Emily Potter: Featured Snippets - The Achievable SERP Feature

Emily Potter, from Distilled, talks about her journey into hating featured snippets! She details her personal vendetta against them in this hilarious talk which covers the problems she sees in existing research around them. Emily goes on to present her own study and findings which you can take on for your own SEO strategies. Check out the recording of her talk at BrightonSEO, April 2019.

Emily Potter's Transcript

When I first started working at Distilled, one of the first tasks that I was assigned was to try and win featured snippets for one of our clients. I was completely new to SEO so, I really thought this was going to be my chance to prove myself and I spent a lot of time reading all the best practice ways that you could win feature snippets. I was watching videos from conferences and my manager thought that he had just given me a very simple task but, really what he had given me was a quest to become my SEO talk at Brighton and I would become the featured snippet master at Distilled that didn't really happen.

I actually ended up hating these things. Izzy calls them sexy. I don't agree. I'm going to talk about that and my journey into hating featured snippets and how I developed a personal vendetta against them. I'm then going to cover some of the existing research out there and some problems that I have with these studies and why this led me to conducting my own study and then I'm going to present my findings to you at the very end. I'm going to give you some actions that you can take with you on Monday morning to implement some of this research.

So first though, Izzy already touched on this but for those of you don't know, what is a featured snippet? A featured snippet is this little box that appears at the top of a search query on Google when you ask a question; so “why do cats love catnip?” Apparently, it simulates their pheromone receptors and it gives them an overwhelming sense of euphoria and happiness. We can get a bit meta about this as well we can ask Google what is a featured snippet? According to Google: a featured snippet is this box that sometimes they put at the top of a search query, it will include an answer to the question that is scraped from the webpage, the page title and a link to that thing.

So, why do people love these things so much? What's with the craze? Why do people love featured snippets? The obvious answer is that they go right to the top of the search results so, you can get position zero, as some people call it, the other thing is users love them, they answer users’ queries very quickly and also, they increase brand awareness. So, knowing all of that going back to my first attempt of trying to win feature snippets I again took a very best practice approach on this time around so my process looks something like this.

First, I went into stat which is my rank tracking tool of choice for this. They have a great SERPs features tab that you can use and I got a list of keywords that my client ranked for that had featured snippets on them and on the ones that they didn't have featured snippets I made recommendations for how I thought they could maybe win them. These were things like including the keyword and the heading so if I wanted to try and win the featured snippet from Pretty Providence here for the query “how to build a blanket fort” and I worked at BuzzFeed, I don't, but BuzzFeed ranks number three here and I'd look at my page and see oh, we don't have the keyword in this title so, I might change it to something like this. Also according to best practice for “how-to” queries Google prefers those to be in a list format like here: so “how to catch a leprechaun?” Wiki currently owns this featured snippet. If I wanted to try and steal this and I was Martha Stewart ranking number 5, I'd noticed that all our content is locked up in this slideshow so, I'd say to my client maybe you should pull this out put it in a list and you might win that feature snippet. One of my other recommendations a lot of the queries that my client was trying to target were transactional and how much does “X” cost type queries so, for these Google prefers a table so.

College board has a featured snippet here for “how much is college tuition”? It's too much. And on their web page if you go you can see they have this nice table so I said okay, for these queries maybe you should put it in a table. I wrap all this up deliver it to my manager and I'm convinced this is going to be my masterpiece. Right now, there's probably a couple questions on your mind: First, is this just talk about winning featured snippets because I didn't really sign up for this no, that's not what this is I'm telling a story as Kelvin mentioned to introduce my research and, the next question you might have is, “did any of these tactics even work?” I don't know because about a week later Google updates and takes the feature snippets away from every single query that I put a recommendation on for.

So, lesson number one, Google here is the enemy. That's okay though. About a week later, a different client comes to the same manager and asked for the same task. So, he comes to me naturally the budding featured snippet master at Distilled and asked, “Emily are you willing to do this again” I say yes of course. This time I decided I'm going to one-up Google a bit and I'm going to focus more on my competitors. Instead of just following best practice I'm going to look at what the current owner is doing, that maybe we’re not doing? So, I ask questions like, “are they answering the query better than us?”; “are they satisfying the user intent?”; “what format are they using?”; maybe actually they're answering a how-to question with a paragraph and Google seems to like that here, things like “are they using headings when we're not?” “are they flagging up that content better than we are?” I'm taking quite a lot of time with this so my managers like Emily come on, it's just a feature snippets task. So I have one more keyword left that I want to make a recommendation on and I'm looking and the only thing that I can see is different is they have a different H1 than us but similar content so I use the oldest SEO trick in the book and I copy and paste that, put it in my recommendation and tell our client, That is the thing that works after about 35 hours of trying to win feature snippets the one lazy little thing that I do, wins.

At this point I'm frustrated I wasted so much time and I decide I have a new lesson from this, featured snippets are Bullshit. There's plenty of reason to think this right, Izzie touched on some of this Rand Fishkin talks about this, what's not to like about future snippets? - First, they steal clicks like every other SERP feature out there. There's this study from Ahrefs they use a clickstream data for this and they say first, feature snippets are reducing click-through rates so in SERP queries without a featured snippet about 26% are going to the top-ranking URL. This is compared to about 19.8% on a query where there's a featured snippet. Now if you have the featured snippet and the ranking number one, great, but a lot of people aren't doing that. The next thing they show you is it's also increasing the number of no click searches so about 25.8% of queries without a feature snippet results in no click compared to 29.8% with a featured snippet. The next thing is that feature service creates confirmation bias.

So, when I was about 8 years old, I really wanted a bearded dragon which is a type of lizard and my parents were trying to tell me this was a bad idea. So, I thought I was going to go on Google, if it was the thing that I did when I was 8, and I could ask a question like this “are reptiles good pets” and I'd say “yes mom and dad they're great pets they're docile, they're low maintenance, I should definitely get a bearded dragon”. They could ask you similar but differently phrase question to Google and they could say “are reptiles bad pets?” and they say look Emily they're not just like every other pet, you're not going to take care of this and actually that's exactly what happened, my parents took care of the bearded dragons for me. But the point here is they're creating confirmation bias and we can see this across the web. The last thing about feature snippets that I hate is, that they're really unsophisticated. So, this example that I showed you earlier where I was able to copy and paste the H1 to steal it, is one example.

Another example, if you haven't picked up already, I'm American, and Mother's Day is actually coming up for us soon. So, imagine I wasn't so great at coming up with a query and I asked something like this “what's a Mother's Day message for your sister or friend?” Right, so this content isn't really being vetted. A bit more of an extreme example of this is, I think everyone has a preferred method that they used to try and get rid of hiccups, mine is to plug my ears and nose at the same time hold my breath for 10 seconds and hope they go away. Google have an orgasm or better yet, get a rectal massage. So, at this point I decide I'm going to set out to prove that these things are overrated, I'm going to be an SEO thought leader, I'm going to do my own research and I'm going to say, you know what featured snippets aren't so great after all.

So, the first thing I do is I go and I'd see what existing research is out there and I see this study from HubSpot that says, “featured snippets increase their click-through rate by over a hundred fourteen percent” okay. Next, I see feature snippets increased snippet by 516% blog post on Search Engine Land. But luckily all of these studies suck, sorry of anyone that wrote these is in the audience we can talk afterwards. But uh, the issues that I have with these studies, first they, use misleading wording. So, in the case of HubSpot, they're using relative instead of absolute increase to report percentages so click-through rate for high volume keywords increased by over one hundred and fourteen percent.

I can say that I found people that don't eat ice cream have about a point one percent chance of committing murder. People that do eat ice cream have a point two percent chance of committing murder. If you eat ice cream that's a hundred percent more likely that you're going to commit a murder. So, good reporting going on here there's also misleading headlines, so they make it sound like they won a feature snippet and then their click-through rate went up by 114 percent actually, if you look at this study they're comparing pages of theirs that have a featured snippet to those that don't and they're saying in a high volume bracket they saw about a twenty percent difference and in click-through rate. So, this isn’t exactly what happened there's lots of reasons why a page optimized for feature snippets is getting more clicks. Other thing is there is no experiment control. So, back to HubSpot, they included low volume keywords in their queries which are susceptible to click-through rates that are distorted for impressions to clicks, 50% click-through rate. If we go back to the blog post on Search Engine Land they show you this graph and they say “we had this page, we did lots of changes to it we do nothing after February, the only difference is we win a featured snippet in June and we saw a 516 percent increase”. One thing to point out is this graph is going up before they even win the featured snippet so, you can't just attribute it to that. Next you have this graph that says their position was actually, increasing throughout this whole time period, as well and also this page never ranked above position four. If you're going from position six to position zero yes, you're going to see quite a dramatic increase. The only important thing about this, was it meant, I was back in business.

So, I decided I was going to create my own study and this was my research method. First my hypothesis was that owning a feature snippet does not improve click-through rate, significantly. The way that I set out to prove this was I used data from stat, I got a range of keywords across different client of ours. I found pages where they had instances of both owning a featured snippet and not, and I reported the base rank of that page, now base rank is where their ranking without including SERP features, so it's consistent. I combined this with Google search console data to get the click-through rate on that day and I only included queries with impressions greater than 60. I had three thousand eight hundred thirty-four data points by the end of this. Now, I want you to forget everything everyone's told you about featured snippets because this is what I found. Feature snippets improved click-through rates for every single organic position so, I didn’t manage to prove that these things don’t work but I had a very strong bias so it's good research. We can see this here.

On the x- axis we have the click-through rate, on the y-axis, we have the organic position, blue bubbles are when they own the featured snippet, red bubbles are when they didn't so blue bubbles always higher than red bubbles for every single organic position. The other thing this graph tells me is that position four and higher we're more likely to own them so we can see this because the blue bubbles are concentrated in this top left-hand corner and the reason I bring this up is HubSpot also said 18% of their pages ranking in position one owned a featured snippet this was compared to 28% in position five. And their claim based off this is, ranking in the top five results it means backlinks and other authority signals don't matter that much for winning a featured snippet. I didn't find this to be true in my study. Average rank of pages in my study that owned a features snippet was 2.1 those without was three point three. The last thing in this bubble chart if your ranking below 10 a lot of people already know this, but you're unlikely to own a featured snippet.

Now, another thing I wanted to explore was this claim that they had a 20% increase in the click-through rate by owning a feature snippet. And I did a similar thing so I took, in my study, I did the difference between the pages that I had a feature snippet and didn't, and I graphed the average for each position this is what I saw. So, the highest that I saw was in position 4, and that was just over 6 percent improvement in click through rate. Now, that's great but it's not anywhere near 20 percent. This is including very high-volume keywords across a range of industries. Now if I wanted to filter this down to just one of our clients which had the most data that I had so this is more similar to what the HubSpot study, was like this gets a bit more dramatic. But you can see that in position 5, this is where I saw the biggest increase in click-through rate and that was still only 10 percent. So, these studies are really inflating that gain. But the conclusion remains the same featured snippets work so. I still hate features if it's going back to Rand Fishkin’s talk, I don't think they're much different from other SERP features and everyone's really excited about them and I think it's distracting us from the problem but they do improve traffic and you're all here today to do that so how are we going to use this information to help ourselves and our clients win some feature snippets.

Here's some Monday morning actions for you. This is based off my own experience and also the experience of other colleagues of mine at Distilled. So, first thing you're going to have to do you're going to have to generate a list of keywords that you rank for that have featured snippets on them. As I mentioned I used stat for for this, you can also use Moz SEO monitor, there's plenty of tools that will do this. I would avoid keywords with commercial intent. Izzie referred to this as transactional intent and the reason I say this is in the first example I talked about Google updated and took these featured snippets away on these queries and I found in my study a lot of times these were getting swapped out for Google shopping results, local packs, things like that. I'd also flag where you're ranking higher than the current owner. As I mentioned if you are ranking higher, you're more likely to be able to win a featured snippet so, that's a good chance that you can steal that one. I'd look for low-hanging fruit. So, again I was able to just copy and paste an H1 and I won a featured snippet.

Another example from a colleague of mine at Distilled, they join two points together with the word, “however”, now what I mean by this is, they noticed that the current featured snippet owner was owning it but, Google was bringing two parts of their page together. So, they had one side of the argument apparently Google's caught onto this confirmation bias thing so they're trying to fix it, but so they have one argument at the top of the page a different at the bottom Google brought that together with an ellipses dot dot dot what my colleagues did is they answered the question with the same two arguments but they said first argument however second and they were able to steal that feature snippet, so that's something you can look out for. If you have pages that are performing really well and you don't have content on them at the moment, I would add content on that to target featured snippets.

We've seen this again at Distilled and we've been able to win feature snippets very quickly on these four pages and they've seen upwards of twenty four percent increase in organic sessions from that an estimate. So, make sure that you're targeting these things if you have pages that are relevant for them. Last tip that I have for you, is to reformat your content into that matches a current owner. So, this is seeing like turning paragraph answers into lists and lists into tables etc... So, I started this talk and I said I set out to become the feature snippets master at Distilled. And I wanted to do this by proving that they were bull**** and, I really failed miserably at that but I am standing here today on the main stage at Brighton SEO so, I would say I succeeded in that task. Thank you.


Emily Potter

Emily Potter

Emily is a consultant at Distilled. In the SEO world, her interests revolve around technical SEO, analytics, and SEO split-testing.