Anatomy of Google search results pages

...and how you can play in each section

Overview of Results Page components

The layout of the search results pages (SERPs) vary from search to search, and user to user.  However, broadly speaking there are three types of opportunity to be on these pages:

  1. Paid for advertising slots at the top (and side) of the page
  2. Local Places / Google+ results listings (the map bits)
  3. And the main “natural” results listings themselves

But first a caveat:  The Google landscape, prices and proportions covered in this article are a quickly evolving landscape.  This article is written at March 2014 – if you’re reading this from the future, you may want to be aware that things will have moved on.

Let’s look at each in turn:

(1)   Paid for advertising slots at the top

These can be seen on a pale yellow / pink background at the top of search results pages, subtly labelled as paid results.  The only way you can get into this section is by paying Google (per-click received), and this advertising is the mainstay of Google’s business model.  It is also now the single biggest form of advertising media in the world.

This form of traffic generation is known as “Search Engine Marketing” (SEM), or sometimes simply “Pay-per-Click” (PPC) advertising, and is quite distinct from Search Engine Optimisation.  It is a topic for another guide, and is not covered in any detail in our Advanced SEO guide.

As a general rule the estate agency sector has been very slow to embrace PPC advertising.  Hence the click rate in the UK (currently around 20p on average, languishes far below other sectors like travel, insurance, retail, etc.).  This is in a large part due to the dominance of the online marketing ecosystem for estate agency by Rightmove (which has somewhat suppressed the development of a regular marketing pattern).  However, this is changing very quickly at the moment, as estate agents are starting to realise the untapped opportunity that resides in PPC as a result of this under-development.

There are 3 – now 4 – types of business that we see advertising in any significant numbers here, and a few searches for houses for sale in a few towns will soon bear this out:

  • New homes developers with their high scale, centralisation of marketing (and hence centralised, focused, online marketing teams) and relative lack of dominance by portals suppressing “traditional” online marketing.
  • Portals – again with their high scale, centralisation of marketing teams, and the historical battle between FindaProperty/PrimeLocation and Zoopla for traffic underneath Rightmove, portals are a predominant advertiser in the pay-per-click arena.  That said, Rightmove has still to enter this sector in a large way, as it hasn’t felt sufficiently threatened by Zoopla to date.  If and when Zoopla becomes a serious traffic threat, we expect to see Rightmove defend and enter into PPC traffic purchase in a major way.  This entry would be likely to drive cost per click up by a factor of 2-3 if it happens, and will price out the efficiency of the medium as a cheap untapped source of traffic for smaller agents and indeed other portals trying to enter or compete for traffic.  In sum, the moral of the story: make hay whilst the sun shines!
  • Major Corporate Agents:   In the last 3 years we have seen a significant entry into the area of PPC advertising by the major corporate groups, especially Countrywide group, Savills, etc..  Large agents have the centralisation and online marketing teams to have spotted, understood, and acted on the opportunity presented by PPC to reduce their dependence on portals, and to tap into vendor and landlord lead traffic generation.
  • Savvy Independents:  In the last 12 months we have seen a significant trend towards savvy, internet marketing focused smaller independents coming in on the act.  Often these independents are helped by small SEM agencies (and that’s a real minefield, so please do contact us to understand the system before piling in and instructing one).  Or they are driven by savvy owner managers, or have an online marketing enthusiast on their staff.  However, it is happening, we are seeing more and more of these progressive independents are starting to harness the opportunity (and we now estimate that some 15-20% of agents are in on the game).

(2)  Places or Google+ results – the ones linked to results on a snippet of map

Next up come the “Places” results – or more accurately the “Google+” results as Google recently merged the products into their overall social marketing strategy under the Google+ product banner.

These are the results that you see along with “Pins” lettered (A), (B), (C), etc. often with a section of map alongside them depending on what type of device you are browsing on.

Getting into these results requires having Google recognise your business or branch location as a discrete entity.  That used to mean having a “Places” page, in their old parlance.  These days it requires making sure that your branch(es) are all set up with nice discrete Google+ pages.  There is a process you might need to go through in order to “claim” your branch location as your own, so that you can manage and control the data on it.  If you are in any doubt, give us a call and we can help advise on this front, as it’s really quite simple.

Once you have that account all claimed, dressed up nicely, and linking back through to your main website, then getting yours to rank above your competitors, comes down to a mix of other factors, including…

  • Your overall SEO performance, as driven by all the normal metrics
  • How well configured the Google+ page is
  • Your activity and social heartbeat on Google+ itself
  • Your volume and (to a lesser degree) the score of your Google reviews

We look at some of these topics in more detail in our Advanced Guide.

(3)  Organic results – the regular listings that you are SEOing for

Last but not least, come the organic results themselves – ie the natural listings which we think of as the main part of Google.

Even on a page with a big block of local places results, and a block of PPC adverts at the top, these natural listings still attract the lion’s share of the traffic and click throughs to your site of all the results types.  Indeed there’s a disproportionate bias of traffic going to the winning results in the natural listings.  The results in the number 1 slot tend to pick up about 25% of all the clicks going out of Google, the number 2 slot 15%, number 3 slot below 10%, and so on, and so forth.  Forget being on page 2, I don’t think anyone can honestly remember the last time they went to page 2 on Google can they?  We’ve heard it rumoured you need Nitrox equipment to dive that deep.

All of the advice in this guide works in concert to determine whereabouts your appear within the natural listings.  Follow everything carefully, and work at building your domain authority consistently over a period of time, and it’s almost certain that you’ll be able to climb into the top 2 or 3 slots, for many of your key target terms, even against portals and bigger agency groups with more resources.

As we move deeper into this guide, we will also look at the other crucial issue, that of the presentation of your natural search results listing itself.  A result ranking in slot 2 or 3, that is attractively presented, with a clean, human readable URL, a tempting, relevant title, and a clear, friendly brand / call to action, is far more likely to be clicked on, that an unattractive result in slot 1, which got there through sheer brute force of domain authority.

Templates mix and match, person to person, day to day, town to town

We said it before, but it’s worth underlining again… Google mixes up the templates it serves results on all the time.  What it serves up to me, might be different from what it shows to you.  What it serves up in Salisbury, will be different from what it serves in Winchester.  And what it serves up today, might well vary tomorrow.  What it serves up on a mobile device, or to a logged in user, might be different on an iPad or to anonymous users.

And all of this holds not just for the order of the results (which Google is constantly testing to see how users respond to new pages as it settles them into the search index), but to the very templates themselves.  One day there will be 3 ads up top, 5 down the side, 1 natural result, 3 places results, then 9 more natural results.  The next there will be 2 ads up top and just 10 natural listings.

Google SEO is a game of averages.  It’s like fishing in the sea with 1000 little fish hooks.  So often we hear an agent saying “I’m in slot 2 on page 1”.  That’s great, but the relevant question is for what search terms, and for how many permutations and combinations excluding your main brand, or town name.  That’s where the action, and the value is.

So, what next?

You may want to start back at our introduction to search engines, or read more about the Basics of SEO.

If you’ve done that, you might want to understand why Homeflow sites are a better foundation for your SEO.  And if you’re looking for detailed advice and ideas, there’s no better place to start than our SEO benchmarking or advanced guide.  You’ll also find lots more in our resources library.  If you’ve read lots of this and you are trying to follow through a broader read about search engines, then the next step would be to explore the why the most important SEO you can do is: No SEO.

And if you just want to talk to one of our team, or you want a copy of our full report, or a free audit of your current sites’ SEO performance, please give us a shout.