How the Universal SERPs Are Changing & How to Stay on Top

The demand for SEO is at an all-time high.

The global pandemic accelerated all industry’s digital transformation, including some of the most established sectors, such as:

  • Finance.
  • Healthcare.
  • Communication.
  • Conferences.

SEO is central to all marketing activities.

This is especially true as we enter the holiday season.

And as consumer behavior evolves, the SERPs have been developing in parallel.

We all know that SERP evolution has always been a constant in our industry regardless of recent events.

However, as key fundamental market shifts fuel the demand for digital presence, so does the competition for search and Share of Voice.

For SEO, that means staying on top of the SERPs by taking a multimedia format approach to content for Universal SERP rankings.

In this article, you’ll learn how some elements of the Universal SERPs are evolving, accompanied by some research findings for additional insight and context for your SEO strategy.

Universal Search

Navigating changes in the SERPs and keeping on top of what is happening – whether it be an algorithmic change or a core update – is, without doubt, one of the most challenging and time-consuming elements of SEO.

As Google evolves and continues to look to enhance the customer experience, staying updated was essential in 2020 to keep stable.

Universal Search is a collated group of results that contains images, videos, local businesses, rich snippets.

Often in SEO, it’s referred to as Blended Search.

Content may come from several sources, verticals, and locations that include desktop and mobile.

And results appear in a box often amongst or above other SEO and SERP results.

Depending on the search query, results appear in different formats.

For example, Google uses the United States as an example of a query that could return a mixed form of images, articles, news, and websites.

More specifically, “how-to” queries return relevant videos, quick answers, and text results.

As the shift from 10 blue links changes to over 50 different types of SERP results, the ‘Pinball pattern effect’ takes effect, suggesting that users tend to prefer visual type formats in the results.

To stay ahead in Universal search heading forward, it’s essential to understand where you are, what types of content you have, and why you are positioned the way you are in the results.

Then take action to improve accordingly.

Staying ahead of Universal search will help strengthen your brand awareness and keep you ahead of your competition by helping Google present relevant experiences to users’ questions and queries.


Google is always looking for new ways to identify and serve relevant images.

The more relevant and unique, and engaging the images are, the better chance you have of them appearing in universal search positions.

  • Consider developing images that include information, branding, and a CTA as a way to get impressions and traffic in the coming year.
  • Make sure your images are original, optimized for page load speed, and tagged with the correct metadata. Add keywords to the file names.

Sometimes, images can be easier to rank on but more challenging to generate traffic to, so it’s vital to spend time on Image SEO and visual search strategies


Videos showing up in the SERPs is on the rise as it becomes a crucial part of SEO and digital marketing strategies.

Research suggests that 62% of universal search results contain video.

They can take the format of excerpt clips on the SERP and, if of high quality and optimized correctly, can be favored by Google over traditional text and many other formats.

  • Publish videos both on your domain and on YouTube.
  • Ensure the YouTube videos provide calls to action to drive people to the domain site.
  • Use and tailor video content to complement existing content on your website.
  • Use schema.
  • Incorporate videos into the pages of your website and add a transcript.

Compelling video requires resource and planning, from design through to content creation and production.

Make sure that you plan for visual search (image and video) and add video costs and creative resources to your content and SEO plan.

People Also Ask Box

The development of People Also Ask coincides with the rise of natural language processing and the impact of the BERT algorithm update announcement.

Put simply, “natural language” is more conversational, and “processing” is that Google has become better at understanding the need of the searcher and the best answer.

As part of BrightEdge Universal Search Research into PAA (and image, video, and carousel result analysis), you can look at how experiences for both desktop and mobile differ and have varied over the last 12 months.

For example, we saw a big drop-off on mobile devices – maybe due to a lack of engagement with the feature and mobile screen sizes.

PAA is prominent on SERPs to quickly satisfying user intent.

And Google tests the SERPs regularly.

When it finds results that improve customer experience and business objectives, it expands presumably to a point where other SERP components are negatively affected as it works to optimize the elements as a group for best results.

Questions and answers are a very clear and straightforward conversational structure.

Google relies on that structure in the People Also Ask and reward clear answers in the traditional organic results.

For some questions, results will show a featured snippet and may differ in terms of the content displayed.

  • Research to ensure that you understand question-based queries – how, can, why.
  • Create answer-based content based on keywords that will trigger PAA results.
  • Provide short, concise content for answers and keep in mind conversational mannerisms.
  • Keep your content and answers up to date regularly.

The 3-Pack

Placement in the Local 3-Pack can favor true physical locations if a keyword query indicates that a person is looking and wants to find a physical location a local/map pack result.

The information shown on the SERP will contain information and links to this such as a business address, website, open and closing time, customer reviews, and directions. 

  • Complete and update your Google My Business and make sure the Name, Address, and Place are correct.
  • Generate lots of reviews.
  • Be sure to add all your physical locations to the site.
  • Add location data and GPS coordinates in location schema on your location

Local and hyper-local strategies are becoming even more critical for SEO.

Mobile will always be a big part of this so ensure your mobile site follows local best practices and targets search terms unique to where your local businesses are located. 

Carousel Results

The Google carousel offers users rich format results for enhanced interaction.

They can show results – particularly on mobile – for restaurants, food, travel, and hospitality.

Results can contain Google ratings, customer reviews, categories, and pricing.

Types of Google carousels are based on entity-based searches (such as “best,” “list of,” and “places”).

They don’t show up for every type of result and are based on revolving queries.

They can include images, videos, knowledge base, interesting finds, movies, and recipe lists,

  • Ensure your Google My Business profile is optimized to its max.
  • Ensure images and optimized and are of high quality.
  • Make sure you have lots of high-rated customer reviews. Add Carousel mark-up in combination with a supported content-type.
  • Add structured data.
  • For all types of carousel results always focus on high-quality content as the primary focus.

As Google continues to experiment with carousel types such as product – which takes product feeds from sources such as Google’s Merchant Center – new and non-traditional SEO SERP formats will be something to look out for.

Conclusion & Additional Thoughts

The SERPS will continue to change.

SEO professionals must work diligently to deepen their understanding of the relationships and connection between intent, content, rank, traffic, and conversion.

Looking at new ways to target behavioral keywords and creating and optimizing the right content for the correct type of layout will are critical.

Use schema so Google can understand content on your web pages and site.

This will also help with rich snippets.

All will help algorithms identify the right types of content for the SERPs.

Expect more changes and enhancements in the coming months for voice and other elements such as vertical-specific (i.e., finance, travel, and sport ), and other formats such as product listings, maps, and apps.

Prepare to align SEO and PPC strategy – and check your blended rank regularly.

More Resources:

Image Credits

All screenshots taken by the author, November 2020