Who wants a Featured Snippet? All the hands go up: “I want one!” “Me too!” “Over here!”
Well, too bad. Google tells you right here, you can’t mark your content as a Featured Snippet. Like so many other things in SEO, Google determines who gets the cookies from the Featured Snippet jar. Maybe you get one if you’ve been a good website this year.
However, it is possible to hedge your content into a Featured Snippet candidate that Google’s algorithms will find palatable. There’s almost, but not quite, a theoretical way to force a Featured Snippet by using our magic formula, which we will show you right now:
- Go to Quora.com
- Type a topic you want to rank for into the search feature
- Browse the questions
- For each question, copy and paste it verbatim into your Google search bar
- Keep doing this until you find a question that does NOT have a Featured Snippet yet
- Now write something that answers that question and post it on your website
Assuming Google doesn’t outright hate you, your website ranks decently in authority for something related to the topic, and you’re writing decently relevant content, Google will likely put you in the running for a Featured Snippet the next time somebody asks that particular question.
Aha! Got one.
So you might be wondering…
What is the Difference Between a Featured Snippet and a Rich Snippet in SEO?
Featured Snippets are specially formatted text boxes at the beginning of a search results page that Google ranks as the most relevant answer to that query. Clicking the Featured Snippet link will take the user to the exact position on the landing webpage where that snippet of text appears. There is no tag, mark-up, or structured data associated with a Featured Snippet.
A Rich Snippet is prepared by the website owner using structured data mark-up from Schema.org, which will allow Google to present the information most relevant to the query. Rich Snippets are more about giving searchers context by presenting specific information in search results, such as the price per unit of an item, the schedule for a movie theater, or the details of an apartment listing. Unlike Featured Snippets, a Rich Snippet is entirely in the website operator’s hands.
The above example is actually NOT guaranteed to generate a Featured Snippet, but it is close to the recipe Google seems to be using.
Reverse Engineering the Featured Snippet
We would advise all serious website entrepreneurs to play with some searches to get a feel for how Featured Snippets behave. Ostensibly, Google’s system of crawlers, indexers, and algorithms apply artificial intelligence in parsing the user query and the answer candidates on different websites, then picks the best match for what it “expects” the answer to be. Then it returns that. Say what you will about Google, but sometimes their programming is so smart, it’s almost scary.
But when you play with searches, you find interesting wrinkles in how Featured Snippets are deployed.
Take a look at the search results and Featured Snippet for “chopstick etiquette.” Now, look at what happens when we reword our query:
Even though both queries were clearly asking the same thing, adding more words to make the query more specific and verbose brought us a different page, but both tell us pretty much the same information. Explaining why each page came to the fore for that particular query is bound to be a fun puzzle.
This one is a stumper. Both search results pages contain all of the words from both queries. They both have relevant words in the URLs, titles, and heading tags. Strangest of all, the first, briefer query got us a page with a lot more text (JustHungry.com), whereas the longer, more specific query took us to a shorter, blunter page with less text (EverythingChopsticks.com). Throwing a dart at our company “SEO excuses” dartboard, our guess is that the first query was taken to be more general and went to a site not just about chopsticks, but Japanese cuisine too. The second, more specific query seemed to tell Google to narrow it down and be more specific, so it brought us to a site that is ONLY about chopsticks.
If you look at the two destination pages, Everything Chopsticks uses a short ordered list, while Just Hungry expands the list and makes each fact a subheading, yet Google scrapes both of them down to the short ordered list for the snippet.
You’ll find these quirks over and over in query comparisons. “How much student loan debt” (no quotes) gets a Featured Snippet from debt.org, but making it plural with “How much student loans debt” gets Investopedia.com, and so on. This is one of the reasons why we don’t always have a precise fix on keyword strategy. A bit of luck seems to be involved.
Are Featured Snippets Worthwhile?
In terms of driving raw clicks, Featured Snippets get fewer clicks than a top-ranking “vanilla” search result. Ahrefs updated their research in July 2020 and found that Featured Snippets receive only 8.6% of clicks compared to the top result without any Featured Snippet receiving 26% of clicks.
SEO experts have several theories to explain this effect:
- Users get their question answered from the snippet without having to click through to a website.
- Users have gone “ad-blind” and scroll through anything in a box, on the theory that they’re all ads.
- Google’s search results have grown more cluttered recently and old-school users just stick to the “ten blue links” results they’ve always trusted.
So take the importance of Featured Snippets with a grain of salt. That being said, if your previous result ranking had you lurking somewhere in the 7th to 10th place weeds, and you appease the Featured Snippet faeries, your site automatically shoots to the top. The 8.6% click rate is still better than being on page two.
There’s also been a new change in how Featured Snippets affect traffic, which has become the minor controversy of the year. Previously, ranking for a Featured Snippet had no bearing on the vanilla links; you could appear in a Featured Snippet and still have the same link repeated in the standard links below. Since January 2020, a Featured Snippet appearance now eliminates the second link to your site in the vanilla links.
One could say that websites have no right to complain. For a while there, Featured Snippet placement meant a coveted two spots on the first page. It still works this way with Q&A box, AKA “People also ask..” section, by the way. It is possible to appear linked in an FAQ box and also have your vanilla link awarded below. But for Featured Snippets, the double-dip gravy train has left the station.
What if you opt-out of Featured Snippets? That’s a 12% traffic loss, according to an experiment run by Moz.com in April 2020. You can add a tag in your site’s content, a “data-nosnippet” tag, which tells Google not to list this content as a Featured Snippet. Doing this, however, resulted in a 12% traffic loss, and even after the experiment was ended and the tags were removed, it was hard to rank again for the position.
This tells us that Google might have a “first-come first-served” policy when it comes to Featured Snippets, which explains part of why our earlier chopsticks experiment returned different results for different phrasings of the same query.
Stop us any time we sound like we’re hitting the right theory. We’ll just keep throwing them out there.
Bottom line: overall, Featured Snippet fame seems to be good for your website. Even if a user doesn’t click through every time, they still see a flash of your business name in there for a favorable impression of your authority on the subject. Featured Snippets do seem to have a positive effect on traffic overall.
So, How Do We Get Into This Featured Snippet Position?
For one thing, a more established website, with richer content and a higher authority score, tends to win the day for Featured Snippets. The strategies are very similar to ranking high for organic search results. There’s an added bit of context here, however, in that we are trying to not only get a high position for the general topic, but we are trying to “read the users’ minds” and anticipate the exact question they will type in, then answer it concisely.
Keep in mind that only around 12.3% of all search queries even generate any Featured Snippet at all.
So, there might be several reasons why not every search has its snippet:
- Google may not be going all-in with them.
- ~88% of queries simply haven’t found their Featured Snippet match yet.
- Not all queries are suited to a Featured Snippet and may never be.
- Google has many other search result features and formats, which may take precedent over a Featured Snippet.
Domain authority sometimes also plays a crucial factor. When we searched for tips on a new play mode for the Blizzard Entertainment card game Hearthstone, we get a video presentation for a popular Twitch gamer. That’s it, that’s the Featured Snippet, textual keywords or not.
Likewise, if you search for raw academic facts in topics like history or science, you’re likely to get an entry from an encyclopedia or Wikipedia itself. This seems to be set in stone and unlikely to be challenged.
Some of this may change; we like our “first come first served” theory. Google has historically shown a slight preference for seniority when it comes to individual queries. In any case, here’s our full formula for your quest for Featured Snippet fame:
#1 Organic Keyword Research
You take a tool such as SEMRush’s keyword toolbox and research keywords, looking at all the stems, relations, and variants for those phrases.
You would also look for questions that people type in, verbatim. As we mentioned before, Quora is a great place for this. SEMRush also has the topic research tool, with sub-topics helpfully worded as questions and sorted into categories. You can even narrow down the questions by the first words: “Who, what, where,” etc.
# 2 Market Study
You want to look at your competitor if you have one, or the general websites within your industry. Do your query research in Google, noting which sites pop to the upper boxes and how the content there is worded.
You also want to pay attention to what the public is looking for, and how it asks these queries. Refer back to those two SEMRush screenshots. We see a query called “cancel Student Loan debt,” which might stem into a full question: “How can I cancel my Student Loan debt?” Remember that just because a searcher might be asking the wrong question doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t answer it anyway; we just have to correct the wrong assumption the query was based on and substitute better information.
Another method is shared in this “Answer the Public” video tutorial.
You should avoid getting too technical in your jargon when anticipating a query. In our SEO field, “SERP” is a very common acronym meaning “search engine results page,” but the acronym is seldom bandied about outside of SEO expert circles, so we don’t lean on it too heavily as a keyword. There’s a whole list of search-engine research jargon that we could be babbling in here, whereas our intended audience may not know to search for “CTR” but instead ask “How do I get more clicks for my website?”
Anticipating user query lines is an art as much as it is a science. It takes a hefty dose of empathy, some understanding of psychology, a whiff of linguistics science, and some knowledge of the field or topic itself.
You can be the best keyword mechanic in the world, but unless you’re a long-time collector of the trading card game Magic: The Gathering, you can’t appreciate how much panic the COVID-19 pandemic caused in that market. The top end of this market sees individual cards trade at five-figures or more, but the pandemic shut down game stores and put the social-distancing kibosh on in-person tabletop gaming. Smart bloggers in that market addressed the crisis early and now regularly peak in the top search results for it.
That’s just the kind of industry insider knowledge you have to supply.
We mentioned earlier that Featured Snippet spots once claimed, tend to stick. This tells us that we have another “long-tail keyword” hunt on our hands. Broader search queries have more competition and are more likely to have a claimed Featured Snippets niche, but smaller, more specific queries, while having lower volume, are also less competitive and have a higher conversion rate in terms of sales. Your financial services business may never rank at the top for “student loans,” but a query like “student loans late penalty deduct taxes” has a better shot at propelling you to the top.
#3 Content Structure
Look way back at our beginning example for the difference between Featured Snippets and Rich Snippets. We do a simplified question-and-answer format, with a two-paragraph comparison.
Content in Featured Snippets takes several formats, which we have visited here.
Four-fifths of snippets are simple paragraphs, another tenth are lists, and the rest are scattered across table format or, as we’ve seen, even a video. Whatever works for the content at hand is what Google displays. Here are some format guidelines:
- Use appropriate headers: Google still likes h1, h2, h3 tags for sorting out significant content.
- Include multimedia if you can: It gets attention beyond mere text.
- You may already have Featured Snippet material? There could be an old blog post which would contain a Featured Snippet if only the answer were more concise.
- Maybe don’t give away everything in one answer: To encourage click-through, you can offer the overview of an answer that’s Featured Snippet sized, with more in-depth information promised on the page proper.
- Don’t give up: Just because a Featured Snippet is claimed doesn’t mean a better answer can’t bump it from that spot.
What Lies Ahead?
In our experience, we see Google churning around a lot with features it adds or abandons over the years. They’ll introduce something, tweak it for a while, maybe merge it into another feature, or keep it as-is. If they find too many webmasters opting out of Featured Snippets, they may drop the feature.
There is also a limit to how many special bells and whistles Google wants to put on a search engine results page. The chief factor that drove Google to the top of the search engine market in the first place was its clear, simple, no-fuss results. Take a look at the history of their interface to see how it has evolved.
Remember when Google consisted of two simple buttons, one of which was “I’m feeling lucky?” We mention that some users dislike results that are too cluttered, just wanting to type their query and get some text links without all the fancy doodads. Upstart search engines like DuckDuckGo tout their return to cleaner, simpler results pages. However, even they are drifting away from the “ten blue links” standard.
Featured Snippets make good sense given how most users want the web to work, so we’re guessing they’ll remain worth chasing. They can bring improved traffic, but more importantly, they make the web more useful for everyone.
If you are looking to rank in Google and have a spot on a Featured Snippet excerpt but aren’t sure how to get started, feel free to contact us. We can help you develop an integrated digital marketing strategy, including SEO and PPC services, that can help you attract more clients.