By now you’ve probably seen the “featured snippets” in your Google search results. As a San Francisco digital marketing agency, we’ve seen plenty. Featured snippets are the cards that appear with a self-contained excerpt from a page that will, ideally, answer your search query. One of the first things you’ll notice is that the snippet rarely comes from the number one search result. Here’s a quick example:
In most basic terms, you’re seeing two different algorithms with two different purposes working together. The process that generates the search results finds the page which is most likely to be useful, while the process for generating the snippets is finding the most helpful, self-contained unit of information.
It’s a system that still has some kinks to work out, not least because pages aren’t properly optimizing for snippets yet. Basically, the featured snippets are still finding their footing, and it’s a great chance for digital marketers to get in on the ground floor, especially when it comes to maximizing SEO.
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Google is pushing for “Mobile-First”, and most mobile users are in a hurry or looking for a quick answer without a lot of depth. One of the best ways to cater to that demographic, from Google’s perspective, is to provide a satisfactory answer in the shortest possible number of steps. In the case of featured snippets, Google is cutting out the middle-man, so to speak, so that a mobile user won’t need to go to the trouble of loading a new webpage. It saves a step by providing the answer directly. This approach brings Google right in line with the new generation of digital assistants, which I’ve written about before.
Here are a few sample questions from my browser history and from the recent Moz study on featured snippets, which we’ll be discussing shortly.
Difference Between Trolling and Trawling
Etymology Phrase Curry Favour
In all cases, a quick, flat answer suffices to answer the question, so a snippet is brought up, but it’s by no means a foolproof system.
For trolling and trawling, the snippet probably misses the point of the query. It’s far more likely that a user’s search was prompted by the phrase “trawling for information”, rather than the literal fishing terms. In fact, “trawling for information” is more correct than “trolling for information” because it involves a dragnet rather than a precision tool, but the snippet leaves the inference unstated.
For the Denny’s prices, the snippet selected a convenient table from a third-party source, but the user will very likely just click the link to Denny’s Proper to get the numbers straight from the horse’s mouth.
And while we’re on the subject of horses, the snippet explaining “curry favour” also falters. “Fauvel” was the equine protagonist in a 14th century French poem. He was a literal “pompous ass”, living in a mansion rather than a stable, and prone to excesses of hedonism and foolishness. To get on his good side, sycophants would groom him (“to curry” is an old English verb meaning “brush or groom”). So, the snippet is a half-truth at best.
That’s why I say that these snippets are still finding their footing. Google hasn’t quite figured out how to balance two competing needs. On the one hand, a snippet must be concise, and formatted recognizably, and on the other, it needs to at least seem credible. Teaching an algorithm how to recognize a right answer is an absurd challenge, but we’re making progress in leaps and bounds.
Now that we’ve seen them in action, let’s get into the technical details. Snippets come in three main formats, heavily reliant on the structured data templates from schema.org, which Google is beginning to push for more heavily.
These three are bullet lists (like the SEO tips), paragraph excerpts (like the trolling/trawling explanation), and tables (like the menu prices). There are a number of others (I get them most often for recipes) but these are the three major types.
Here’s the problem, though. Recalling the example of the menu prices, Google wants to provide a table with the appropriate information. Even if the Denny’s website has the most trustworthy, most current data, it isn’t in a useful format for snippet purposes. So Google is willing to settle for third-party information, since that’s the closest it can get in the right format.
The Denny’s website just doesn’t translate into a snippet.
From just this example, any good digital marketer will know the solution. Denny’s should publish a list of menu prices in the form of a simple table, and have Search Console re-index the site. In all likelihood, that would earn them the snippet.
The Moz Study
This study crunched the numbers on a number of different types of search phrases, trying to tease out data about the trends in snippet formats. The report helps in two major ways (and a score of minor ones).
First, It shows which types of queries tend to bring up which types of snippets.
For instance, search phrases including prepositions as modifiers generally brought up lists (stuff for doing, stuff to do, stuff with attribute, etc.). Phrases using “like” as a modifier (as in “stuff like such-and-such”) generally brought up paragraphs. Answers involving numbers and data were typically came in the form of a table.
Second, by generating trends, outliers were identified. The report shows areas in which counterintuitive snippet types are coming up, revealing opportunities for digital marketers.
How Does a Digital Marketing Agency Capitalize on This?
By tracking what format of question, or long-tail keyphrase, brought up which kind of snippet, we get a better idea of how to format our content. Consider the following examples:
“Parsley Nutrients” brought up a knowledge panel in the right sidebar. That’s increasingly rare, as Google moves toward a mobile-first setup (since sidebars are cumbersome in portrait mode on a mobile browser). However, the next search for “parsley nutritional benefits” brings up a curious snippet format:
Clearly Google thinks a snippet is appropriate to answer this question, but it brings up a paragraph rather than a list (which would contain more information) or a table (which would be more useful for showing hard data, like %DV of nutrients).
So, pretend we’re writing content for parsley.com. If we use “parsley nutritional benefits” as a keyphrase, and include a list or a table, there’s a good chance we could claim the snippet since we’d be providing the right information in a preferable format, thereby checking both of Google’s competing boxes.
If we research a query like “tips to improve SEO”, and we find that it’s bringing up a table, we know that Google really wants to give a snippet for this, but we also know that there wasn’t a good list available. That tells us that if we make and publish (and use Search Console to index) a page with a good list matching that keyphrase, there’s a very good chance that we’d bump out the table and get the much-coveted snippet position.
Where Do We Go from Here?
As digital marketers, when we plan our content, our very first question is “what question are we answering?” The new opportunities provided to us by featured snippets add a secondary question: “how will we format our answer?” Even if our site doesn’t make it to the front page, or the top of the SERPs, if we can deliver the best answer in (what Google sees as) the best format, we may be able to move our content into the featured snippet vacancy and claim pride of place all the same.
The fact that so many of our sample queries brought up either sub-par answers or unlikely formats shows that there’s a dearth of quality content currently optimizing for featured snippets, and so there’s a rare window of opportunity. Go take full advantage of it!
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