What is a featured snippet, and how can you position your content to rank for one? Columnist Stephan Spencer explains this search feature and provides tips for optimizing your pages for it.
For many site owners, ranking in position 1 is the holy grail of SEO. However, if you are in a competitive market, achieving that coveted first position in the Google SERPs (search engine results pages) may take a lot of effort and investment.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t make the investment, but don’t overlook the opportunity to rank in position 0 with a featured snippet. For one thing, getting a featured snippet may be less about the link metrics and more about the actual content on your page. So if you are outgunned in terms of backlinks, then featured snippets could be just the thing for your business.
Surprisingly, it is not unheard of for URLs ranking on page 2 of the Google SERPs to get a “position 0” result with a featured snippet. Of course, most featured snippets are for URLs that are in the top 10 results. As you can imagine, if you are in position 5, getting that position 0 “answer box” result can be a big boost to that page’s visibility and organic traffic.
What’s a featured snippet?
At this writing, featured snippets appear in 9.1968 percent of search queries, according to RankRanger. They appear at the top of the search results page, above the normal search results (hence the reason we call these “position 0” rankings). The snippet contains the URL and page title, along with a “snippet” of the page’s content in an attempt to answer the searcher’s query.
The way it works is that Google will “programmatically detect pages that answer the user’s question, and display a top result as a featured snippet in the search results.” These featured snippets are designed to draw the user’s attention, and many site owners find that their CTR (click-through rate) significantly increases for the web pages that have featured snippets in the SERPs.
Featured snippet examples
There are many different types of featured snippets; here are some examples of the most common types.
By far the most common type of featured snippet is the paragraph type:
The list type of featured snippet is often shown for “process” search queries that are looking for a series of steps to accomplish a task. Note that the example below also includes an illustrative image.
For getting the table type of featured snippet, your best bet is to mark up the table on your page using the <table> tag.
So, how can you snag this coveted spot in the SERPs? Read on for advice.
Step 1: Understanding the opportunity for your site
When it comes to featured snippets, not all markets are created equal. If you are a local business, a better use of your time would be to focus on positioning your business for the Google map results, as featured snippets are not seen in SERPs that display the local pack (according to a study done by Stat Search Analytics).
On the flip side, if you are in a market where there is a need for clear answers to frequently asked questions, your industry uses terms that need explanation, and/or you have data that can be presented in tabular format, then featured snippets are likely a great opportunity for you.
In the aforementioned study, Stat reviewed 92,000 search queries for featured snippets and found the types of search terms which often return featured snippets are:
- DIY processes
The types of searches which rarely return featured snippets are:
- images and videos
Stat did a refresh of their study six months later and found something surprising. One category of searches moved from rarely returning featured snippets to commonly returning featured snippets, and that was subjective queries (e.g., “best” or “reviews” included in the query).
While it’s tempting to jump into keyword research right away to find question-oriented keywords, you should first check whether your site is ranking with featured snippets today. Keep in mind, just because you have the snippet today doesn’t mean you will next week, so you’ll definitely want to track your position 0 rankings.
Additionally, matching up Google Search Console CTR data with the keywords for which you have featured snippets also helps you size the opportunity, especially if you can compare CTR data for a time frame when you had the featured snippet against a time frame when you did not.
Even if your site does not have any featured snippets, a review of your competitors’ featured snippets will be instructive to give you a starting point for a list of keywords you might want to focus on. Fortunately, there are a few tools available that can help you find keywords that currently have featured snippets.
SEMrush makes it easy to find your featured snippets. And this method works equally well when you are sleuthing for your competitors’ featured snippets.
To get started, head over to “Positions” in “Organic Research.”
You can then either filter the list of keywords under Advanced Filters by: Include > SERP Features > Featured Snippets, or you can simply select the “Featured snippet” link under the “SERP features” list on the right-hand side of the page.
Another excellent tool for finding tracking featured snippets is Stat Search Analytics.
You will first need to create a keyword list to upload into Stat. Once Stat has the rankings for your keywords, the Stat interface will show you which of your tracked keywords are producing featured snippet result types, which Stat flags as “answer” type results.
With Stat, you can filter those keywords to focus on those you are ranking in the top 10 results for, as well as tag keywords you want to track.
SearchMetrics Suite also features tracking for featured snippets. They call them “Direct Answers,” but you can see in the screen shot below where they have filtered for a set of terms that nytimes.com ranks on where there are Direct Answers present.
In many cases, these direct answers are Featured Snippets, as you can see in the example, “vegan Thanksgiving recipes.”
Step 2: Finding great keyword candidates for featured snippets
Now that we have a baseline and a better understanding of what keywords are getting featured snippets, let’s find more opportunities.
Finding great candidates for featured snippets comes down to good old-fashioned keyword research. As you do your research, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Higher-volume terms get snippets more often.
- Longer queries that are comprised of six or more words tend to show featured snippets.
- Since the purpose of featured snippets is to answer questions, explicit questions like “who,” “what,” “how,” “where” and “why” search queries will obviously often have featured snippets. But don’t overlook implied questions with the words like “does,” “cause” and “costs,” as well as action words like “becoming,” “doing,” “getting,” “making,” “forming” or “cooking.”
- Implied questions also include searches on terms. Consider a search for “email marketing,” where the searcher is looking for a definition by essentially asking the implied question, “What is email marketing?” Snippets for general questions usually trigger a paragraph type of featured snippet.
‘People also ask’
Particularly if you search on general questions, you can find additional keywords that result in featured snippets in the “People also ask” section in the SERPs.
Here, a search on “email marketing” gets a featured snippet, as well as a list of related search terms in “People also ask,” including “What is an email campaign?”
Clicking on “What is an email campaign?” reveals a featured snippet that answers that question.
To get a list of questions that are asked about particular topic, a very useful data mining tool is answerthepublic.com, which uses the Google Suggest API to find all the permutations of a question that people are searching on.
Shown below are all the questions answerthepublic.com found for the keyword “cook vegetables.”
We can then drill down into the specific questions for each question modifier. Here are the “how” questions for the keyword “cook vegetables.”
The long-tail keyword, “how to cook vegetables in a slow cooker,” does indeed return a featured snippet.
You can also get lists of queries formulated as questions from Moz Keyword Explorer. (Go to the Keyword Suggestions tab, and where you see the pull-down list “Display keyword suggestions that,” select the option “are questions.”) You can also get questions from Rank Ranger’s Keyword Finder by clicking “Questions” under “Quick Filters.”
If you have a Stat account, you can export a list of keywords from Answer the Public and then upload them into Stat to automate the process for determining which of the questions return a featured snippet in the SERPs.
Step 3: Increasing the potential for featured snippet selection
Whether we are creating the page from scratch or improving the page, to increase our chances of being selected for a featured snippet, we want to take a multi-pronged approach that includes:
- content that clearly answers the question.
- clean code and tagging that Google can easily understand.
- positive user engagement signals.
I have found that your chances of being selected for a featured snippet can improve if you follow the content organizational model that I outline below:
- First, repeat the question that is the query, or which is implicit in the query, clearly and prominently on your web page.
- Directly following the question, provide a short, direct, clear answer to the question.
- Then, provide more information, data, images and so on to answer the question as fully and completely as possible.
One way to structure your content is to use what journalists refer to as “the inverted pyramid.” When following the inverted pyramid model, your page starts with the most important information that answers the question, then transitions to more detailed information, and finally wraps up with a broader look at the topic or perhaps a case study or an example.
How you format your HTML can make a difference too. Here are the best practices I recommend:
- Make the search query, or a very close version of it, a heading on the page. This means, where possible, format that query or question as an H1, H2 and so forth.
- Summarize the answer to the question in a single paragraph.
- Format that paragraph in a paragraph HTML tag <p>.
- Place that paragraph directly below the heading for the question.
- Aim for making the answer paragraph roughly 40 to 55 words.
It can also help to format your content as a list, using the <li> tags. Particularly if the query you are targeting is best answered by delineating steps in a process (e.g., “how to boil an egg”), then use <ol> tags (an ordered list). If you think that a bulleted list provides the best answer to the query, then use <ul> tags (unordered list).
Heading tags for each of your steps can also work, rather than <li> tags. Google is quite adept at extracting the content it needs to build a useful featured snippet.
Additionally, presenting your content in a question-and-answer format (or as a list of frequently asked questions) can also help Google select a short answer from your page as a featured snippet for a question.
And finally, as we mentioned above, if you create a table in your content hoping for a table-type featured snippet, it’s best to use the HTML <table> tag instead of using CSS to lay out your table.
For existing web pages, I like to take a look at a page’s user engagement metrics (bounce rate, average session duration, # of pages visited) in Google Analytics. If the metrics are substantially below the site’s average, that page isn’t satisfying the needs of our site’s visitors. Since Google is in the business of delivering the best search results to searchers, having a low-performing web page may make it difficult to obtain, and, more importantly, keep a featured snippet. Google will pick up on that poor performer not by spying on your Google Analytics, but by monitoring dwell time and CTR from the SERPs.
I presume the reason you want to rank highly in the Google search results is to attract leads and sales. So, while the tagging and content structuring is helpful to getting your position 0 ranking, it is actually more important to focus on making your page the very best answer to the question. Great content is rewarded not just by Google but by customer acquisition and retention.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.