Intro to Google Featured Snippets

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Featured snippets are a logical progression of Google’s long-standing mission: “To find the most relevant, useful results in a fraction of a second, and present them in a way that helps you find what you’re looking for.”  

It would follow that for billions of unique queries, there are probably different ways to best display the answer depending on the type of query.  Google created a range of these larger, more eye-catching representations of search results that pull key information from the site and display it directly on the SERP – and to no one’s surprise, they became a hot commodity for SEOs to strive for. 

As algorithm updates roll out, Google moves further and further toward zero-click search⁠—where more questions are answered directly on the SERP and less than half of all Google searches result in a click. SEOs realized a featured snippet may be the only way to get exposure for their brand, making “position zero” the most competitive piece of search real estate. 

Use this guide to learn how featured snippets work, if you can (or should) optimize for them, and which types of features you’re likely to see on the SERP. 

Table of Contents

What are featured snippets?

Featured Snippets are short excerpts of text that Google automatically pulls from a website in the interest of directly answering the searcher’s query, sometimes without the need for a click-through.  

what is a featured snippet

They’re placed in a box, and the normal makeup of a search result is flipped on its head⁠—showing the description first and the link below. As you can see, they appear underneath the ad results but above the link text organic results, with the exception of some queries that generate the right sidebar featured snippet. 

Google says that the quoted content in featured snippets is always either a paragraph, a list or set of steps, or a table, and always contains the following elements:

  • Information quoted from a third-party website
  • A link to the page
  • The page title
  • The URL of the page

Featured snippets are known for exponentially increasing the amount of organic traffic to a page, so if you can achieve them, they’re worth striving for. Ahrefs analyzed 2 million featured snippets and found that for the SERPs that had them, 8.6% of all clicks go to the featured snippet.

How Google selects featured snippets

1. Queries in the form of a question are more likely to be returned with a featured snippet result. This was discovered in an analysis of 2 million keywords, and you can view the breakdown of which question words made up various percentages of different featured snippets in the summary. 

2. You need to already rank in the top 10 organic results. According to a study by Ahrefs, 99.58% of featured pages already rank in the top 10 of Google organic results. If you’re already ranking high for certain queries, you have a very high chance of being featured.

But it isn’t as simple as “the #1 result wins the feature.” GetStat reports that 70% of featured snippets show web pages that were not the number one result. In short, optimize according to SEO fundamentals to make sure you’re on page 1 first, but then you’re as free to compete for snippets as the other nine results. 

In fact, earlier this year URLs that earned a featured snippet were demoted to page 2.

3. Featured snippets don’t appear for “controversial” questions. Google has likely labeled certain topics as ineligible for featured snippets because featured snippets are designed to give a singular answer. More traditional results appear for queries that may not have a cut and dry singular answer.

When a debate is ‘controversial’ (e.g. there have been misleading results around whether vaccinations are safe), Google will not provide a definitive answer in the form of a featured snippet. If you’re eyeing an industry or queries that might fall in this category, you may be out of luck.

 

discrimination

However, it does seem that Google is willing to take a stand on at least one great debate and provide a paragraph-style featured snippet on our favorite four-legged friends.

dogs-cats

How to optimize for featured snippets

Make sure you have the right subject matter

Determine if you deal with a subject matter that typically returns results with featured snippets, and decide if optimizing for one would be a good use of your time. According to a study performed by GetStat, the following types of search queries that are most likely to get featured results:

    • DIY processes
    • Health
    • Financial
    • Mathematical
    • Requirements
    • Status
    • Transitional

However, don’t write off these subjects if you don’t think they’re an exact match and don’t be afraid to get creative. Almost any business can publish a how-to, release guidance on regulations in their industry, or any other ideas you may be able to brainstorm.

Identify your best keyword opportunities

Since we know Google only pulls from the top 10 results, create a list of keywords that your site ranks for in spots 1-10 to identify the most attainable featured snippets. You can get a complete list of all of the keywords your site ranks for using Google Search Console. Just open Google Search Console, click the performance tab, and scroll down to see your list of queries.

google search console

As you decide which keywords you’re going to go after, test them by searching for them in Google and seeing which featured snippet format surfaces, if any at all—you don’t want to be caught optimizing for a list when Google has decided that query is best served with a definition.

Discover relevant questions

Featured snippets are more likely to be in response to a question, so find relevant questions around your top keywords. Your first stop is the “People also ask” feature on the SERP. 

These are the most common questions users have asked when searching for information related to the keyword you’re using. 

This list of questions is a great opportunity to remain agile and not waste time on a highly-competitive featured snippet you aren’t ranking for—if you know enough to write about the original query, you probably know enough to write about the related question.

people-also-ask

Another way to get a more exhaustive list of potential questions is to use a tool like AnswerThePublic that generates lists of questions people search for related to a more basic keyword and allows you to export it as a CSV file.

answer-the-public

Match your content to your searcher’s intent

The only way to remove your personal bias of how you expect a question to be answered is to search for questions you’re targeting and see if Google agrees with you. 

If you’re targeting “how to curl your hair” and you create a bulleted list of the steps, you’re going to have wasted a lot of effort when you find out that the featured content for that query is all highly visual images and videos. If a certain featured snippet is a high priority for you, create your content around with this guidance in mind from the start.

search-intent

Answer questions concisely in your content

Featured snippets only have so much room to display an answer, so try to be clear and concise when you sum up a response to a question you’re targeting. 

If you’re struggling with this or have other reasons you can’t go in and rewrite certain sections of copy, consider adding a tl;dr at the bottom of a section or page that wraps it up with a bow in a way that’s palatable to a featured snippet.

Test test test

Track which snippets you win. Track which snippets you lose. Track your organic traffic during both events. Track new keywords you rank for that can be new snippet opportunities. Basically just never stop tracking.

How to opt-out of featured snippets

Snippets aren’t intrinsically more valuable than traditional organic results⁠—you have to make the right decision for your business. Earlier this year, Google released an algorithm update that disallowed “double-dipping” in search results, meaning web pages that ranked for a featured snippet couldn’t appear anywhere else on page 1. 

Previously, it was more obvious to strive for featured snippets, because why not? 

It was a bonus space. 

Now, SEOs are faced with the choice of a snippet or blue link result. Some businesses that emphasize click-through may see a drop in performance when the content is laid out in a zero-click answer, others may not like how the chosen excerpt represents their business. 

To know for sure, test organic traffic, conversions, or whatever other KPIs are important to your business for the same queries with and without the featured snippet, or use a tool like AuthorityLabs to track featured snippets you win and lose to see how those events impacted your traffic.   

The good news is that you can opt-out of them. Google released the following guidance on how to signal that you don’t want a web page to appear in a featured snippet: 

  • The nosnippet tag blocks all snippets (featured snippets and regular snippets) for the tagged page.
  • Text marked by the data-nosnippet tag won’t appear in featured snippets (or regular snippets either).
  • If both nosnippet and data-nosnippet appear in a page, nosnippet takes priority, and snippets won’t be shown for the page.

“Those who wish to retain snippets in regularly-formatted search results but not appear in featured snippets should experiment with setting the max-snippet tag to lower lengths. Featured snippets will only appear if enough text can be shown to generate a useful featured snippet.

Keep lowering the value if pages continue to show for featured snippets. In general, the shorter your max-snippet tag setting, the less likely the page will appear as a featured snippet.”

Most important featured snippets to know

Take a look at the most common types of featured snippets you’re likely to see and start thinking about how they might be a good fit for queries related to your business.

Definition

This is a short section of text meant to give a direct, succinct answer to the question. It will have the original search terms bolded, and if a user clicks through to the web page, they will be brought to the section of the page that was pulled for the snippet highlighted in yellow. This is the most popular featured snippet of them all, so prioritize accordingly.

definition
highlighted text

Table

If your content has well-structured comparisons or you’ve even made visual charts yourself, Google will arrange it in a table on the SERP if it contains prices, rates, years, or other numerical data. Take a look at how it appears in the feature and how similar it looks on their web page.

table
table-onpage

List

Google will feature lists of both the numbered and un-numbered (aka bulleted) variety. We’ve seen time and time again how Google favors well-structured information, so take this to heart when optimizing for this featured snippets. If you’re writing about the steps in a process or the components of something, use proper heading structure to list them and then expand on them in the text.

list

Accordion

The accordion featured snippet is a twist on the definition box, in that it has that small section of text, but it also allows searchers to drill down into more specific questions from different sources. 

If you rank for any accordion snippets, be mindful of who you’re sharing those spaces with and if you’re able to include clear answers to those questions on your own site.

accordion

Top stories

The top stories carousel is a highly visual area of the SERP that shows more recent, timely updates. The first step to ranking for this is to make sure you’re following Google’s editorial guidelines.  Next, you’ll want to be sure to mark up your page with the appropriate structured data. 

Google says, “Adding structured data to your news, blog, and sports article page can enhance your appearance in Google Search results. Enhanced features can include placement in the Top stories carousel, host carousel, Visual stories, and rich result features such as headline text and larger-than-thumbnail images.” 

You can directions and examples for implementing news article-specific structured data on Google’s Search for Developers site. 

top stories

To find more niche search features that are relevant to your industry, visit Search for Developers and open the “Structured Data” tab to take a look at some of the types of structured data you can implement. Your site could be featured for job postings, events, salaries, recipes, official logos, and so many more topics.

recipe

Tip: Dead snippet alert? Be on the lookout for “bubble” modifiers. These originally appeared in a snippet known as carousel snippets as recently as earlier in 2020, but Google seems to have moved these offerings of modifying search terms to the top of the SERP instead of in the snippet. 

Be mindful of the potential to optimize for these when you’re targeting a query that provides them.

bubble
bubble-selected

Wait, what about all those other visual results I see?

You may be thinking to yourself, “No, I’ve seen way more types of featured results when I search on Google.” And you’re absolutely right. Google leverages many search features that help users get to the answer they’re looking for faster, but they aren’t featured snippets. 

Here’s the difference: Featured snippets pull relevant information from another web page and link to it in case the searcher wants to read more. Features that aren’t featured snippets provide a solution directly on the SERP with no link to a source because they are viewed as common knowledge or lead to another Google property. Here are a few examples:

Answer box

answer box

Unit converter

Other Google Search Verticals

Responses that fit into other Google search verticals, such as images, videos, shopping, and flights may be presented to you as options in a visual way that looks similar to a featured snippet, but it really just transports you to that new, more specific query search within that Google-owned vertical.

google-flights

Movies and tv show snippets are another great example of a visual representation taking you to a fresh search query while remaining on Google, following the same design as the bubble modifiers mentioned above.

brad pitt 2

Answers from sanctioned sources you can’t really compete with

Google has a few ways of showing information that look like featured snippets, but come from one credible source that Google has chosen for that feature. Good examples of this are weather.com, The Oxford Dictionary, and the USDA.

breakfast-cereal
dictionary

Games, tricks, tools, and easter eggs

Whatever you want to call these, Google has a number of fun games or useful tools that searchers can use directly on the SERP.  Next time you need to flip a coin, Google’s got you covered.

google pacman

Final thoughts on Google search features

If there’s one thing that’s clear in investigating Google search features, it’s how extensive the list of them really is. 

This presents endless opportunities for SEOs who want to win position zero for their brand. Find niche questions and longtail queries you perform well for and think about how you can structure your content for the snippet type Google matches them with, and you could snatch that eye-catching SERP real estate and capture an influx of organic traffic.

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