The Increasing Competition of the SERP

Have you ever wondered why, despite the fact that your search strategies are more sophisticated and your budget healthier every year, search marketing results get harder to achieve as time goes on?

It’s not your fault; it’s the changing environment. What you’re facing is the increasing competition of the search engine results page (SERP). As more and more companies are realizing the baseline importance of having a Web site, and the number of sites increase, so will the search engine results naturally increase in volume. But also, I believe this can be attributed in part to the rising importance and budget allocated to search marketing strategies. The more companies and site owners invest in paid and organic search strategies, the hotter the competition gets.

Let’s consider a concrete example.

Back in 2008, I wrote the column, “The Seasonality of Search and Taxes.” In this column, I showed a SERP (define) for the term “tax return,” taken in mid-April 2008. I just ran that same query “tax return” in Google today (mid-April 2010). Below, are the two SERPs. Before reading on, look at each carefully and note any differences between the two.

April 2008 April 2010

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Some key differences in the 2010 SERP you may have noted:

  • More paid search advertisers – particularly in the space above the organic listings.
  • Increase in the variety of results such as “news results” and YouTube videos (versus regular Web pages).
  • Multiple page listings for a given site (e.g., Wikipedia and IRS both show two listings each).
  • The “Google” logo is smaller.
  • The “books” link in the blue bar directly below the search box has been replaced with a “show options” link.

But did you notice the most important difference?

By far the biggest difference is the sheer volume of results. When you look at the first SERP on any given query, you will see a blue bar below the search box, on which the right-hand side will read, “Results 1-10 of about X.” This is telling you that the SERP is displaying the top 10 organic results of the total number of results (X).

The 2008 SERP for the query “tax return” showed 13.6 million results. That same query in 2009 now shows 67.7 million. That’s a five-time increase in two years! Although this is just one example, I have seen similar increases in search results in many other categories as well.

That’s a little crazy, but so what? Why should you care about this rise in competition?

You should care because it could (and should) impact your search strategies and approaches.

In the face of increasing competition, you may want to:

  • Be smarter about which keywords you pursue for both organic and paid efforts (e.g., perhaps eliminating broader terms and focusing on very niche/long-tail terms).
  • Ensure your Web site content is amazing and offers something that no one else does (and keeping it fresh/frequently updated).
  • Look beyond your Web site for SERP presence opportunities (e.g., tweets are now being indexed in search results, which presents another opportunity to get content out there).
  • Undertake competitive monitoring to understand when and where your competition is focusing to uncover gaps or opportunities.
  • Look beyond the search network to exploit the content network opportunity (more inventory equals less competition).
  • Make the case for supplemental funding to subsidize the search “inflation” (as CPCs rise, so should your budgets, ideally).
  • Consider leveraging second or third tier engines such as MIVA or 7Search to avoid head-on competition in the big three.
  • Employ bid management tools to reduce time and effort spent optimizing campaigns.
  • Readjust management performance expectations to align with the environmental realities.

These are just a few ideas for remaining competitive in today’s cluttered search space, but I’d love to hear your ideas as well. Feel free to comment on this column with additional ideas that you’ve applied or are planning to test out.

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