Posted by AnnSmarty
Have you noticed it’s getting harder and harder to build referral traffic from Google?
And it’s not just that the competition has got tougher (which it certainly has!).
It’s also that Google has moved past its ten blue links and its organic search results are no longer generating as much traffic they used to.
How do you adapt? This article teaches you to optimize your content to one of Google’s more recent changes: featured snippets.
What are featured snippets?
Featured snippets are selected search results that are featured on top of Google’s organic results below the ads in a box.
Featured snippets aim at answering the user’s question right away (hence their other well-known name, “answer boxes”). Being featured means getting additional brand exposure in search results.
Here are two studies confirming the claim:
- Ben Goodsell reports that the click-through rate (CTR) on a featured page increased from two percent to eight percent once it’s placed in an answer box, with revenue from organic traffic increasing by 677%.
- Eric Enge highlights a 2030% increase in traffic for ConfluentForms.com while they held the featured snippet for the query.
Types of featured snippets
There are three major types of featured snippets:
- Paragraph (an answer is given in text). It can be a box with text inside or a box with both text and an image inside.
- List (an answer is given in a form of a list)
- Table (an answer is given in a table)
Here’s an example of paragraph snippet with an image:
According to Getstat, the most popular featured snippet is “paragraph” type:
Featured snippets or answer boxes?
Since we’re dealing with a pretty new phenomenon, the terminology is pretty loose. Many people (including myself) are inclined to refer to featured snippets as “answer boxes,” obviously because there’s an answer presented in a box.
While there’s nothing wrong with this terminology, it creates a certain confusion because Google often gives a “quick answer” (a definition, an estimate, etc.) on top without linking to the source:
To avoid confusion, let’s stick to the “featured snippet” term whenever there’s a URL featured in the box, because these present an extra exposure to the linked site (hence they’re important for content publishers):
Do I have a chance to get featured?
According to research by Ahrefs, 99.58% of featured pages already rank in top 10 of Google. So if you are already ranking high for related search queries, you have very good chances to get featured.
On the other hand, Getstat claims that 70% of snippets came from sites outside of the first organic position. So it’s required that the page is ranked in top 10, but it’s not required to be #1 to be featured.
Unsurprisingly, the most featured site is Wikipedia.org. If there’s Wikipedia featured for your search query, it may be extremely hard to beat that – but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
Finally, according to the analysis performed in a study, the following types of search queries get featured results most often:
- DIY processes
Ahrefs’ study expands the list of popular topics with their most frequently words that appear in featured snippets:
The following types of search queries usually don’t have answer boxes:
- Images and videos
To sum up the above studies:
- You have chances to get featured for the terms your pages are already ranking in top 10. Thus, a big part of being featured is to improve your overall rankings (especially for long-tail informational queries, which are your lower-hanging fruit)
- If your niche is DIY, health or finance, you have the highest probability of getting featured
Identify all kinds of opportunities to be featured
Start with good old keyword research
Multiple studies confirm that the majority of featured snippets are triggered by long-tail keywords. In fact, the more words that are typed into a search box, the higher the probability there will be a featured snippet.
It’s always a good idea to start with researching your keywords. This case study gives a good step by step keyword research strategy for a blogger, and this one lists major keyword research tools as suggested by experts.
When performing keyword research with featured snippets in mind, note that:
- Start with question-type search queries (those containing question words, like what, why, how, etc.) because these are the easiest to identify, but don’t stop there…
- Target informational intent, not just questions. While featured snippets aim at answering the user’s question immediately, question-type queries are not the only types that trigger those featured results. According to the aforementioned Ahrefs study, the vast majority of keywords that trigger featured snippets were long-tail queries with no question words in them.
It helps if you use a keyword research tool that shows immediately whether a query triggers featured results. I use Serpstat for my keyword research because it combines keyword research with featured snippet research and lets me see which of my keywords trigger answer boxes:
You can run your competitor in Serpstat and then filter their best-performing queries by the presence of answer boxes:
This is a great overview of your future competition, enabling you to see your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.
Browse Google for more questions
To further explore the topic, be sure to browse Google’s own “People also ask” sections whenever you see one in the search results. It provides a huge insight into which questions Google deems related to each topic.
Once you start expanding the questions to see the answers, more and more questions will be added to the bottom of the box:
Identify search queries where you already rank high
Your lowest-hanging fruit is to identify which phrases you already rank highly for. These will be the easiest to get featured for after you optimize for answer boxes (more on this below).
Google Search Console shows which search queries send you clicks. To find that report, click “Search Traffic” and then “Search Analytics.”
Check the box to show the position your pages hold for each one and you’ll have the ability to see which queries are your top-performing ones:
You can then use the filters to find some question-type queries among those:
Go beyond traditional keyword research tools: Ask people
All the above methods (albeit great) tackle already discovered opportunities: those for which you or your competitors are already ranking high. But how about venturing beyond that? Ask your readers, customers, and followers how they search and which questions they ask.
MyBlogU: Ask people outside your immediate reach
Move away from your target audience and ask random people what questions they have on a specific topic and what would be their concerns. Looking out of the box can always give a fresh perspective.
MyBlogU (disclaimer: I am the founder) is a great way to do that. Just post a new project in the “Brainstorm” section and ask members to contribute their thoughts.
Seed Keywords: Ask your friends and followers
Seed Keywords is a simple tool that allows you to discover related keywords with help from your friends and followers. Simply create a search scenario, share it on social media, and ask your followers to type in the keywords they would use to solve it.
Try not to be too leading with your search scenario. Avoid guiding people to the search phrase you think they should be using.
Here’s an example of a scenario:
And here are the suggestions from real people:
Monitor questions people ask on Twitter
Another way to discover untapped opportunities is to monitor questions on Twitter. Its search supports the ? search operator that will filter results to those containing a question. Just make sure to put a space between your search term and ?.
I use Cyfe to monitor and archive Twitter results because it provides a minimal dashboard which I can use to monitor an unlimited number of Twitter searches.
Once you lack article ideas, simply log in to Cyfe to view the archive and then proceed to the above keyword research tools to expand on any idea.
I use spreadsheets to organize questions and keyword phrases I discover (see more on this below). Some of these questions may become a whole piece of content, while others will be subsections of broader articles:
- I don’t try to analyze search volume to decide whether any of those questions deserve to be covered in a separate article or a subsection. (Based on the Ahrefs research and my own observations, there is no direct correlation between the popularity of the term and whether it will trigger a featured snippet).
- Instead, I use my best judgement (based on my niche knowledge and research) as to how much I will be able to tell to answer each particular question. If it’s a lot, I’ll probably turn into a separate article and use keyword research to identify subsections of the future piece.
Optimizing for featured snippets
Start with on-page SEO
There is no magic button or special markup which will make sure your site gets featured. Of course, it’s a good idea to start with non-specific SEO best practices, simply because being featured is only possible when you rank high for the query.
Randy Milanovic did a good overview of tactics of making your content findable. Eric Brantner over at Coschedule has put together a very useful SEO checklist, and of course never forget to go through Moz’s SEO guide.
How about structured markup?
Many people would suggest using Schema.org (simply because it’s been a “thing” to recommend adding schema for anything and everything) but the aforementioned Ahrefs study shows that there’s no correlation between featured results and structured markup.
That being said, the best way to get featured is to provide a better answer. Here are a few actionable tips:
1. Aim at answering each question concisely
My own observation of answer boxes has led me to think that Google prefers to feature an answer which was given within one paragraph.
The study by AJ Ghergich cites that the average length of a paragraph snippet is 45 words (the maximum is 97 words), so let it be your guideline as to how long each answer should be in order to get featured:
This doesn’t mean your articles need to be one paragraph long. On the contrary, these days Google seems to give preference to long-form content (also known as “cornerstone content,” which is obviously a better way to describe it because it’s not just about length) that’s broken into logical subsections and features attention-grabbing images. Even if you don’t believe that cornerstone content receives any special treatment in SERPs, focusing on long articles will help you to cover more related questions within one piece (more on that below).
All you need to do is to adjust your blogging style just a bit:
- Ask the question in your article (that may be a subheading)
- Immediately follow the question with a one-paragraph answer
- Elaborate further in the article
This tactic may also result in higher user retention because it makes any article better structured and thus a much easier read. To quote AJ Ghergich,
When you use data to fuel topic ideation, content creation becomes more about resources and less about brainstorming.
2. Be factual and organize well
Google loves numbers, steps and lists. We’ve seen this again and again: More often than not, answer boxes will list the actual ingredients, number of steps, time to cook, year and city of birth, etc.
In your paragraph introducing the answer to the question, make sure to list useful numbers and names. Get very factual.
In fact, the aforementioned study by AJ Ghergich concluded that comparison charts and lists are an easier way to get featured because Google loves structured content. In fact, even for branded queries (where a user is obviously researching a particular brand), Google would pick up a table from another site (not the answer from the brand itself) if that other site has a table:
This only shows how much Google loves well-structured, factual, and number-driven content.
There’s no specific markup to structure your content. Google seems to pick up