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Featured Snippets: How to Rank for Position Zero in 7 Minutes

Jan 04, 2016

In the beginning, there was a lot of skepticism surrounding the value of featured snippets for websites. Over the past couple of months, however, there have been multiple case studies from highly regarded digital marketers proving that these featured snippets can provide an enormous amount of value for a website's organic visibility.

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In this study, we’ll discuss what feature snippets are and how to make your content eligible for one. Then, we’ll break down our tactics to gain featured snippets and show their dramatic impact on organic visibility with Google Search Console and Google Analytics data.

What is a Featured Snippet?

Featured snippets take up a large amount of real estate above the first organic search result and prominently feature a link to the source. The content in these snippets can be anything from a bulleted list of items to a short paragraph with information that Google feels best answers the query.

Understanding conversational speech is at the core of major algorithm updates like Caffeine and Hummingbird, and Google's featured snippets are a direct product of these updates that attempt to provide users with a quality answer as quickly as possible.

How to Qualify for a Featured Snippet

To be eligible for a featured snippet in Google search results, your content needs to be on the first page of search results. While some speculated that you had to rank number one to get the featured snippet, this has turned out to be untrue. You can rank at the bottom of the first page but still have the featured snippet above the fold, atop all other organic results.

Keep in mind that not every query will generate a featured snippet. You’ll see snippets generated most often with “how to”, “why”, and longer, question-based queries. Generic and simple keyword-based queries rarely show these featured snippets.

My Strategy to Obtain a Featured Snippet

The hardest part of earning a featured snippet is writing high-quality content that clearly answers the searcher's query and becomes eligible for the snippet. To achieve this, examine existing content that displays the target featured snippet. Take note of what the content covers, where it is thorough, and where it could have provided more information. Look to see if the content has earned any valuable links.

Once you’ve done a thorough competitor content analysis, it’s time to craft your new content. Make sure what you’re writing is quality, unique, authoritative, relevant, and trustworthy (Q.U.A.R.T.) content. This gives your content the best chance of making it to the first page and becoming eligible for the featured snippet. Depending on keyword competitiveness and your site's domain authority, getting to the first page of search results could take some time. But we all know SEO is a long-term investment.

17 Weeks to Page One

The chart below shows organic traffic for a blog post written for a health-care website. The post answers a commonly asked question about eating after an operation. The content was published on July 17, 2015, and saw gradual but minimal growth throughout the summer months. As we moved into the fall, we began to see a slight uptick in organic traffic, from about 50 sessions per week to 150–200 sessions.

Then, 17 weeks after publication, on November 19(the same day as another unconfirmed phantom/quality algorithm update), the post saw a substantial change in organic ranking for target keywords, moving up from positions 11 and 13 to 1 and 3. This created a massive increase in organic traffic—as many as 2,565 organic sessions in a single day.

Now that the post ranked on the first page, it was time to look at the current featured snippet and ask ourselves: How can we better answer that question in our content?

7 Minutes to a Featured Snippet

While it took 17 weeks for the post to be crawled and re-crawled and make its way up the rankings, it took me just a few minutes of work to earn a featured snippet for multiple high-volume keywords, and to begin dominating organic search results.

As soon as I saw that the post ranked on the first page, I noticed that the existing featured snippet wasn’t addressing the search query as well as it should. While I knew that my content provided a better answer, it never explicitly stated it. Rather, it addressed the topic in detail, with different aspects broken out into sections. I needed to update the content to answer the query explicitly.

Immediately following the opening paragraph, I added an H1 that clearly addressed the question, then directly answered the question with a numbered list, making the numbered list a shortcut menu that allowed users to jump to specific headings further down on the page and read more details about each item.

I hit republish, fetched and rendered in Google Search Console, then submitted the URL and linked pages to Google’s index at 2:05 PM PST (5:05 PM EST).

By the time I checked again, around two hours later, the old featured snippet had been replaced with the new numbered list from my content!

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the foresight to take screenshots, so the two hours is an estimate, but I was blown away by how fast it happened—and immediately wanted to try to replicate it.

I applied the same process to another piece of content that was also on the first page. As before, the search engine results page (SERP) had a featured snippet, but not from the client's site.

I updated the content with a shortcut menu and an H1 explicitly addressing the question, hit republish, fetched and rendered in Google Search Console, and submitted the URL and linked pages to Google’s index at 7:25 PM PST (10:25 PM EST).

By 7:32 PM PST (10:32 PM EST), the featured snippet had been replaced with the numbed listed from the updated content. Seven minutes to a featured snippet!

This immediate update to the featured snippet demonstrates that Google's algorithm constantly monitors page content in contention for featured snippets. Featured snippets exist to resolve user queries directly in the SERPs, and my experience suggests that an exact-match heading at the beginning of the post and clear 1-2 sentence answer or short list offers the best chance to obtain a snippet.

Google Search Console Data

Search Console data was exploding at this point. In two days, total clicks shot up from 773 to 1,814, and total impressions increased from 14,557 to 22,533. But the most interesting data point is found when we examine the impressions and CTR for the URL with a featured snippet.

Below, I’ve broken down the URL's click-through rate (CTR) over the past four months, and segmented by device: desktop and mobile. The week leading up to the position change you can see that desktop CTR begins to have days where CTR is higher, then on the 19th the desktop consistently has the highest click through rate.

Why did the CTR for Desktop Devices Jump Mobile Devices?

The post receives a far larger number of impressions on mobile devices compared to tablets or desktops. For example, on December 4 there were 4,443 mobile impressions but only 1,296 desktop impressions and 224 tablet impressions. The table below reflects how many more impressions the page receives from mobile compared to tablet and desktop users.

If we had only looked at CTR it would seem as though far more users are coming to the page on a desktop, but it’s not likely because the number of impressions the page gets from mobile compared to tablet users is heavily in favor of mobile. Higher CTR for devices doesn't equal more users for that device in this case.

Because the URL gets significantly more impressions for mobile devices but has a higher CTR for desktop, in my opinion, it becomes clear that the differences in click through rates is related to the user intent.

If we look at the SERPs for the queries with the most clicks and impressions, we notice that the featured snippet being generated was in a list format. Because these are all long tail keywords looking for specific information, and because we know that the point of the featured snippet is to resolve the user's query without requiring them to navigate to the sites and assemble the information themselves, we make the following conclusion – because it’s likely users on mobile devices are looking for these quick answers, probably while in the grocery store or debating a fact with friends, rather than doing more thorough research, they are seeing the information they're looking for in the snippet and not clicking through to the content. While users on desktops and tablets seem to be more in the research phase of their search and are intrigued to get more in depth information rather than just the list of head terms. Thus creating higher CTR for desktop and tablet users and a lower CTR for mobile users.

Google Analytics Data

Since November 19, the day the post made its jump to the top of the first page, organic traffic has soared above and beyond anything the site has previously enjoyed. Comparing the 34 days after the organic jump to the 34 days prior, there has been a 1,173.55% percent change in organic traffic to the post.

Looking at organic traffic to the landing page by device, we gain some insight as to where users are coming from. As no surprise, just as the impression data showed us, the vast majority of the traffic is from users on mobile devices.

The more I look at data sets like the one in this study, the more featured snippets shown to mobile users stand out to me as the greatest organic opportunity.

Featured Snippets Favor Mobile Users

If you think about how you really dive into a search result, you realize that your attention span is very short, and if you don’t find the answer you’re looking for in the first few links, you’ll likely move on to something else.

If you're on your phone and you search for something that generates a featured snippet and it answers your question, think about how much time that saves you as a user to be able to quickly get that information! You have no reason to scroll any further to see any of the other results. Instead, you're actually more inclined to click through on the link from the snippet, or come back later on when you're at a computer, to get more information because that website has already built trust with you as a reputable source.

Then, on the flip side, the way you comb through search results changes if you're on a phone rather a desktop. Look how quickly you can scroll through the search results on desktop (left) compared to mobile (right).

It takes far more time to get to the bottom of a page on a phone than on a desktop. This makes it more likely that users on a phone will move on from the search if you're at the bottom half of the search results compared to users on a desktop who initially see way more of the SERP and could be more inclined to keep scrolling. Then, factor in the incredibly shrinking SERP, and the prime real-estate at the top of search results seems more valuable than ever before. Especially for mobile users!

The Power & Influence of Featured Snippets

Obtaining a featured snippet for a high-volume keyword builds brand awareness and authority before the user even gets to the first organic result. On top of that, the content displayed in the snippet directly answers (hopefully) the user's query, helping your site and brand resonate with that user.

Content Strategy for Featured Snippets

When building out content marketing strategies, featured snippets should absolutely be a part of your plan. While you can never guarantee a snippet (or anything else in SEO), you can find opportunities in which a featured snippet isn’t properly answering a question and focus content around that topic, or look for queries and long-tail keywords that don’t yet have a featured snippet but are likely eligible for one. Google is just waiting for someone to provide the worthy content.

Use these snippets to expand your organic reach, build your brand, and provide users with content that is helpful to them and you'll see just how big of a positive impact featured snippets can have for you.

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