The battle of the SERPs

The battle of the SERPs

30th August 2012

The areas of SEO and PPC are awfully close to each other and yet very different in their approach. SEO is about creating as much visibility as possible for relevant search queries. PPC is much more driven by ROI, visibility is not always as valuable as within SEO. Although the underlying techniques have similarities there are also some skills you just need for SEO or PPC. Therefore there are specialists in both disciplines. As a true search marketer though, I believe you should be skilled in both disciplines. And as a search marketer there’s only one place you really have to make the difference: The Search Engine Result Page (SERP).

The SERP is the battleground of search marketing. Although the most effect is clearly created within your website, the SERP is where your first and most important battle takes place. The battle for the visitor. It’s a direct battle with all your competitors. And you have to make sure you’re properly armed to be able to come out on top every time.

In this battle for the visitor there are two main strategies available: SEO and PPC. Some choose to fight this battle by just using SEO, others rely solely on the big guns of PPC. And some choose to bring out their complete arsenal to win the battle over the visitor and focus on a strong combination of SEO and PPC.

In this battle the winner does not take it all. A visitor can visit more than one site from the SERP or could even choose to visit none of the given results, a loss for both the participants as the host of the battle: the search engine. And even winning this battle does not mean you’ve won the war over the customer. There might be more battles in the customer journey and winning this battle doesn’t say anything about winning that war.

Which instruments do you need to win this battle?

Winning the battle for the visitors depends mainly on three things: rankings, relevance and visibility.

The easiest way to win this battle is to be on top of the SERP. For some SERPs this means taking the first organic spot, for most competitive SERPs the top spot is an ad. Rankings are the most valuable instruments to win this battle because visitors start reading in the left-top corner. But rankings are also the most expensive instruments in this battle, higher rankings for the same ad are more expensive, higher rankings in the organic search results require more SEO skills and labour. And sometimes the actual returns do not justify these investments.

Although rankings are the best way to win the visitor there are other ways to win this battle. The second instrument you need to use is relevance. When a visitor enters the battleground he enters with a mission: to find the most relevant result for his needs. That means you can win over the visitor by being more relevant than your competitors even when you’re not in the top positions. More relevant results attract more attention because of the bolded text, relevant ads get higher rankings based on their quality score.

And although relevance is a great way to attract the attention to your result, when every single result is relevant you still blend in with all the other results. Another way to be more interesting to the visitor than your competitors is to increase your visibility. There are multiple ways to increase your visiblity. Both advertising and organic results offer possibilities to enrich your results with either ad extensions or rich snippets. This way you can add additional information to your ad or organic results which results in more real estate in the SERPs and more distinctiveness from the regular results. Another way to become more distinctive is to realize different kinds of results. For the organic results you could use image results, video results, news results, etc. For ads you could use product ads alongside your regular ads to become more visible.

How to win this battle?

To win this battle you do not only need to know how the use these instruments, but most all you need study the SERPs. Because if you do not know what your competitors do and how you are represented within the SERPs you cannot anticipate how to win the battle for the visitor.

Winning these battle starts with analysing the SERPs. Of course you need to know in which position you are, but there are more questions you need to answer, like:

  • Are ads shown above the organic results?
  • How relevant are the results for this specific query?
  • Which synonyms does Google bold in the search results?
  • Does the SERP show local results with a map?
  • Does Google localize the organic results?
  • Are there blended results like videos, images and news results represented?
  • Do your competitors use rich snippets and ad extensions?
  • Which rich snippets and ad extension do your competitors use?
  • And which don’t they use?
  • Can you exploit the “first mover advantage“?
  • Does this SERP show product ads?

All the answers to these question can give you a clue about how you can improve your presence in the ever changing SERPs of search engines. Don’t start by analysing link profiles, landing pages or ad campaigns, but start by analysing the SERP and your competitors. That’s where the battles are won. Don’t just think of a strategy up front and analyse afterwards, but be a part of the battle. The SERP is your playground, know it, feel it, own it!


Written By
Jeroen van Eck is a consultant search engine marketing at the online marketing company E-Focus in the Netherlands.
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