Let’s get real. Ranking atop Google has been increasingly difficult over the years. Not only is competition growing stronger, but dynamic SERP features like Videos, Images for, Google Ads, and “People also ask” is making it harder to generate traffic from organic search.
One feature that’s leveling the playing field is Google featured snippets. While Google’s intention behind featured snippets is to provide succinct answers to user queries (thereby keeping them on the SERPs longer rather than actually clicking through to a site), these snippets can provide an opportunity for lower ranking pages to compete for top visibility.
When they do appear, the average CTR for a features snippet is a mere 8.6%. However, compared to those who rank below position #5 in organic search, a featured snippet still offers more than double the CTR. Local businesses are no exception. Even queries with local intent can trigger features snippets, which further underscores the value of well-executed content strategy.
Although featured snippets have been around since 2014, SEO’s often overlook the fundamental practices to better position their content for such prominent treatment. So what does it take to show-up in a Google featured snippet? Let’s take an in-depth look at these special listings and how you can better optimize content for featured snippets.
How Do Featured Snippets Work?
What exactly are Google featured snippets and how do they work? It’s actually quite simple.
Often referred to as “position 0” in the search results, featured snippets are special boxes that appear above the first organic listing and below any ads being shown. Within these boxes are concise snippets of content from a particular page that best answers the user’s query.
Featured snippets are especially prone to appear for queries phrased in the form of a question. According to Google, featured snippets are displayed “when our systems determine this format will help people more easily discover what they’re seeking, both from the description about the page and when they click on the link to read the page itself.”
In most cases, featured snippets do a reliable job in addressing a user’s search query; however in some cases, the content Google displays can be of questionable quality. Fortunately, the recent rollout of Google BERT has helped transform the Natural Language Processing (NLP) landscape for the better, and we’re starting to see improvements in featured snippet quality as a result.
In essence, Google featured snippets provide elevated search visibility which oftentimes lead to higher click-through rates – one of the core purposes of SEO. Not only is it important to understand the “what” and “how” behind featured snippets, but it can also be advantageous to understand the “why.”
Why Do Featured Snippets Exist?
Take a step back and remember that Google Search is a product that’s developed to encourage users to spend the most time possible exploring SERPs. Sure, Google profits when users click ads. But ultimately, Google tries to keep users on the SERP for as long as possible.
Not only are featured snippets designed to succinctly answer user queries, but they can also be spoken aloud by Google Assistant for those using voice search. Additionally, new enhancements are cropping-up to further facilitate the on-SERP user experience, like extended links that appear below the featured content.
Using the example figure from above, users can click specific ways on “how to stretch lower back,” such as “while sitting” or “while standing.” These options refresh the featured snippet with new content that best aligns with extended search descriptor. In this case, Livestrong.com is rewarded with the featured snippet for “how to stretch lower back while standing.”
As you can see, Google leverages position 0 to keep users on the SERPs in any way that it can. The “People also ask” is another example of how Google strives to answer user queries directly from the search results. In some cases, a user has to scroll half way down the SERP to see the first organic listing.
How to Optimize for Featured Snippets?
There are several ways you can better optimize content to appear as featured snippets. Even if your page ranks at the bottom of the first SERP, producing content that’s high-quality, easy to digest, and properly-structured can help elevate its visibility and overall click-through potential with featured attention. Below are several best practices on how to optimize for featured snippets, as well as background behind the fickle nature of these enhanced listings.
1. Target Topics Inspired by Solution-Seeking Queries
Any good content strategy will target topics that address specific questions, problems, or challenges rooted to user search queries. While you may already have certain topics in mind, it’s important to narrow-in on certain themes to better understand the keyword data surrounding those topics and how you can position your content accordingly.
There are a number of tools that you can use to help facilitate this process, such as the Keyword Planner. But often the best place to start is Google Search itself. By searching Google, you can leverage several features directly from the SERPs to help cultivate inspiration.
Google Search predictions are of those features. Here we can see certain variations of our core topic that might be useful.
Predictions can also come in an autocomplete format, helping you drill into more descriptive long-tail keywords. Per our example, if we’re striving to produce the best piece of content on the topic of “how to stretch lower back,” then we may want to add depth to the piece by addressing more specific queries related to that theme.
Often displayed further down in the SERP is the “People also ask” snippet. This feature in itself can lend to various ideas for content strategy development. Some questions might offer merit for the given topic that we’re exploring (in this case, ways to “stretch lower back”), however we may find alternative topics that could inspire separate pieces not specific to stretching, like hot-cold therapy or chiropractic treatment.
In essence, if we’re trying to position a brand as a thought leader in back pain management, these features can offer valuable insights into potential queries that we can address.
A compelling study by Ahrefs suggests that the average top ranking page can also rank in the top 10 for almost 1,000 other relevant keywords. While we’re not going to delve into researching 1,000+ queries to help optimize one post, we can at least pinpoint our primary theme (“how to stretch lower back”) while including various secondary keywords throughout the content (such as “how to stretch lower back while sitting,” “…while standing,”“…with a roller,” etc.
2. Position Topics for Google Featured Snippets
Once you’ve immersed yourself in exploring relevant search queries and keyword data, the next step in optimizing for Google featured snippets is positioning your topic.
A related post on Search Engine Journal highlighted a few characteristics about the nature of Google featured snippets:
Paragraph snippets represent 81.95% of all featured snippets;
list snippets constitute 10.77% of featured snippets; and
table snippets make up 7.28% of featured snippets.
By understanding the search queries you’re aiming to target, you can better position your topic according to these snippet types (i.e. definitive question/answer format, table of information, step-by-step how-to, define and describe list format, etc.)
In addition to these featured snippet types, you’ll also want to position your content so that it’s differentiated from other competing posts ranking in Google. Take a look at how content is currently titled in the organic search results. How can we position our post to have distinct spin on this topic?
3. First and Foremost, Optimize for Organic
Another study by Ahrefs found that 99.58% of featured snippets reflect content that’s already ranked in the top 10 of Google Search. Additionally, data from Getstat shows that 70% of featured snippets came from pages outside of the #1 organic position.
These findings underscore a couple key points:
It’s important that your content ranks organically to have a chance of getting featured;
but it’s not required that your content ranks #1 to be featured.
When setting your sights on featured snippets, it’s important to prioritize organic SEO first and foremost. While you don’t necessarily need to rank #1 or #2 to generate a featured snippet, it does help to rank somewhere in the top 5, or at least on page one for your target keywords.
Creating in-depth content that offers value is a critical foundation, but it’s also important to employ fundamental on-page SEO practices that help your page to get ranked. Further, it helps to cultivate link equity and build authority to the page you’re trying to rank. While Google primarily looks at on-page content in determining featured snippets, off-page signals like backlinks can better ensure a page is in contention with organic.
4. Format Your Content Appropriately
Similar to how you would optimize a page for organic SEO, the manner in which content is formatted can improve its potential to appear as a featured snippet. However, unlike organic SEO where lengthy, in-depth answers are often advantageous, optimizing for featured snippets involves a level of conciseness and clarity.
An analysis of over 1.4 million featured snippets conducted by Ghergich & Co. and SEMRush found the standard paragraph snippet averaged just 45 words, with the longest maxing out at 97 words. As for list snippets, the average amount of lines shown is only 4 with the most being 8 lines.
Here’s how to format your content for featured snippets:
Use a proper hierarchy of header tags like h1, h2, h3, etc. to address specific topics or questions within your post. Here it helps to be both descriptive and keyword relevant.
Write short and punchy sentences that provide clear answers to the questions or topics you’re striving to address.
Liberally use bulleted lists, numbered lists, tables, or graphs when applicable.
Include a relevant image along with the answer or snippet query you’re working to address.
Consider the skimmability, usefulness, and overall experience of your readers. Avoid bloat and unnecessary sentences for the sake of SEO and extending word count.
It’s okay (even encouraged) to publish deep content that may contain several thousand words of text. But for featured snippets, it’s more about how you organize and address each query within the content. This formatting component should be embraced with conciseness, clarity, and organized structure.
5. Support Your Content with Studies and Trusted Information
A significant broad core algorithm update that Google unveiled on August 1st of 2018 shook-up the SEO community, especially those engaged in content strategy. One of the functions of this algorithm update was to demote the rankings of advice pages with ambiguous or unproven expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T).
In a related post on E-A-T, Dan Leibson highlights:
“Google wants expert content.
Google wants authoritative and trustworthy sites.
And they want that in a way that can be understood by a machine.”
While optimizing for E-A-T, SEO, and features snippets all involve various trust signals ranging from technical integrity to backlink health, the actual content on a page is one of the most important considerations.
Whether or not a page is published on behalf of an expert author, it helps to add a layer of expertise and credibility to the answers you’re providing. Make an effort to cite supportive data, research, and studies (and link to these sources) to better position your content for featured snippets.
Referencing credible sources of information or even quotes from qualified professionals can help improve the level of trust and authority Google sees in your content. The practice of externally linking to these sources helps ensure Google connects the dots and positions your content accordingly.
6. Include Images that Correspond to Snippet Queries
As with organic SEO, images should not go overlooked when optimizing for featured snippets. Interestingly, Google may feature a paragraph or list snippet from one post, but include a featured image from an entirely different source.
For example, see the featured snippet below of a paragraph from RealSimple.com, but an image from H-Wave.com. Unfortunately Google failed to align an appropriate image that accurately demonstrates the stretch being described in the snippet. However, if RealSimple.com made the effort to include an image in the post (and not just a video), chances are it would occupy both the paragraph and image shown in the featured snippet.
As an SEO best practice highlighted by the example above, be sure to include one overarching image that encapsulates the post’s content. Further, name the image file according to the content’s primary target keyword, “how-to-stretch-lower-back.jpg”.
For each subheader or snippet query mentioned in the post (ideally in an h2 or h3 tag), include a corresponding image to accompany each point, such as a visual demonstration or a relevant photo. This will help ensure your content takes full ownership of the featured snippet, and isn’t shared with another source like the case above.
7. Apply Schema/Structured Data Markup Where Applicable
While it remains unclear if structured data markup is a crucial factor in ranking featured snippets, what is clear is the importance of making it easy for Google to understand the content of a page. Structural formatting, such as the latter-mentioned hierarchical structure of header tags, is perhaps the most important. However, there’s ample reasoning to support the use of structured data markup to rank in position 0.
In essence, Schema, or structured data markup, offers a way to present content within a page in such a manner that Google understands natively. Integrating one or more of the many Schema types to a page allows you to explicitly indicate: image, author, headline, description, question, answer… among several others. Essentially this makes Google’s job much easier in interpreting pieces of content within a page.
Among the Schema types, those that are most applicable to featured snippets include:
Above is an example script of HowTo structured data markup. Notice the @Type indicating the nature of the content, and the section below indicating the first “step” in the “How to Stretch Lower Back” process.
If you made it this far, then you’re clearly determined to rank your content as featured snippets. We certainly don’t blame you. Depending on where your content currently ranks in the SERPs, appearing in a featured snippet can improve page traffic by about 20-30 percent and CTR by 677 percent, on average, according to the Content Marketing Institute.
While Google continues to evolve and show results in a dynamic, user-by-user basis, employing these practices can help ensure your content is properly optimized to appear in the coveted position 0.