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Lemons to Lemonade: Making the Best of Featured Snippets

In a world that changes quickly, and often seismically, then knowing which technologies and tools to use is essential.  Our friends at Micro Startups have given a quick guide to understanding Featured Snippets.

If you’re looking for operational stability, then the SEO industry isn’t a suitable destination. The problem is that Google is so dominant, so imperious in its position, that its search engine might as well be organic search for the average web user. This means that everyone who wants a chance of getting search traffic must kowtow to Google’s image of the internet.

Is this inconvenient, frustrating, and — in an ideal world — outright unacceptable? Certainly, yes. But this isn’t an ideal world, and we must play the hands we are dealt — and that means adapting to the steady encroaching of Google’s own features into the space previously reserved for attainable organic ranking positions.

To put it another way, when Google gives you lemons, you must make featured snippets. But what exactly is Google doing to search, what are featured snippets, and how (and why) can you turn them to your advantage? Let’s get to it.

The expanding Google bubble

Google’s Adwords platform (since rebranded to simply Google Ads) launched back in 2000, and I don’t imagine anyone back then could have known how influential it would become. In the coming years, searchers came to understand the basic Google setup: a top layer of clearly-marked Google ads, then the organic results they were initially looking for.

This seemed to be a fairly reasonable split. Searchers got what they were looking for, with enough space allocated to marketers that costs could (presumably) be more than covered. But Google wasn’t content with that. As it pursued other avenues, most notably the Android mobile operating system, it started to wonder how its digital ecosystem could further optimise UX.

Now that almost everything is connected online through complex integrations and personalised results, that ambition is being practically realised (on mobile, at least, but soon enough everywhere). Conduct a mobile Google search for something and see how far down you need to go before you pass Google’s own panels and reach an organic link. It might be quite far.

The cons (and pros) of extracted information

From the perspective of a searcher, it’s hard to fault Google for doing this. It believes (whether correctly or incorrectly) that its algorithm and information sources can meet searcher requirements more rapidly and usefully than the average ranked site, so it strives to give people what they’re looking for without them needing to leave the site.

But from the perspective of a website owner, it’s easy to fault Google here, because Google has only reached its position through serving as a facilitator. The deal was always simple: the citizens of the internet provide the content that Google needs to fulfil demand, and Google returns the value by passing along relevant traffic.

Today, Google has made a habit of simply extracting information from websites it deems relevant and offering that information at the top of its search results. These chunks of data (otherwise known as featured snippets) do provide backlinks to the source sites, but they’re also intended to give searchers what they want without them having to visit those sites.

Featured Snippets – image supplied by Micro Startups

As a website owner, you’ll want to do everything in your power to get visits to your website, so you might loathe the thought of featured snippets. Unfortunately, you can’t do anything to stop them, so all you can do is roll with the punches and find a way to usefully move ahead.

How you can optimise your content for featured snippets

I noted that a featured snippet will include a link to the source website, and the value of that link shouldn’t be overlooked. Think about it this way: it may not be prominent within the snippet, but it is prominent within the page (often showing up not only above organic results but also above ads). If you don’t win that link, someone else will, tipping things in their favor.

And while you can’t do anything to guarantee that your content will be selected for featured snippets, you can take action to give yourself the best possible chance. Here are my suggestions for how you can optimise your copy for being featured:

Follow best SEO practices

Content for featured snippets is invariably extracted from highly-ranked pages, so if you don’t rank well for anything, you won’t be chosen. Consequently, there’s no point in targeting featured snippets if you don’t currently have ranking potential — and to earn the best rankings you can, you need to engage in comprehensive SEO.

Everything from meta tags and header hierarchies to URL structures and page speed should adhere to best practices. Even if they weren’t essential through their ranking influence, many of these practices would be worth pursuing anyway, because they’ll directly assist with the featured snippet goal as a byproduct.

Whatever your industry may be, look for viable guides to identify all the minor things you need to get right. If you’re in ecommerce, for instance, try this ecommerce SEO guide: it covers the importance of structured data, so it’ll point you in the right direction for sales SERPs.

Provide content in digestible chunks

Google’s search crawler is far from infallible (or even intelligent). It can parse semantic association and some degree of semantic intent as a result, but it needs support from contextual clues to figure out what specific pages and sections are intended to be.

This is where subheadings become so vital. Each subheading you include should establish the overall premise, theme or point of the paragraph that follows it. You should also include lists, tables, and diagrams where appropriate — breaking your content into brief chunks will make it easier to read and easier to understand for crawlers.

Of course, this is something you should be doing regardless to raise the value of your website overall. Chunked content is superior for mobile browsing (because a lengthy paragraph can take up an entire phone screen), and it allows for easier content repurposing (there are tools that can turn optimised content into lead magnets such as flipbooks), so it warrants significant effort.

Answer frequently-asked questions

Featured snippets commonly appear in response to questions, and while Google can formulate a response to a question by paraphrasing content from a related page, it would prefer to be able to simply reproduce a clearly-marked chunk of content created for that specific question. Thankfully, such content is often quite easy to produce.

Look for frequently-asked questions about the topic you’re writing about, and pick out the most important ones (this is also useful when creating a content plan). See if any featured snippets appear for them. If they do, how good are they? How good are the sites? Can you beat that level of quality? And if they don’t, that means you have some golden opportunities to get positions at the top by writing clear answers.

Include high-quality images

Featured snippets sometimes contain images to add clarity, but it isn’t tremendously consistent. If your content is featured, Google may include an image from that page, or from another page on your site, or even from another site entirely. You can’t be sure what will happen, but I recommend maintaining a high level of polish across all of your images.

If each image on your site is high-resolution with a clear title and alt-text, it will increase the chance that one of your images will be selected to accompany featured snippets (both those containing your content and those containing content from other sites). This isn’t as consequential as the text by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s still worth doing.

Still don’t like featured snippets? I don’t blame you — Google is a frustrating master to serve — but there’s no sense in ignoring them out of spite. If someone is going to get a valuable link at the top of the search results page, it might as well be you. Do what you can, and hope for the best.

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