A foundational step in any search engine optimization (SEO) campaign is keyword research — finding the queries your audience is searching for so you can create content that targets those terms. But just as important as finding all those keywords is performing a SERP analysis of existing results.
What is a SERP Analysis?
A SERP analysis is the process of examining the top-ranking pages in the search engine results for a given keyword to learn what type of content you need to produce in order to rank.
It’s about testing whether your original assumption about the quality of a keyword holds up when it comes to the pages Google sees as the best information for the query.
A SERP analysis is important because they prevent you from spending all the time and resources it takes to create content, only to learn it never had a chance to rank.
You want to be selective in creating pages that 1) have the best chance of ranking in Google and 2) move the user down the sales funnel toward a conversion, whether that’s a phone call, newsletter signup or software demo request.
How a SERP Analysis Works
Analyzing a SERP is one way to reverse-engineer Google’s algorithms. The goal of this analysis is to learn the criteria needed to rank for a keyword, then find matches with the content on your site.
There isn’t a foolproof way to know whether or not your site can rank for a keyword. But looking at each of the factors below can go a long way in picking the right keywords to target.
Search engines earn and retain users by showing them the best information for their query. But how do search engines pick the best results out of thousands of pages?
In its early days, Google pioneered a ranking algorithm called PageRank, where sites that had more links pointing to it had more success in search results. Though Google algorithms have evolved to where backlinks have less weight, they are still considered one of the most important ranking signals.
To learn about your site’s backlink profile and its ability to rank for a keyword, you can use a metric called Domain Authority (DA). It gives your website a score of 0 to 100, with 100 being the most authoritative.
So when it comes to assessing the competition, you are primarily comparing the Domain Authority of the top-ranking pages to your own site.
For example, the Domain Authority of the top five pages for the keyword “what is a roth ira?” are:
- Investopedia (ranks #1 and #2): 91/100
- Nerd Wallet: 79/100
- Vanguard: 74/100
- IRS: 92/100
The strength of these domains means “what is a roth ira?” is an incredibly competitive term, and only sites with a high domain authority will be able to rank for them.
To determine whether your site can compete, check the Domain Authority of the pages ranking in the top five positions. If they are significantly higher than your site’s, it may be best to target a keyword with lower competition.
The goal of ranking at the top of Google is to drive traffic to your site, but some keywords have a lower click-through rate to sites than others.
In fact, research shows half of Google searches do not result in a click through to a site. This is known as a “no-click search.”
While it’s always great to rank at the top for keywords relevant to your business, you’d rather rank for terms that result in someone visiting your site, where they can eventually become a paid customer.
For example, “brad pitt net worth” gets 48,000 searches per month. So the site ranking number one stands to earn thousands of site visits from that term alone.
But Ahrefs shows 86 percent of those searches don’t result in a click.
That makes sense, because someone searching for his net worth likely just wants the number and doesn’t plan to read a full breakdown of how he’s earned his money. Google displays his net worth at the top of the SERP, so about 86 percent of people see $300,000 million and then exit the search, leaving RepublicWorld.com without a visit.
Instead, you want to target terms that result in site visits. For example, someone searching “how to change a flat tire” will likely click through to a website to get the information they are looking for. Ahefs confirms this, showing 74% of searches result in a click.
Every good SERP analysis must take into consideration what a user is searching for. Search intent refers to what type of page the user is hoping to find for a particular search. Google’s algorithms attempt to predict search intent and thus show different types of pages depending on that intent.
There are four types of search intent:
- Commercial investigation
You can create a page that matches the keywords your audience uses, but your page likely won’t rank if it doesn’t align with Google’s understanding of the intent behind those keywords. That’s why it’s important to understand all four types of search intent and how to create matching content for each.
Informational search intent is just what it sounds like — a user seeks information about a particular topic. For example, Google sees the search “what to do if someone hits your car” as an informational search.
This makes sense, but the way to know for sure is to look at page one in your SERP analysis. The top results are pages, averaging 1,000 words, that describe what a person should do if someone hits their car.
So to rank for this term, you’d want to write a page of 1,000+ words explaining the steps to take after someone hits your car.
Navigational searches are when someone is looking for a particular webpage or site such as Facebook or YouTube. They are primarily branded searches, for when someone may not know the exact URL of a website, so they type the name into Google, hoping it’s one of the top results.
There are two reasons why it’s generally not advisable to try to rank your website for a navigational search of another website: (1) the other brand will likely rank in all the top positions and be tough to beat and (2) the user likely wants to visit the other website, so even if yours appears toward the top, the click-through rate will be low.
Transactional searches indicate an intent to purchase, so Google shows results that would allow someone to purchase the item quickly. This includes shopping ads, the websites of ecommerce stores, and physical stores nearby that have the item.
It’s important to distinguish between transactional and informational searches, because the SERP usually shows one or the other, not both.
For example, a SERP analysis for “trampoline” makes it clear Google views it as a transactional search and not an informational search.
The Local Pack shows nearby trampoline parks, and the top two organic results are Amazon’s and Walmart’s product pages where you can buy a trampoline. Notice there is no 1,000-word informational page covering topics such as “What is a trampoline made of?” and “Trampoline safety tips.”
Google sees a general search for “trampoline” as having transactional intent, while those other two searches have informational intent.
A commercial investigation search indicates the user eventually plans to purchase something but is in the process of learning more. This type of search is a mix between informational and transactional, because the searcher is first looking for information, but will soon make a transaction.
Examples of these searches are:
- best [product] for the money
- [product A] vs. [product B]
- [product] reviews
To rank for these searches, your page will often look like one targeting an informational search, but it will be related to something someone could purchase.
Topical authority in SEO is when Google sees a website domain as having relevant perspective on a given subject. It’s adjacent to analyzing competition because not only does Google want to show results from quality sites, but those sites also should have perceived expertise on the topic.
To use our previous example about Roth IRA’s, all the sites on page one (Investopedia, Nerd Wallet, Vanguard, etc.) are in the finance industry. Google knows that’s their area of expertise, so they have a better chance of ranking.
On the other hand, if a site about health and wellness with a Domain Authority of 95/100 wrote a page about Roth IRAs, it likely wouldn’t rank on page one, even though it has a higher overall Domain Authority. Google would likely assign less topical authority to a health and wellness site writing about investment accounts.
The results pages can be dynamic, and often include far more than just blue text that links to a website. Here are some examples of features you might run into during a SERP analysis:
- Image packs
- Featured snippets
- Top news stories
- Knowledge panels
A search for “Washington Wizards” brings up multiple SERP features — Top stories, tweets, and the knowledge panel (left).
If a keyword has one or more SERP features, you should first decide whether the type of content you plan to produce would fit within the SERP and its features. If it would, you should then tailor your content to earn its place in a SERP feature.
For example, if you are targeting the term “camping tips,” you can see the featured snippet is a list of tips.
On the page itself, these tips are the subheadlines throughout the page. So on your page, you should include each camping tip as a subheadline to give you the best chance of earning the snippet at the top of the SERP.
Once you’ve looked at everything on the SERP, it’s time to learn what type of content you’ll need to produce in order to rank. Google’s goal is to give users the best information possible. That doesn’t have to be written content. Images, videos, or other tools may be most helpful to users.
Open the top results and scroll through the pages. If the pages are all words, you likely don’t need to send in a request to your video department. But if a video is included at the top of the page, that may be an indicator you’ll need an embedded video.
Other searches require visuals. If you’re in the home improvement industry and want to target “bonus room ideas,” you’ll need images of all those ideas, because that’s the most helpful way for someone to get ideas for their bonus room. Describing the idea with only words just isn’t as helpful as including images as well.
Once you’ve created a list of keywords relevant to your business, you may be tempted to jump right into creating content for each of those keywords. Neglecting a comprehensive SERP analysis can set your page up for failure right from the start. Your page may have little chance of ranking because of the competition, or you may create the wrong type of content based on the search intent, SERP features, and what the competition is doing.
A SERP analysis is the next step after your initial keyword research and can ensure you don’t create content that never gets seen.
While many of the specifics of Google’s algorithms will always remain a secret, the best way to get insight into how to rank is right in front of you. Just search for your target keyword and see what it will take to rank.