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 20–30% 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 <table>, <ol>, and <ul> well and doesn’t need any other pointers.
3. Make sure one article answers many similar questions
In their research of featured snippets, Ahrefs found that once a page gets featured, it’s likely to get featured in lots of similar queries. This means it should be structured and worded the way it addresses a lot of related questions.
Google is very good at determining synonymic and closely related questions, so should be you. There’s no point in creating a separate page answering each specific question.
Creating one solid article addressing many related questions is a much smarter strategy if you aim at getting featured in answer boxes. This leads us to the next tactic:
4. Organize your questions properly
To combine many closely related questions in one article, you need to organize your queries properly. This will also help you structure your content well.
I have a multi-level keyword organization strategy that can be applied here as well:
- A generic keyword makes a section or a category of the blog
- A more specific search query becomes the title of the article
- Even more specific queries determine the subheadings of the article and thus define its structure
- There will be multiple queries that are so closely related that they will all go under a single subheading
Serpstat helps me a lot when it comes to both discovering an article idea and then breaking it into subtopics. Check out its “Questions” section. It will provide hundreds of questions containing your core term and then generate a tag cloud of other popular terms that come up in those questions:
Clicking any word in the tag cloud will filter results down to those questions that only have that word in them. These are subsections for your article:
Here’s a good example of how related questions can help you structure the article:
5. Make sure to use eye-grabbing images
Paragraph featured snippets with images are ridiculously eye-catching, even more so than regular featured featured snippets. Honestly, I wasn’t able to identify how to add an image so that it’s featured. I tried naming it differently and I tried marking it as “featured” in the WordPress editor. Google seems to pick up a random image from the page without me being able to point it to a better version.
That being said, the only way to influence that is to make sure ALL your in-article images are eye-catching, branded, and annotated well, so that no matter which one Google ends up featuring, it will look nice. Here’s a great selection of WordPress plugins that will allow you to easily visualize your content (put together graphs, tables, charts, etc.) while working on a piece.
You can use Bannersnack to create eye-catching branded images; I love their image editing functionality. You can quickly create graphics there, then resize them to reuse as banners and social media images and organize all your creatives in folders:
6. Update and re-upload the images (WordPress)
WordPress adds dates to image URLs, so even if you update an article with newer information the images can be considered kind of old. I managed to snatch a couple of paragraph featured snippets with images once I started updating my images, too:
7. Monitor how you are doing
Ahrefs lets you monitor which queries your domain is featured for, so keep an eye on these as they grow and new ones appear:
It takes a lot of research and planning and you cannot be sure when you’ll see the results (especially if you don’t have too many top 10 rankings just yet) but think about this way: Being featured in Google search results is your incentive to work harder on your content. You’ll achieve other important goals on your way there:
- You’ll discover hundreds of new content ideas (and thus will rank for a wider variety of various long-tail keywords)
- You’ll learn to research each topic more thoroughly (and thus will build more incoming links because people tend to link to indepth articles)
- You’ll learn to structure your articles better (and thus achieve a lower bounce rate because it will be easier to read your articles)
Have you been featured in Google search results yet? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments below!
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