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February 9, 2016 // 7:00 AM

How to Optimize Your Content for Google's Featured Snippet Box

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Google_Featured_Snippet.jpg

In the past few years Google have been refining the way that it displays results to users. In particular, Google has been increasing the number of Featured Snippets that it displays for queries.

What's a Featured Snippet? And more importantly, what do you have to do to appear there? Well, that's what I set out to explore. 

What is a Featured Snippet?

A Featured Snippet is shown in some search engine results pages (SERPs), usually when a question-based query is being searched for. The snippet displays content from within one of the pages ranking on page one that directly answers the question searched for without the user having to visit the actual page.

Here's an example for the query, "how to make bread":

Featured Snippet: how to make bread

The Featured Snippet is the box at the top that displays the direct instructions that have been pulled from the tasteofhome.com webpage. You may have heard these referred to as 'answer boxes' in the past. 

Why Should You Care About Featured Snippets?

One of the first conclusions that a lot of people involved with SEO jumped to was that featured snippets would have a hugely negative impact on the amount of people that actually click through to the pages within the results. This actually hasn't been the case. In fact, it's dramatically increased the click-through rate (CTR) of results ranking within it.

From a sample of just under 5,000 queries, I found that the CTR to the HubSpot website for high volume keywords increased by over 114%, even when we ranked #1 (just below the Featured Snippet -- like in the example below).

Inbound Marketing Featured Snippet

So to give you an example, let's say you rank #1 (the first post below the snippet) on page one of Google for a keyword that's searched for 10,000 times. From the data I've collected, you could expect roughly 1,700 visits, compared to the 3,700 you might see if you landed the Featured Snippet spot -- and that's just one keyword.

How Do You Rank in the Featured Snippet Section?

Featured Snippets have been a bit of a mystery for a lot of people involved with SEO, as it hasn't been that easy to determine what influences getting your content to appear within them.

There's been a lot of conflicting advice out there, including the idea that Schema.org data was the reason behind Google displaying this data. However, considering that more than 80% of the websites I've looked at that rank within the Featured Snippet don't use any kind of Schema.org markup data, it's safe to say that this isn't the case.

Not only that but Gary Illyes, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, has said outright that structured data has nothing to do with ranking in the Featured Snippet.

Instead of speculating, I decided to run some research of my own. I wanted to answer the following questions:

  • How frequently does a Featured Snippet appear in the SERPs?
  • How often does HubSpot rank within the Featured Snippet?
  • How much of an impact does the Featured Snippet have on CTR from the search engines?
  • What factors contribute to ranking in the Featured Snippet box?

The results of the test should give you a good idea on how you can start ranking more frequently within the Featured Snippet box.

Organizing the Featured Snippet Analysis:

Just to give you a bit of insight into what data I pulled, here's a brief overview:

  1. I gathered a total of 4,713 different search queries where hubspot.com ranked between #1 and #5 on page one of Google.com.
  2. The queries all contained either, "how to," "what is," "how do," or "how does." This was intentional, as Stone Temple found that from 850,000 question-based queries, 19% of them had a Featured Snippet.
  3. I analysed the SERPs for each of the 4,713 queries to see if there was a Featured Snippet present or not.
  4. Of the 4,713 queries, 1,361 (29%) of them had a Featured Snippet present. The remaining 71% either didn't have a Featured Snippet or they did but it was an unlinked "definition" box (i.e. it just gave the definition of a word and didn't link to a page -- like this).
  5. Once I had the sample of 1,361 queries that displayed Featured Snippets, I scraped the SERPs again to see who was ranking within it, what the content of the Featured Snippet was, and what the URL of the featured page was.
  6. Of the 1,361 queries (where HubSpot rank between #1 and #5 on page one), we appeared in the Featured Snippet 444 times (33%), leaving a remaining 917 queries where we didn't rank in the Featured Snippet.

What the Featured Snippet Analysis Revealed:

The analysis helped me uncover a few interesting things ...

Chart: Appearance in Featured Snippet vs URL Ranking

Allow me to explain what this chart is demonstrating:

  • The numbers (1–5) in the y-axis relate to the position on page one that a HubSpot URL ranks for a given query.
  • For each position HubSpot ranks for, there is a bar that shows how often we appear in the Featured Snippet (blue) and how often we don't (orange).

So, for keywords that we rank #1 for on page one in Google SERPs, we only appear in the Featured Snippet 18% of the time. Contrastingly, we appear in the Featured Snippet 28% of the time when we rank #5. Strange, right?

Well, what this says to us is that once you're in the top 5 results on page one, building backlinks and other authority signals matter much less for ranking in the Featured Snippet. In fact, I've seen lots of occasions where relatively unknown websites with much less SEO authority than HubSpot have ranked above us.

The semantic relevance to the keyword in question, along with clear page structure seems to be much more important. 

Here's another interesting piece of data that illustrates how valuable it can be to rank in the Featured Snippet within Google ...

Chart: SERP CTR for Featured Snippet vs No Featured Snippet

Again, to decipher this graph, here's a brief overview:

  • The x-axis relates to the monthly search volume for the search queries measured.
  • The y-axis shows the click-through rate (CTR) of the ranking HubSpot URL from within Google (i.e. how many people clicked on our search result versus the rest of the results in the search results page for a query).
  • The blue line plots the CTR from the SERPs for HubSpot URLs when we do not appear in the Featured Snippet, broken down by query search volume (x-axis).
  • The orange line plots the CTR from the SERPs for HubSpot URLs when we do appear in the Featured Snippet, broken down by query search volume (x-axis).

By and large, we get much more clicks through to our content when we appear in the Featured Snippet, but this becomes increasingly important as the search volume for a query increases.

For high traffic keywords, ranking in the Featured Snippet saw an average increase in CTR of over 114%, and that's even if we're ranking #1 on page one.

Chart: Frequency of Featured Snippet Word Count

This chart is a little more straightforward. As I mentioned above, I extracted all of the content from within the Featured Snippets that I sampled. I did this to identify any trends in the content being displayed in order to better understand what Google is looking for.

As you can see, content between the length of 54-58 words in total seemed to appear by far the most frequently.

7 Key Takeaways to Help You Rank in the Featured Snippet Section

From the analysis that I've done, here are the conclusions that I've drawn:

  1. Backlinks matter much less for ranking in the Featured Snippet when you already rank on page one.
  2. There should be an area on the page where the search query appears in a header (h2, h3, h4, etc.).
  3. The content you want to appear in the Featured Snippet (the answer to the query) should be placed in a <p> tag directly below the header mentioned above. This answer should be between 54–58 words long.
  4. Google doesn't always just pull through a whole paragraph of text into the Featured Snippet. If you add "Step 1," "Step 2," "Step 3," etc. to the start of each subheading within a page (h2) then Google will sometimes just pull through the subheadings and list them chronologically, like in the example above for this URL. This is particularly prevalent in question-based queries.
  5. Featured Snippets for the same query often have different content within Google.com, Google.co.uk, Google.com.au, and Google.ie. Try "how to search on Google" as one of many examples.
  6. For shorter, less question-orientated keywords that display a Featured Snippet (e.g. "Inbound Sales"), it's much more likely that Google will pull through a paragraph of text as opposed to a step-by-step. Page structure is incredibly important here.
  7. Google tends to prefer 'answers' that begin logically as an answer would. Here are a few examples to demonstrate what I mean by this:

Featured Snippet ExampleFeatured Snippet ExampleFeatured Snippet ExampleFeatured Snippet Example

My advice for anyone looking to increase their visibility within the Featured Snippet box is to first run a quick audit of the keywords that you're ranking for within your current SEO campaign, and how many of them are question-based queries. Once you've got this list, you can drill down on where you're currently ranking, how well your content is structured, and then devise a plan to reoptimize your content based on the advice I've given above.

How will you apply this to your own SEO efforts? Drop a comment below or tweet me directly to share your thoughts and ideas. 

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Topics: SEO

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