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Google Changes Featured Snippets and the SERPS

We have all seen the rise of Featured Snippets, Rich Snippets, Rich Results in the SERPs and the impact it has on our sites. I wrote a post about dominating the SERPs at the end of last year going through some of the changes we have seen. Google are certainly keeping us on our toes and Google said on Wednesday this week that they will only be featuring one featured snippet going forward. This affects all sites globally.There have already been a lot of questions asked to Danny Sullivan at Google who announced it.

So what does that mean for us? Before getting into the detail let us review some of these featured snippets and direct answers.

What are Direct Answers?

A direct answer is as the name suggests, providing a direct answer to the user’s query and it appears at the top of the search results below the paid ads. Google returns this direct answer when it thinks that a website’s content is answering the user’s search query.  The direct answer is also called the “answer box” or “position 0” and “featured snippet”.

Many companies want to rank for this position 0 since Google launched it in 2015. Ranking in the answer box also affects voice search. According to a study by Roast, 80% of the Google Home results are from snippets. There are three different types of these answer boxes, paragraph answers as above, list answers as in the example below and table answers. 

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What is position 0?

As of January 24th, we do not know if ‘Position 0’ will continue to exist due to the changes announced January 22nd by Danny Sullivan.

Google as we know are always changing the goal posts. The first “position 0” was launched in 2013 and was called the answer box. They gave a simple answer to the user’s query, for example currency rates. As this was also called position 0, there were still 10 other organic positions in the SERPs. Then in 2015 they became “quick answers” and had more information in them. Ann Smarty goes into a lot of detail on Search Engine People. And now we think there will no longer by position 0, but instead just 10 SERPs displayed.

What are featured snippets?

Featured snippets like direct answers and position 0 are when Google takes content from a website and presents it as an answer to a user’s search query referencing the original website as a source.

Google determines whether your content answers specific user questions, or not, and if it does it will show your featured snippet. There are some guidelines on how to appear for one of the numerous featured snippets such as FAQ, How To and Q and A. However, at the same time, Google says you cannot control how to get into some types of “featured snippet”, such appearing in People Also Ask (PAA) or as paragraph featured snippet as I go into detail in the experiment below:

What Google do say is that you need to to make your content answer the users’ intent. I decided to try and get our site into a “featured snippet”. We were updating some of the content on our key features including the keyword ranking api page. As you can see before we changed the content, were not appearing for  “Keyword Ranking API” as a paragraph featured snippet before.

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I then amended the content and now Authoritas has a featured snippet for “Keyword ranking API”. I just checked it again today and it is still there. This is the first Universal Ranking result although you may be mistaken due to the PPC adverts looking like organic listings, sneaky Google.

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I also checked for “what is a serps API” and Authoritas also features, but it answers the question immediately. It removes the question “What is a SERPs API?”

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Perhaps with this change on what “featured snippets” are shown in the SERPs from this week, we may see more “featured snippets” appear. I will be looking at this example next week as the change has been rolled out globally.

What is the difference between a “rich snippet” and a “featured snippet”? 

A “Rich Snippet” or “Rich Result” is an enhanced featured snippet and it comes from the information in the structured data on a website. Google first introduced rich snippets back in 2009 and looked for markup formats which were microformats and RFDa that users added to their sites. Sites implement structured data through using the schema markup. You can find more information on the Schema site:  https://schema.org/

There are constant developments to Rich Snippets and In 2017, Google introduced a testing tool so users can see if their rich snippets are working. They also called these “rich results”  

Google will show these rich snippets if you have put structured data on your website either via a plugin or hand-coded. 

There are many different types of rich snippets including:

  • Recipes
  • Product
  • Businesses/Organisations
  • Events
  • Reviews

Example of a rich snippet:

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How does this all tie in with universal search? And the traditional “organic” result? 

Back in May 2007, nine years after Google launched, Danny Sullivan announced that Google would be introducing “universal search”, first rolling out in Google.com. It would be delivering blended listings from news, videos, images and local results. Bill Slawski goes into the history in more detail within this post, explaining that Universal Search started back in 2001, way before the announcement. Organic results have changed over the past two decades but they remain the overall natural positions of terms and sites within Google, they are not paid for. Moz explains the different elements of the SERPs on their blog.

OK so what about SERPs features, where do they fit in?

These are any results that appear in the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) which include the rich snippets, universal results, paid and knowledge graph. SERP features are not the traditional organic results we saw when Google first launched as you can see from the image below (without the small cookie sign):

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Within the Authoritas platform and our SERPs (Keyword Ranking) API we can track the following SERP features: 

  • People Also Ask 
  • Images
  • Videos 
  • Brand (This indicates where a site is rewarded with multiple site links in its organic listing)
  • Knowledge Graph/Panel
  • Places (Local pack)
  • News (Top Stories)
  • Travel Finder
  • Hotel Finder
  • Flight Finder
  • Event Finder
  • Destination Guide
  • Direct Answers?Featured Snippets – Paragraph, Lists and Tables
  • Ads
  • Shopping
  • Jobs 
  • Stock Symbols
  • Currency Exchange
  • Event Finder
  • Translate
  • Related Searches

As you can see, I’ve included alternative names for a few of these features as they have been changed by Google over the years or have been referred to by SEOs as different things over the years.

We also track whether the SERP feature is visible on page load and whether it is displayed above the fold on mobile and desktop devices.

There are many different aspects of SERPs that users can help to appear for by ensuring their content is optimised. I went into details about some of them including PAA and FAQ in this previous post. 

A word of advice on the implications for your rank tracking software and APIs from this latest Google update:

If you have just been tracking organic positions and not universal rank positions – then you are likely to see a big drop in organic rankings where you rank for a Featured Snippet (FS). Given all the changes we are seeing (and the ones that will inevitably follow) you need to be using keyword rank tracking software that:

  • Accurately reflects what a user sees – e.g. Uses a real browser and loads JavaScript as opposed to simply making a GET request to Google or using clever ‘SEO’ URL parameters to get SERP results
  • Tracks and classifies all Universal SERP features at a granular level, e.g. You can see the type of Featured Snippet (Paragraph, Table, List, Video, etc) whether it appears at the top of the results on the LHS of the page; lower down the results on mobile on the LHS or in the Knowledge Panel on the RHS.
  • Reports on your organic rankings and your universal rankings side by side – so you can see for example that where you once ranked #1 in organic and #1 universally with a FS rank, you now rank #12 and have a Featured Snippet

What is the impact of these changes on our traffic?

Before this update in the week, everyone was asking “how can I rank for position 0?” We may see position 0 turn to positIon 1. Therefore if this remains true, sites can increase their chance by creating the content to directly answer a user’s question. However, now what we have to do is decide which page you want to have rank for featured snippets. Before you could choose to have FAQ and have another page rank. But this is no longer the case.

We do not know yet what impact this will have, each site may be different, so monitor your organic traffic and your impressions and clicks in Google Search Console. Check this over the next few days before changing anything. It is important to do what works for your site and that of your client instead of what others (who do not know your business) are suggesting to do.

If you do decide to make changes, do this to just a few pages of your website. Google also allow you to opt out of Featured Snippets meaning it will stop Google from displaying the content on that page as a Featured Snippet. Therefore check and test and test again.

If you do not have featured snippets or this is something you were going to implement this week, then it is even more important than ever to do research in the market first to see if there is already a direct answer for the question. Find the queries that ask the question, by using Google instant search, plus use Answer the Public and our FAQ tool. Thorough keyword research will continue to be important in 2020.

You should also inform your client about this update and explain that only one Featured Snippet can rank on page 1 and you need to track the performance even more closely going forwards over the next few days

With regards to content, the same principals apply, companies should continue to write content for the user. Google should be rewarding those sites, although with all these updates sometimes it may take time to see the results. We will keep monitoring Twitter for the news from Google. There is never a dull moment in SEO !

Featured Photo by Arthur Osipyan on Unsplash

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