a smallish footprint to be small brands (though the list contains a mix of online-only businesses too). Our list of 200 small brands even included a number of what you might call “Mom & Pop” businesses, and nearly all were found on local and small business directories.

With that bit of hand-wringing safely out of the way, we found that SERPs for small brands were very similar to those for big brands that, like Louis Vuitton, were not in the news at the time of our study.

The most significant differences we noticed were changes within the Knowledge Panel and the addition of Reviews. Both can be seen in the SERP for one of our fave burger joints:

SERP Formation for 127 Days

Knowledge Panel

For smaller businesses, the Knowledge Panel is considerably more Local-centric than for bigger brands. This could be partly because Google probably won’t be able to pull information from somewhere like Wikipedia, but it’s likely to be partly because there is a greater chance there’s just one location associated with your brand name.

Knowledge Panel for 127 Days

In lieu of a Wikipedia page, Google will grab your information from Google My Business first, so the key here is to focus on completing and optimising your Google My Business listing.

The Knowledge Panel contains excerpts and data from reviews linked to the Google My Business listing.These are in addition to the Reviews SERP Feature described below.

You’ll also notice a row of “People also search for” suggestions that Google has placed at the bottom of your Knowledge Panel to make it easier for people to find your competitors as well. Although this might not exactly be ideal, it can be a useful way to quickly check up on who Google considers to be your competitors.

Reviews

Written by paying customers and (presumably) paid critics, reviews feature reasonably prominently in searches for small brand names. There were 143 reviews for the 200 small brands included in the study.

Reviews look very similar to regular organic search results, which they appear amongst, but with the addition of an extra row of information below the URL. This row contains the number of stars attributed to the review (even if the source doesn’t use stars as its rating system), and other information like the number of reviews from that source that comprise that score.

Review for 127 Days

Poor reviews and negative feedback can be detrimental to a brand, if they are too prominent in search results. All businesses big and small should have a strategy and a process for identifying, responding to and resolving negative feedback. Not only is it good customer service, but it will go a long to ensuring your presence and reputation online is healthy.

It’s also likely that for your industry or local area that most of the top Review results in SERPs come from just a handful of review sites.

Knowing what these sites are, ensuring your business information is correct and keeping an eye out for new reviews (so you can respond per your strategy) is beneficial.

Site Links

Site Links work exactly the same way as they do for big brands, though they are about 50% less likely (79/200 for small brands, vs. 131 for the big players).

The fact that Site Links are more likely to appear on “large branded sites with higher traffic” probably accounts for this.

Still, to take advantage of the greater prominence and higher clickthrough rates that Site Links deliver, smaller brands should be implementing the relevant schema markup and pointing plenty of (natural) internal links to the most important pages on their site.

Your Best Bets

Overall, the best bets for smaller brands are to make sure your listings on Google My Business and the most relevant review sites are complete, optimised and that you have a solid strategy for dealing with reviews.

Plus – as we hammered home to the big brands – make sure your markup is in order.

However: if your brand is growing or you’re kinda straddling the line between small and big brand-dom: why not swing for the fences? Sort out your markup, get yourself on Wikipedia, strive to get verified on all the social media platforms, and aim for where the really big players are.

Key Optimisation Tactics

When it comes to targeting branded keywords for brands that aren’t quite as well-known, to take full advantage of the SERP features that appear for these searches you should be using at least the following optimisation tactics:

  • Keep your Google My Business listings up-to-date, complete and well-optimised.
  • Know your customers and where they’re likely to review your brand and have a strategy in place for keeping on top of new reviews, addressing any negative reviews and encouraging positive reviews as much as you can.
  • Point plenty of internal links to the most important pages on your website to improve their chances of showing as Site Links under your homepage in search results.
  • Think big: if you’ve got the basics well covered, target the big brands’ tactics like using schema markup, Wikipedia articles and verified social media accounts – if they’re within reach at all.

Brand Name + Location

In this section:

  1. Overview
  2. Local Pack
  3. Your Best Bets
  4. Key Optimisation Tactics

Brand names are not always searched for by themselves. Frequently, a location modifier (the name of a location that modifies the search query) is added. Instead of searching just “American Apparel”, someone might search “American Apparel Darlinghurst”.

The addition of the location modifier makes a big difference to the search results because it signals quite strongly to Google that the searcher is looking for something at a particular location.

But we also found that the SERPs would be quite different depending on whether there was just one or several locations for the brand within the area defined by the location modifier.

Where the brand had only the one location, the SERP would contain a Knowledge Panel and Reviews (similar to a small brand name SERP). Note that the following example for “Apple Grand Central” also includes a Video result, though only nine out of 200 location-modified brand name SERPs included this feature.

The same principles and recommendations apply to the Knowledge Panel and Reviews for these results as with the lesser-known brand SERPs detailed above.

SERP Formation for Apple Grand Central

When the area provided in the query is larger – like New York, say – the results might need to include more than one business location. In these cases the Knowledge Panel and Reviews disappear and a Local Pack that includes multiple matching locations appears instead.

The SERP for “Apple New York” provides a clear comparison.

SERP Formation for Apple New York

Local Pack

Local Packs list, below a map of the requested area, the three business locations Google deems as most relevant to the search query.

Local Pack for Apple New York

The following information, taken from Google My Business listings, is included for each location:

  • Name
  • Number of Google reviews
  • Business Type
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Website link
  • Directions link

Key to success here is ensuring you have a completed, optimised and officially verified Google My Business listing for all your locations.

There are a number of other factors that affect how well your locations rank in Google, from things on your site to listings on other websites (like the Yellow Pages or TripAdvisor) to social media and reviews around the web.

Check out the excellent guide by Casey Meraz on where to focus your local SEO efforts for more information.

Your Best Bets

Besides a big ditto on our recommendations for small brands: making sure your Google My Business listings are in order, all your other listings are in order and having a reviews strategy; the most vital tip we can give is this:

The most important step you can take is making the time to do the research and the work to do it well. Especially if you have multiple locations, taking care of Local SEO takes time, effort and a fair amount of vigilance.

Key Optimisation Tactics

When it comes to targeting keywords featuring a brand name with a location, to take full advantage of the SERP features that appear for these searches you should be using at least the following optimisation tactics:

  • Keep your Google My Business listings up-to-date, complete and well-optimised.
  • Know where customers are likely to review your brand and have a strategy in place for keeping on top of new reviews, addressing any negative reviews and encouraging positive reviews as much as you can.
  • Focus on “local SEO” broadly – work on cleaning up and increasing your citations, and earning links from other local businesses, organisations, groups and charities.

Commercial: Generic, Branded & Transactional

In this section:

  1. Overview
  2. Shopping
  3. Images
  4. Knowledge Panel & Reviews
  5. Your Best Bets
  6. Key Optimisation Tactics

Next we compiled a list of 200 “commercial” terms that either name or describe generic products and services. We also studied an additional three variants of this list, where each term was modified by:

  • Adding a relevant brand name
  • Adding transactional terms
  • Adding the name of a relevant location

What we found was that neither the brand nor the transactional modifiers significantly changed the SERP Formations for commercial keywords (location modifiers did, which we examine below).

The typical formations for these keywords all contained Shopping and Images features, as in the “crystal decanter” example below. Of the 200 commercial keywords we studied, there were only 29 Review results, which makes the following example a bit of an outlier in that regard.

SERP Formation for crystal decanter

Shopping

Similar to AdWords, Shopping results are a paid search feature. Clicking a Shopping feature will take a searcher straight to a page where they are able to buy the product they clicked.

Shopping results for crystal decanter

Also like AdWords, the methods for landing decent Shopping positions are very different to those for organic posts. While we won’t go into detail about Google Shopping here (but if detail is your thing, check out Shopify’s Ultimate Guide to Google Shopping), it’s worth noting one thing.

It’s safe to assume businesses are paying good money to bid for Shopping results on these keywords because they’re confident that the people making these searches are ready to make a purchase.

The findings of this study, when we compared generic commercial SERPs against explicitly transactional SERPs seem to confirm this assumption.

The main takeout for businesses here is that the content you want to rank for these keywords (and the Title Tags and Meta Descriptions you use for the search result) can – and maybe should – be tailored to people who are ready to buy.

Images

Google displays an Image pack for nearly three-quarters of generic commercial keywords (the likelihood is much lower when any modifiers are included in the query).

Images for crystal decanter

The Image pack can appear in any organic search position and contains a single row of images that seem, in all cases we’ve seen, to correspond exactly with the highest ranking results for Google Image searches.

Images use a separate ranking algorithm to the core algorithm that ranks pages, partly because Google has to take a different approach to understanding visual content in the first place.

Although artificial intelligence is beginning to learn to recognise and understand images, Google still relies heavily on a number of related attributes and metadata to understand and rank images.

In order to have a decent chance of ranking highly for an image, all these attributes should be present and well-optimised.

Interestingly, adding a transactional modifier to the commercial keywords did not change which SERP Features were included in the results.

Transactional modifiers are terms that state an intention to make a transaction: terms like buy, cheap, for sale. And the fact that their inclusion doesn’t add any new SERP Features suggests that Google is already assuming, to some level, a transactional intent when commercial keywords are used in any instance.

What adding transactional modifiers did do, however, was shift around the paid results a little. When the transactional intent was made explicit, Shopping results were slightly more likely but AdWords (top) were less likely than with unmodified commercial keywords.

The typical results when a brand modifier is added are not significantly different either. The key differences you may see are that Knowledge Panels and Reviews are more likely to appear.

The example for Nike shoes below shows the inclusion of the Knowledge Panel. Notice too how Shopping now appears to the right of results, and how AdWords results are therefore able to appear at the top of the SERP.

SERP Formation for Nike shoes

Knowledge Panels & Reviews

You can expect that the Knowledge Panel that appears in the search results will be about the brand name included in the keyword, which means that if your brand (or website) has a different name (e.g. if you’re a retailer selling Nike shoes), you’re not going to get a look-in as far as the Knowledge Panel goes.

Knowledge Panel for Nike shoes

The presence of Reviews among the search results presents a better opportunity, however.

The points and tips we outlined for Lesser-Known Brands above still apply (and reputation is just as important here), but these also provide an additional opportunity for websites that can attract enough quality reviews (particularly if their brand name differs from the brand name actually searched) to appear in search results.

Your Best Bets

Many of the people making these searches are ready (or very, very nearly ready) to buy, so product pages are naturally going to perform very well organically; but most of the SERP Features shown are likely to be paid results.

For the best chances of organic performance, look to your Google My Business listings, reviews and ensuring that all your product images are properly optimised.

Key Optimisation Tactics

When it comes to targeting commercial keywords – whether they’re generic, branded or transactional (we’ll get to location-modified commercial keywords in just a tick), to take full advantage of the SERP features that appear for these searches you should be using at least the following optimisation tactics:

  • Tailor content towards people who are ready to buy – or nearly ready to buy.
  • If you have an ecommerce site, make sure your individual products are all well-optimised with unique product descriptions (on page content) and meta data.
  • Pay very close attention to image optimisation, especially for product images.
  • Know where customers are likely to review your brand or products and have a strategy in place for keeping on top of new reviews, addressing any negative reviews and encouraging positive reviews as much as you can.

Location Modified Commercial Keywords

In this section:

  1. Overview
  2. Your Best Bets
  3. Key Optimisation Tactics

Much more than transactional or branded modifiers, it was location modifiers that made the most significant difference to SERPs for commercial keywords.

From our study results, it seems that their inclusion in the search query shifted the suggestion of intent behind it from a commercial or transactional focus (“show me how to buy”) to a location focus (“show me where to buy”).

As we can see in both examples below, Local Packs take pride of place in the SERPs.

SERP Formation for divorce lawyers Sydney

When the commercial keyword names a product that can be bought online, Shopping results may be included. In the example for “diamond rings Adelaide” below, there are two rows of Shopping results on the right, without a Knowledge Panel below it.

SERP Formation for diamond rings Adelaide

Your Best Bets

This one is a total no-brainer: the Local Pack is your best bet. As we recommend above, ensuring your Google My Business listing (in addition to other significant directories) is complete, up-to-date and well-optimised is vital to a strong search presence.

Key Optimisation Tactics

When it comes to targeting location-modified commercial keywords, to take full advantage of the SERP features that appear for these searches you should be using at least the following optimisation tactics:

  • Keep your Google My Business listings up-to-date, complete and well-optimised.
  • Focus on “local SEO” broadly – work on cleaning up and increasing your citations, and earning links from other local businesses, organisations, groups and charities.
  • Lots of positive reviews help local SEO. Know where customers are likely to review your brand and have a strategy in place for keeping on top of new reviews, addressing any negative reviews and encouraging positive reviews as much as you can.

Question-Based Longtail Keywords

In this section:

  1. Overview
  2. Featured Snippet
  3. Videos
  4. Images & In-Depth Articles
  5. Your Best Bets
  6. Key Optimisation Tactics

This list of 200 keywords was definitely the most fun to put together, even if some of the most-asked questions of 2016 were a little on the dark side.

We included a broad range of question types, from general knowledge and current events-related questions, to really specific product and “how to” questions (longtail terms beginning with the words “how to” have been included in the question-based rather than statement-based longtail keywords list).

Typical search results pages for longtail questions include AdWords (top and bottom), Featured Snippets and Videos; with Images and In-Depth Articles also appearing in certain results.

SERP Formation for longtail question

Featured Snippet

When Google presents a brief answer to a question directly at the top of search results, we see what’s known as a Featured Snippet:

="Featured

And if you’ve ever heard anyone in SEO talk about “Ranking 0“, this is generally what they’re referring to.

We found Featured Snippets appearing in SERPs for 61% of question-based longtail queries, and they’re potentially a huge opportunity for websites that can secure them. Pages that earn Featured Snippets are more visible, may expect more traffic (thanks as well to higher clickthrough rates) and be seen as more credible and trustworthy.

Google takes (“snips”) the information in a Featured Snippet from a page that answers the searcher’s question in an authoritative but easily-comprehensible way. This means that there are two main factors that influence how likely a page will be featured in a snippet:

One: How easily Google can determine that the page directly answers the searcher’s question. This, in turn, has two components that (probably inadvertently) plays on a double meaning of what it means to be “direct”.

Firstly, the correlation between the question people are searching for and the answer provided has to be clear. This can be seen in the “what is white tea” example below, where the Featured Snippet begins with “White tea is tea made from…”

Featured Snippet for what is white tea

Secondly, being “direct” can also mean “going straight to the point; frank” (cheers to the OED); and this is a definition that is worth keeping in mind when optimising for a Featured Snippet. For the best shot at appearing in a Featured Snippet, there seem to be a couple of ways Google prefers answers to be direct, in this sense:

  • Keep it short. For paragraph-based Featured Snippets, the ideal length seems to be just 40-50 words. List or table-based Featured Snippets may be a bit longer, but because they may pull information from different parts of a page; the information has to be very well structured, and each element that may be snipped (e.g. list headings or H2s) should each be very succinct.
  • Keep it factual, and include only the most pertinent (the most essential) information to the question in the portion of your answer that is likely to be snipped.

Two: How satisfied searchers are with the answer on the page.

According to Larry Kim, visitor engagement is a Featured Snippet “ranking” factor.

When a high percentage of visitors are clicking through to an answer from search results, and then spending a long time on the site, Google is able to take the hint that those visitors are satisfied with the answer they’re getting and (therefore) Google is more algorithmically-inclined to include it in a Featured Snippet.

It’s a good idea to keep an eye on your engagement metrics like click through rates, time on page (and site) and bounce rate for pages you want to optimise for Featured Snippets and identify where you can optimise the content to improve them.

Overall, when it comes to Featured Snippets; it really is a case where the more useful your content is; the better it’s likely to perform.

Videos

Video is an extremely popular format for some types of question-based content: particularly anything that answers a “how to” question, so it’s not surprising to see Video results appearing in a significant number of SERPs for longtail questions.

Video for longtail questions

It will also likely not be surprising that many of the videos that are featured in search results are hosted on Google-owned YouTube. That said, it is possible for a video hosted on another page to appear in Video SERP Features. Ensuring that video schema markup is correctly implemented on that page will be essential.

Honourable Mentions: Images & In-Depth Articles

While it seems that Google strongly prefers answers to questions to be in a format that is easily snippable, or as a video; Images and In-Depth Articles may also appear in a reasonable number of longtail question SERPs.

For that reason, you shouldn’t completely discount these types of content for longtail questions. Instead, you should consider whether a long, detailed article (or something like an infographic) would be the best format for the person searching a particular question.

In cases where the answer is “yes”, these types of content may give you a better way into the search results.

Your Best Bets

The Featured Snippet is definitely your best bet for these types of queries. SEOs are really just beginning to learn how to use these really well as opposed to just getting them, so any site that can secure a Featured Snippet that encourages a high clickthrough rate is set to do well.

We’d also recommend videos, but with the caveat that their effectiveness is most likely to be locked in proportion with your production quality.

Key Optimisation Tactics

When it comes to targeting question-based longtail keywords, to take full advantage of the SERP features that appear for these searches you should be using at least the following optimisation tactics:

  • To optimise for Featured Snippets at the very top of SERPs, provide clear, concise and well-structured answers to questions prominently in your content.
  • Create tutorial videos for any relevant “how to” searches and ensure you implement correct video schema markup.
  • For questions requiring long answers, articles longer than 3,000 words that earn decent links can secure an In-Depth Article result.

Statement-Based Longtail Keywords

In this section:

  1. Overview
  2. Featured Snippet
  3. Related Questions
  4. Your Best Bets
  5. Key Optimisation Tactics

Not all longtail keywords are questions.

Keywords are designated “longtail” when a searcher begins to get more specific about what they’re looking for. “Christmas tree decorating ideas” and “beat all the levels on Candy Crush” are longtail keywords (for example) while “Christmas tree” and “Candy Crush” are not, because they are still too broad.

When we studied SERP Formations for longtail keywords that weren’t questions, we found that they typically included AdWords (top and bottom), Featured Snippets and Related Questions.

SERP Formation for longtail statement

Featured Snippet

While Featured Snippets appear in SERPs for statement-based longtail keywords about a third as often as they do for question-based longtail keywords; they are still one of the most prevalent organic SERP Features.

Featured Snippet for home loans

Featured Snippets work the same way for statement-based queries as they do for question-based queries.

Related Questions

That the main difference between the typical SERP Formation for question and non-question based longtail keywords is that Related Questions appears (with the heading “People also ask”) for the latter is interesting.

Related Questions SERP Feature

The Related Questions card is exactly what it sounds like: it lists a small number of questions that Google recognises as being closely related to the original search query. Expanding any of the questions displays a short Featured Snippet-like answer to the question. The expanded view also includes links to the answer’s source and search results for the related question.

If you’re targeting searches (like statement-based longtail keywords) in which Related Questions are featured you should be finding out what those questions are and not only ensuring that you have content that answers them, but that answers them in “snippable” ways, per our recommendations about Featured Snippets above.

Your Best Bets

As with question-based longtail keywords, featured snippets are one of the best ways to secure a prominent position in search results; but with the caveat that you should check whether the individual terms you want to target are likely to include a Featured Snippet.

Related Questions also provide a strong opportunity to improve your site, as well as search visibility.

Key Optimisation Tactics

When it comes to targeting statement-based longtail keywords, to take full advantage of the SERP features that appear for these searches you should be using at least the following optimisation tactics:

  • To optimise for Featured Snippets at the very top of SERPs, provide clear, concise and well-structured answers to questions prominently in your content.
  • Create a list of Google’s “Related Questions” and create content for each of those questions, making sure you include a “snippable” answer somewhere in your content.

Wrapping Up

We’ve seen that SERPs can look very different depending on the types of keywords people are searching.

Understanding what these differences are and why they exist are the important first steps to really understanding how to take advantage of them to increase your search visibility and bring more visitors to your website.

Make sure you check out Moz’s What is a SERP Feature? for more information about some of the Features that didn’t appear in any of the typical SERP Formations we identified, or hit us up here if there are any keyword types you’d like to see added to the study.

  • Simon

    Hey! Thanks for great and comprehensive study!
    Want to her a few words on SepStat from you. What can I use it for?
    Bought it recentely and still fugure it out