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How Google’s SERP Has Changed in 4 Years

We reiterate, perhaps entirely too often, that search engines change on a near constant basis. Whether the alteration affects how the search engine’s algorithms find results that are relevant and important to the search query, or just alter how the results page looks, the impact can have real implications on your law firm’s online marketing efforts.

That’s why it’s high time that we updated our article on the search engine results page (SERP). It’s been nearly four years since our first statement on this important element of search engine optimization (SEO) and a lot of things have changed.

The SERP (Today)

Whenever someone gets on Google, types something into the query box, and hits enter, they are presented with the search engine results page, or the SERP. Since we last wrote about the SERP in December, 2015, a lot has changed. Now, an identical search on a desktop device for “saturn vue 2013” looks like this:

Google SERP December 2019
Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc., used with permission.


A few things have gone missing in the last four years, but a lot has come in to replace it.

Plenty of those changes are more significant than the new query field which, as you can see in the yellow box at the top – now has rounded corners.

Fewer Ads, But Still Less Organic Space

One of the most obvious changes in Google’s SERP from 2015 to today has been the steep decrease in paid advertising space.

In our 2015 image of the SERP for “saturn vue 2013,” there were no fewer than six ads right at the top of the screen – one of them was at the top of the listings, while the other five were in the sidebar.

In February, 2016, though, Google removed the sidebar from the SERP, eliminating all of the paid advertisements there. Now, there are usually only a small handful of ads – between three and five for competitive search queries – at the top of the listing.

Perhaps because a six-year-old Saturn Vue is no longer a hot used car (was it ever?), there aren’t any ads in this particular SERP.

Despite the lack of ads, though, there is also a distinct lack of progress made by organic space. Instead, the space in the SERP that used to go to paid listings seems to have gone to one of a huge number of “SERP features” that Google has been rolling out on the regular.

Lots of New SERP Features Keep People on the Page

A lot of that SERP real estate has been eaten up by Google, itself, in the form of a handful of new features.

Only four of them are visible on the SERP, above, though there are others. The ones we can see are:

  • In green, a carousel of images pulled from an identical image search
  • In orange, another carousel of videos pulled from an identical search for videos
  • In blue, the “People Often Ask” feature, which lists related question-based search queries, answers them in a pull-down menu from content pulled from a site, and includes follow-up questions
  • In dark gray, a SERP feature that includes similar search queries

There are also other SERP features that take up space and that are important for online legal marketing, but that aren’t used for this particular search. The most important is the local box, which lists stores, offices, and locations relevant to the search query using the user’s geographical location or a location included in the search.

Google Pulls Content from Some Sites

A little over halfway down the page in the image above, underneath the Wikipedia listing for Saturn Vue vehicles, is a red box. Inside is information pulled from the Wikipedia page and displayed right on the SERP.

This is a new feature that Google has added to their SERP in the past few years. Websites that have lots of content with elements that are displayed in similar and easy to identify templates can see those elements pulled by Google and displayed in the SERP for relevant queries.

Ratings on the SERP

In the small black boxes in the image, above, there are ratings for the websites listed. Based on a five-star system, these put results from Google reviews right on the listing for the website. Because good or bad reviews can make or break a site’s performance on the SERP, some law firms have resorted to soliciting them, leading to a Google penalty.

The Clear Trend: Answer Questions Directly on the SERP

Each element added or subtracted in Google’s results page has pushed the search engine markedly towards a clear goal: Answering as much of the user’s search query on the SERP, itself.

Of course, when Google is taking pains to keep web traffic on the SERP, the sites listed on the page suffer. More questions answered on the SERP mean fewer page visits from the people doing those searches. That’s why some SEO professionals are getting concerned about business owners and websites having to “compete” with Google itself for the web traffic that they rely on.