12 Most Important Google SERP Features (and How to Optimize For Them) 2021 Guide

Christina Tran / 17th November 2021 / Comment / Digital Strategy

As SEO specialists, we can learn a lot just from looking at Google’s own SERP (Search Engine Results Page) features.

Far from the barebones results pages of 20 years ago, Google’s SERPs are now teeming with features and tools that serve to make searchers’ (and our) lives easier.

Today’s SERP features carry an abundance of informational and editorial weight that, if leveraged, can make help marketers achieve better above-the-fold visibility and more overall organic traffic.

And that’s not all. By looking at what features are being served for which keywords, we can figure out things like search intent, related keywords, and opportunities for additional placement on and off the SERP’s traditional 10-place organic ranking system.

In this blog post, we’ll look at the 12 most important SERP features, how they work, and what you can do to use them to your advantage.

 

What is a SERP feature?

A SERP is a Search Engine Results Page. SERP features are elements that appear on the results page that convey the most relevant information and are tailored to each individual search.

SERP features provide more information than standard organic results and can come in many forms: a map pack, a knowledge panel, a people also ask section and more.

 

4 examples of SERP features: An image carousel (yellow), a knowledge panel (blue), a “People Also Ask” box (green), and a “Top Stories” box (orange).

 

SERP features can be incredibly helpful to us as marketers when we’re optimizing our site content and figuring out which keywords to target.

If you can learn how to read them, they can act as a kind of lens into your audience’s __, shedding light on incredibly valuable information like language decisions and search intent (more on that in the next section).

And finally, SERP features are incredibly common. According to SEMRush Sensor data, only 2.72% of Google’s result pages have no SERP features.

 

SERP features and search intent: 2 sides of the same coin

SERP features allow us to better understand user’s search intent. Search intent can be defined as the purpose or reason why a user conducts a specific search.

Search intent plays a huge role in shaping the SERP, and in turn, it should also shape our content.

When it comes to making content decisions, too many marketing and publishing teams start by asking the self-interested question, “What do we want/need to write about?” Instead, they should be taking a user-centric approach, asking the question, “How do we give users the content they need?”

As we try to answer that question, very often we look to Google for answers. And Google, obliging, leaves a trail of bread crumbs in the form of search intent.

Search intent is our key to understanding our audience, our most powerful weapon in the fight to deliver value to readers. Without understanding search intent, how could we accurately give them the information they need? How would we know if they’re looking for an answer to a question, or if they’re searching for a particular product?

There are multiple reasons why a user would perform a search, and our most thorough categorization of search intent features eight categories, but for simplicity’s sake, we can group search intent into four foundational types:

  1. Informational intent – The user is looking to answer a question or get more information about a specific subject. Some examples include: “How do I fix a broken washing machine?” or, “What is the difference between a spade and a shovel?”
  2. Transactional intent – The user intent here is to complete an action or conversion. This could be to purchase a product, submit a form, or sign up for a newsletter.
  3. Navigational intent – The user is looking for a specific page or site. Instead of inputting the URL and going straight to the page, a user can type in a query like “Nike” and Nike’s website will populate. This type of intent consists mostly of branded keywords.
  4. Commercial intent – Some users may intend to make a purchase, but they don’t have all the necessary information to make a decision yet. The quest for that information is known as commercial intent. These users are still in the “research” phase and are looking for information like comparison charts or product guides.

 

Search intent’s real-life applications

To see these abstract concepts put into practice, let’s say you run a brick-and-mortar business that sells washing machines.

If a search in your area for the query “washing machines” yields both a “People Also Ask” box and a map pack, it’s likely that Google believes the search has commercial intent: The searcher is looking to buy a washing machine, but they don’t know which model or where they’ll buy it from yet.

As a washing machine retailer, you should be trying your hardest to get placement in both of those features. Doing so will make it much, much easier for searchers to find your business.

To gain placement the map pack, your website, and your Google My Business profile should be fully optimized, with all the info Google needs in order to show you alongside competing retailers like Best Buy and Lowes.

Likewise, for the “People Also Ask” box, your site should have plenty of product information, product comparisons, and options for users to purchase the product. This will satisfy the user’s hunger for product information, and Google, recognizing that, will be more likely to toss you in the “People Also Ask” box.

By utilizing SERP features as a way to better understand user’s search intent, you can improve the experience on your own website by providing the most relevant content for your targeted audience.

To see an example of this done well, check out this case study to see how our SERP feature optimizations led to a 1,300% increase in traffic for one of the world’s foremost cancer research centers.

 

12 Google SERP features to know in 2021

Featured Snippet

What it is:

A featured snippet is a box that displays an excerpt from one of the top 10 organic results in the SERP. Google serves these when the search query indicates informational intent, and the snippet can take the form of a paragraph, a bulleted list, a numbered list, or a table.

Featured snippets are sometimes referred to as “position zero” because they’re placed even higher in the SERP than first-position links, often resulting in a higher CTR.

How to optimize:

If you’re already in the top 10 organic results, you’re more likely to get featured than results that aren’t. If you are not in the top 10, you should aim to improve your overall rankings.

We call this being within “striking distance” of featured snippets, and it’s crucial for securing one of the SERPs most coveted spots. Read our case study with NASA to learn how our striking-distance strategy was able to secure over 600 snippets for the organization.

Finally, when optimizing for featured snippets, you should target informational intent by answering questions that show up for whatever keywords you’re targeting.

Here’s our process for helping clients capture more featured snippets:

  1. Start with queries and keywords where you already rank high.
  2. Perform a SERP analysis to find out what kind of information is being populated and what questions users are asking (the “People Also Ask” box and Answer The Public are two good places to start).
  3. Optimize on-page SEO by answering questions concisely (in around 50-75 words), being factual, using the proper H1s and H2s, and keeping the content organized.
  4. Answer as many similar questions as possible. (Ex: If you’re selling bubble mailers on your website, you could answer questions like: Can you recycle bubble mailers? Where can you recycle bubble mailers? Are all mailers recyclable? etc.)

Read this case study to learn how we were able to win over 600 featured snippets for NASA

For more information on featured snippet optimization, check out our deep dive on how to win more featured snippets.

 

People Also Ask (or Related Questions)

What it is:

The “People Also Ask” box is an infinitely populating list of questions related to the search query. Each tab expands to look like a featured snippet, and they usually appear beneath the first few organic results.

How to optimize:

Optimizing for the People Also Ask (also known as a PAA) is similar to optimizing for featured snippets. You’ll want to identify opportunities in your content to answer questions in a succinct, matter-of-fact way (aim for around 50 words), then reorganize your page (with proper H1s and H2s) so Google can easily scan it.

Tools like Ahrefs can tell which of your pages are already ranking for lots of keywords, as well as which of those keywords are serving PAAs. Use that as a jumping off point when deciding which pages to start with.

In combination, these optimized keywords and easily digestible content will make Google all the more likely to pull your domain into more PAAs.

 

Image Pack

What it is:

With an image pack, Google recognizes that the query has visual intent and provides searchers with a carousel or a panel of images related to the search term.

How to optimize:

The best way to optimize for image packs is to make sure you’re properly tagging your site’s visuals and metadata. This means that your alt tags, file names, captions, and surrounding text should all be accurate and descriptive. Targeted keywords should also be thrown in whenever it makes sense to do so.

 

Video Carousel

What it is:

Similar to an image pack, a video carousel is Google’s response to a query it identifies as having visual/informational intent. Often, the videos will have timestamps where the searcher’s questions are explicitly answered.

Video carousels are frequently included in “how-to” type searches, along with other queries with informational/DIY intent (those involving the word “tutorial,” for example).

Last year, SEO Inc. reported that 62% of all Google searches include video carousels, and video is 50 times more likely to rank organically than plain text results. Moz has also found that YouTube is heavily favored in Google’s video results, and is chosen for video carousels more than 94% of the time.

How to optimize:

As with most aspects of SEO optimization, getting your video to appear in Google’s video carousel centers around task completion and user intent.

That means your video should answer the searchers’ question / show them how to complete a task in the most matter-of-fact, to-the-point way possible. In some cases, it may be best to identify a target keyword and work backward from there, building a video around a subject where you know there’s a demand.

Another important consideration is text optimization. Your title should be factual and target the appropriate keywords, of course — but you should also have a detailed description, an optimized file name, and an engaging thumbnail.

And finally, we strongly suggest uploading your videos through YouTube. Not only is YouTube a product of Google (and therefore its preferred video platform), it also allows you to create a time-stamped video outline, which helps searchers and Google find exactly what they’re looking for quickly.

 

Local Map Pack

What it is:

When Google recognizes that a search query has local intent (e.g. “Thai food in [CITY]” or “[ITEM] near me), it will often show users a local map pack.

Most of the time, a local map pack will contain 3 physical locations that Google deems relevant, along with reviews, images, contact information, and a description of each.

Local map packs have become more prevalent in recent years as Google’s prioritized getting local businesses front and center in the eyes of searchers.

How to optimize:

Map pack optimization is absolutely crucial for brick-and-mortar businesses who are trying to get more search visibility for local (and even some non-local) keywords.

The best way to gain placement in more map packs is to claim, update, and optimize your Google My Business profile. GMB is Google’s dashboard for local businesses, and if you take the time to add beautiful photos, write an accurate description, and leverage the more-advanced features (like parking availability and primary/secondary categories), Google is infinitely more likely to reward you with greater map pack visibility.

You can get even more local visibility by soliciting ratings and reviews from happy customers. There are tools that can help you do this with ready-made templates, but you can also catch patrons on their way out and make the ask personally. It’s important not to overlook this crucial step — according to BrightLocal, reviews make up as much as 16% of the search engine decision-making process when it comes to local pack rankings.

For more information on how you can compete in local, read our blog post on the 6 best local SEO tools for 2021.

 

Knowledge Panel

What it is:

Knowledge panels appear on the right side of the SERP for queries with informational intent. They pull data directly from Google Maps or Google My Business listings, or from Wikipedia pages, Google partners, or companies with branded web pages (e.g. “about us” pages).

How to optimize:

If searching for your business pulls up a knowledge panel, you can edit the information in that panel by claiming, updating, and optimizing your Google My Business profile. Doing this won’t just effect the knowledge panel — it will also improve your local search rankings overall.

If you’re trying to do this for anything other than a business, you’re probably out of luck. Many knowledge panels draw information from Wikipedia, and because people and businesses are forbidden from making Wikipedia pages about themselves, this type of optimization is largely out of your hands.

 

Knowledge Card

What it is:

A knowledge card is similar to a knowledge panel — both are part of Google’s knowledge graph, an expansive, evolving database that identifies and catalogs the relationships between entities.

Knowledge cards can pull data from human-edited sources like WikiData, from data arrangements with Google partners, or straight from the index. They usually appear at the very top of the SERP.

How to optimize:

Because knowledge cards rely on human-edited sources and third-party data arrangements, most sites don’t stand a chance at appearing in them. Take it from us — your SEO efforts are better focused elsewhere!

 

Top Stories

What it is:

The top stories feature scans for informational intent and links out to news stories and recent events that are relevant to the search query.

How to optimize:

If you’re a publisher looking to appear in the top stories box, you can begin by setting up your publication in Google’s Publisher Center. This effectively vets news sources to make sure they’re up to Google’s standards. Getting that seal of approval will clear the way for you to be featured in any of the platforms in the Google News ecosystem.

Once you’ve done that, focus on publishing in-depth, timely articles that are 1. accurate and 2. hyper-relevant to searchers. Headlines are another consideration — try to keep them under 22 words with the targeted entity (i.e. the person, place. or thing you’re writing about) stated clearly at the outset. And finally, avoid all types of profanity, inappropriate content, and clickbait.

 

Rich Snippet

What it is:

Rich snippets look similar to organic results, but they contain a few extra lines of information near the bottom. That information can include reviews, cook time, calorie amount, price, genre, release date, and more.

How to optimize:

You can optimize for rich snippets by building a structured data markup for your site (Google supports the one from schema.org). This markup aggregates all the data Google needs for the snippet — for reviews, events, recipes, etc. — and makes it easier to provide that information alongside your listing.

Once you’ve implemented the schema into your page’s HTML, you can test it using Google’s Rich Results Test. Doing so will tell you whether it’s working and if there’s any errors, allowing you to go through and fix them before final deployment.

 

Sitelinks

What it is:

For branded search terms, Google may serve an expanded search result with up to 10 extra links to one site. These links direct users toward different sections of the site, and can help those users get where they’re going faster (usually resulting in a better CTR).

How to optimize:

Because sitelinks are auto-generated, your best shot at optimizing for them are by following the best practices for website architecture.

That means your site should be well structured, with relevant internal links and anchor text that clearly guides the user (and Google’s crawler) from one page/topic to the next. You can also use a third-party site crawler like Screaming Frog to make sure everything on your site is being rendered properly, with no broken links or duplicate content.

 

Top and Bottom Ads (Paid)

What it is:

This SERP feature looks similar to an organic result, but it’s paid for by advertisers who want to have their link appear in Google’s results for a keyword. They’re demarcated with a bold “Ad” right alongside, and they can appear on either the top or the bottom of the page, depending on the advertiser’s bidding strategy.

How to optimize:

Because this is a paid advertisement, it requires a different approach than the organic marketing optimizations we’ve discussed. Contact one of our digital advertising specialists to learn more, or check out one of our many blog posts on the subject.

 

Shopping Results (Paid)

What it is:

Shopping results are another form of paid placement on Google. They display the product name, an image, the retailer, and the price, along with special offers and/or reviews. In most cases, they’ll appear at the very top of the SERP, above the first organic result.

How to optimize:

Like the ads above, this feature also requires a different approach than the organic marketing tactics we’ve talked about. To learn how to drive sales and win customers with Google shopping, check out our blog post on how we built a successful Google shopping campaign from scratch.

 

Wheelhouse can help!

If you’re looking to optimize your site to appear in more Google SERP features, don’t fret — we can help!

We’ve worked with a wide variety of clients across multiple industries to develop and deploy meaningful SERP feature optimizations. Recently, we partnered with the folks at NASA on a mission to capture more featured snippets. That campaign culminated in a 138% increase in owned snippets and a 38% increase in overall organic traffic.

If you’re curious about the optimizations we can make for your business and the breakthrough results they can deliver, feel free to reach out. Give us a call, use our online form, or leave a comment below to get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

 

By Christina Tran