Like most marketing directors, I have worn several hats over the years. When my career began shifting from traditional marketing toward digital, one of my earliest hats was that of “the SEO guy.” In the early days of search, black hat search engine optimization (SEO) didn’t exist; we just did what worked, including many tactics later deemed “dastardly.” Let’s just say we all learned a lot, as did the engineers designing the various search algorithms.
During this time, all the major search engines had nearly the same results page structure: 10 blue links, with No. 1 being the coveted spot. Today, not only has the search landscape changed, but that No. 1 spot is often found at the bottom of the page, buried beneath ads, maps and other search products. Since recent studies have shown that Google now controls more than 90% of the search market, I’ll be referring solely to this platform for the rest of this article.
What Happened To Position One?
The degradation of position one was innocuous at first, being pushed down by pay-per-click ads, the “local pack” (maps) and other search products tested by Google. In 2011, we began seeing airline flight results displayed with a built-in destination and pricing tool. By 2013, a similar tactic was being tested for auto sales searches. While many of these tests were only in local markets, others were quickly rolled out nationwide; enter featured snippets.
Featured snippets were first released in 2014, and have significantly impacted page one design, search results and website traffic. A featured snippet displays what Google thinks is the correct answer to a user’s inquiry in a box at the top of the page. The snippet includes a link to the source content; however, independent studies have shown these links are rarely clicked. This has resulted in what is being dubbed “the zero-click era,” where the search engine directly answers a question, giving the user little reason to click those valuable top links.
Voice search has exacerbated the issue, as home and mobile devices read the top search answer aloud. In a test of 112 million keywords performed by SEO research company Ahrefs, 12.3% of queries resulted in a featured snippet. The study also showed a reduced click-through rate of 8.6%, compared to 26% on traditional position one organic links.
How To Earn Featured Snippets
To obtain the new top spot, the first step is to look at which keywords you currently rank for on the first page of results. Almost all featured snippets come from pages already in the top 10 positions. Once you have those keywords identified, determine which are already producing featured snippets when searched. Several tools exist to help you with this. Last, try to reframe your keywords as questions.
Review the pages with featured snippets. Read the content, and determine how you can better answer the question searched for. Pay attention to the style of the snippet. If an image, video or table is included, consider including these elements in your content. The goal is to rework your content so it contains a succinct answer to the question. Make changes to the page you’re trying to rank, and keep track of your changes, along with the date and other sites listed on page one (screenshots work great for this). Resubmit updated pages to Google via Search Console.
This will be an ongoing process of updating your content; don’t expect results overnight. As an example, at Ameri-Force, one of our tests was on a page we wanted to rank for the search question “What do marine insulators do?” After updating our content and submitting our changes, we earned the featured snippet within 10 days. However, success is often fleeting, as we lost it 10 days later and are now working to get it back.
‘People Also Ask’ And Knowledge Boxes
Featured snippets are not the only game in town. Google also uses knowledge cards, instant answers and “people also ask” (PAA) boxes to answer queries instantaneously. While knowledge cards are database-driven (think “What time is it in London?”), PAAs are the result of user input and nested search results.
In July 2015, PAA boxes made their debut in a small-scale rollout. Today, they are included in most searches that display featured snippets. These accordion-style drop-down boxes reveal an endless rabbit hole of questions and answers, all of which push position No. 1 further down the page. The flip side of this coin is that your website can also rank within the PAA section, which can be an opportunity gold mine.
Putting People First
For years, Google has taken the stance that its goal is to answer users’ questions and get them to another website as quickly as possible. Keeping this doctrine in mind while developing new content for your website will be critical in the coming years. If you get into the habit of providing the best possible answers with high-quality content, great results will come naturally. Write for people, not search engines, and create the type of content you appreciate when performing your own searches.
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