How Google works, examining the SERP

Google Search: Washington DC Web Designer

Do you ever wonder how Google works?  Why do certain websites rank first, second or third on Google’s search engine results page  or SERP?  This is a basic explanation of Google’s search results page.

Figure 1: Google’s search engine results page for “dc web designer”.

File type or media category

You will notice that Google’s SERP is broken into various sections and components.  At the very top it the search results categorization by media.  For example, you can search only for images or photos based on your search term.  Or, you can search exclusively for videos or news or shopping sites.  In this case, we’ve left it wide open to everything within the web – do not filter out results or look exclusively for certain types of media files.

Search terms, or search key words

Next, you’ll see the space where web surfers (haven’t heard that term in a long time) enter their chosen key words or research terms.  This is an important element to recognize and think about if you are a business or website owner that wants to be found.  It is so critical that you use the natural language of your consumers, your target audience and those whom you want to visit your site.  You must use their words, not yours.  In this case, I am interested in what my Washington, DC based clients Google (notice that “Google” is used as a verb, not a noun).

Long tail versus short head keyword phrases

Notice that I Googled, “dc web designer,” not just “web designer.”  I did that deliberately.  Simply Googling, “web designer” would be considered a general, short-head keyword phrase.  As researchers become more sophisticated and closer to the decision stage or buying stage, they tend to get much more specific in their search terminology.  In my case, most of my Washington, DC clients want to work with a “DC web designer” because they want to meet somebody in person.

Moreover, Washingtonians typically refer to Washington, DC as simply DC.  The keyword phrase, “dc web designer,” would be classified better as a long-tail keyword phrase and more accurately delivers what clients are most likely looking for.

Keyword difficulty or keyword competition

Notice that there are 43 million, 600 thousand search results (search combinations) for the phrase, “dc web designer.”  Google takes the number of search results for “DC” plus the results for “web” plus the results for “designer” and mashes them up to find all of the possible search results.  This number also indicates the keyword competitiveness of the phrase.

If you are just starting out, you probably want to rank well for keywords that aren’t too difficult to compete for.  The longer the tail, usually, the easier it is to rank.  And, the less competitive it is, or the fewer the search results, the easier it is to rank high on Google for that keyword phrase.

Sponsored results versus organic results

At the top of the page and along the right column, you will notice Sponsored Links, these are paid advertisements where website owners pay Google on a pay-per-click basis.  These advertisers will bid on key words and pay money every time somebody actually clicks on their link.  Advertisers participate in these campaigns through their Google AdWords account.

With paid advertisements, you have guaranteed placement.  As long as you are one of the top bidders and your ad is relevant to the search results your link will appear.  Paid placement is the only way to guarantee that your website will show up on the search engine results page or SERP.

Organic search, natural, organic search engine optimization (SEO)

The corollary to PPC or paid placement is natural search or organic search engine optimization (SEO).  In this case, your site appears and is ranked on Google’s SERP based upon the relevancy of your site given all of the variables in Google’s proprietary (secret) search algorithm.  Everything outside of the Sponsored Links fall into the natural, organic SERP category.

Title tag – the most important element in SEO

If you notice below the Sponsored Links, in the organic SERP section, you will see bright blue links that are underscored.  This information is typically extracted from the TITLE section of your web pages, which lives in the HEAD section of your HTML.  Website owners are responsible for defining this page TITLE.  In addition, Google probably places more empahsis and credibility on the page TITLE than any other element or attribute on your site.

If you look at the HTML code on, you will see that it matches the text in Google’s SERP, e.g.,

<title>Creative Web Designer serving Washington DC, Los Angeles, Northern Virginia<title>

If you look on Google SERP belog that bright blue underscored text, you will see two lines of information in black font.  This can also be controlled via your META description tag located in the HEAD section of your HTML pages, e.g.,

<meta name="description" content="Looking for a creative web designer?  inQbation may be the
company you seek.  Serving Los Angeles, Northern Virginia, New York City, Washington DC" />

Apparently, Google does not consider the content within your META description tag as far as how it decides ranking and sorting on the SERP.  However, this is very important to determing your click-through rate and your conversion rate.  These two lines of information should be your elevator pitch and make the case for why somebody should actually click on that link and take a chance to visit your website.

Local business search results

Finally, you’ll see a Google map and local search results.  Often, this will be the first thing that appears below the Sponsored Link.  However, in this case, three organic search results appear between the Sponsored link and the local business search results.

In order to show up in this section, you must have an account with Google and explicitly list your business and verify your address with Google.

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