Insights / digital

The Anatomy of a Search Engine Results Page (SERP)

Search engines act as a portal to the rest of the Internet – all 4 billion pages (and counting) of it. Getting found amid the crowd requires a careful blend of art and science commonly known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.

In this guide, I intend to introduce you to what it is we’re talking about when we talk about SEO, and some of the things search engines are and aren’t looking for on each page of your website.

What exactly is Search Engine Optimization?

I like to think of SEO as the “thesis” of my content. It helps drive web traffic from the free, organic, editorial and natural listings of search engine results.

All major search engines, including Google, Yahoo and Bing, generate results pages in response to a user’s query. Web pages, videos, local listings, and other content are shown and ranked based on what the search engine considers most relevant to users.

Below is a search engine result page. The area highlighted in RED represent Paid Search (Pay-Per-Click, or PPC) results; in BLUE are the Local results; and in ORANGE are the Organic search results. Of these three, Local and Organic are most dependent on SEO.

seo search results page layout

What are we looking at here?

  • SEO-dependent listings appear below Pay-Per-Click ads. This wasn’t always the case, but as the major powers sought to monetize Search, the only way to appear at the top of the list anymore is to pay for the privilege.
  • Results are largely influenced by the user’s location. In this case, because I searched for a local dentist, I got a significant block of Local results above the Organic listings. Not every search term will yield that many local listings, and not every user will see the same listings even for the same search term.

The goal of SEO isn’t to “game” the search engines. That doesn’t stop people from trying, of course, but it’s not the right attitude to bring into your strategy. The search engines themselves tend to frown on that kind of behavior, and it could actually hurt your rankings.

The purpose of SEO is twofold:

  • Communicate your intentions to the search engine, so they can then recommend your website for relevant searches.
  • Get more targeted traffic that will convert to customers and followers or build brand loyalty.

What Are Search Engines Looking For?

  • Content: Do the text on the page, the titles, descriptions and images all relate to a central theme? Is that theme relevant to the search term(s)?
  • Performance: How fast is your site? Does it work properly?
  • Authority: How many other sites link to your site as the authority on the content?
  • User Experience: How does the site look? Is it easy to navigate around? Does it look safe – free of viruses, malware, or scams?

What Are Search Engines Not Looking For?

  • Keyword Stuffing: Overuse of keywords on your pages. This is one of those gimmicks that used to boost a page’s ranking, but today’s search engines are smarter than that.
  • Purchased Links: Buying links will get you nowhere when it comes to SEO. Links back to your site have the most search value when they’re not forced or artificial.
  • Poor User Experience: Make it easy for the user to get around. Making it too difficult for people to find content they’re looking for will only increase your bounce rate.

Anatomy of an SEO “Ad”

anatomy of an seo ad

Search results, and the techniques you use to influence them, will vary based on the competitive nature of your industry or the keyword that you are trying to rank for.


In the next section of our guide, we look into defining our “thesis” with keyword phrases, and some of the best practices for using them in your website to get the best search engine placement and results.

You might also be interested in: 8 Steps to Creating SEO-Friendly Content Packages, Parts 1 (Planning) and 2 (Deployment).

As Mason’s Director of Digital Strategies and Analytics, Ryan Winiarski believes the key to any campaign begins with defining measurable goals and setting the tracking efforts directed at attaining those goals.Working in media and marketing communications for more than 10 years, Ryan has a deep understanding of how online and offline marketing programs can be integrated.  That knowledge and understanding allows the Mason team to understand and measure the effectiveness of your advertising, public relations and total marketing spend to create high-impact campaigns that create opportunities, results and revenue giving you the most efficient return on your investment.