In the unlikely chance you haven’t heard, voice search is the next big thing and it’s got SEOs everywhere scrambling for those coveted featured snippet spots.
SEOs have been noticing the growing prevalence of featured snippets at the top of the SERPs for a few years now, but this January, Google finally released its own guide to featured snippets on its blog. In an uncharacteristically transparent move, Google goes deep into how featured snippets work, why and how they test different formats, and their plans for the future.
To save you the time of reading the guide yourself, we’ve captured everything you need to know here.
What are featured snippets?
If you think back to a few years ago, a Google search result page (SERP) would show you 10 organic search results, known in the industry as “10 blue links,” along with some paid search results on the top or side. Now, the SERPs look much different, in large part due to the rise of featured snippets.
For many searches nowadays, a featured snippet appears above the rest of the traditional plain blue links. It may look something like this:
Google calls these featured snippets because the answer pulls a “snippet” of information from a website listed on the first page of organic search results, and “features” it above the rest of the search results. It is important to know that a featured snippet will always come from one of the organic results on the first page of search, and that the website still gets a plain blue link further down below (essentially earning an extra, number-one spot).
Why does Google have featured snippets?
Google’s all about giving searchers what they’re looking for as fast as possible. That’s why they try to provide the best results on page one instead of page ten, so searchers don’t have to click through multiple pages of search results to find what they need.
Featured snippets are Google’s attempt to immediately answer a searcher’s question, by pulling out the specific content they’re looking for from a source website and highlighting it at the top of the search results.
For example, in the following search for “cats that look like wildcats,” the featured snippet includes images of the various wildcats along with headers from the website, answering the searcher’s initial question. That might be all they’re looking for, in which case their search is satisfied. If they want to find out more about each cat, they can simply click through to the article.
Video featured snippets, pulled from YouTube, provide the same immediacy. These featured snippets are particularly helpful, since they fast forward to the specific part of the video relevant to the searcher’s query.
Google makes a point to call out that two of the biggest use cases for featured snippets are mobile and voice search. It’s simply harder to read on mobile devices due to their smaller screens, so rather than forcing a user to click through and scan an entire web page to find their answer, Google tries to provide it in the featured snippet itself.
The below example of a mobile search demonstrates how the featured snippet text is enlarged for the mobile screen, making it easier to read.
For voice searchers, their voice search assistant reads out the featured snippet text to them. This enables the user to continue doing what they’re doing hands-free, while also preventing the device from reading an entire page of extra content that’s not necessarily relevant to their search.
As you can see from the examples above, Google always includes credit to the original website by including the title tag and URL, which are both clickable. For voice search, the source page is introduced at the beginning (“According to site.com…”) before the answer is read aloud.
How do featured snippets affect organic traffic?
Google recognizes that featured snippets are a hot(ly debated) topic in the SEO industry. Because many featured snippets seem to immediately answer a searcher’s question, marketers worry there’s no reason for the user to click through to their website.
In their guide, Google aims to convince and reassure SEOs that featured snippets do indeed drive search traffic, using the fact that there is a preponderance of articles (like the one you’re reading right now) on how to become a featured snippet is proof that they drive traffic. While their logic is faulty, there is much evidence that featured snippets drive traffic (see here, here and here), although there are some studies saying the opposite.
Either way, marketers live in Google’s world, so if they want to use featured snippets, brands need to play along if they want to stay on page one, and earn the brand visibility (and potential traffic) that comes with a featured snippet.
In return, Google recognizes that without brands and publishers, featured snippets wouldn’t be possible: “We recognize that featured snippets have to work in a way that helps support the sources that ultimately makes them possible. That’s why we always take publishers into account when we make updates to this feature.”
How are featured snippets regulated?
Google is constantly working to improve and QA all features of their products and services. They’re proud to report in the guide that they’ve received great feedback as to the usefulness of featured snippets, based on how users interact with them and their own search quality raters (people Google pays to evaluate search results).
An independent study by Stone Temple Consulting also found that featured snippets are 97.4% accurate, which is pretty darn good:
However, featured snippets have not been without their problems, nor will they ever be completely bug-free – and Google readily admits that. They reveal that on the average day, 15% of the search queries are brand new. That’s a lot of opportunity for misses!
Some featured snippets have claimed that Obama was an emperor of the U.S., that dinosaurs are part of a vast conspiracy theory, and that women are evil. For more fun and disturbing examples like these, check out this piece by Search Engine Land.
In response, Google has updated their Search Quality Rater Guidelines (which you can view in full here) to avoid such embarrassments in the future. Quality raters now flag misleading or wrong information, offensive results, or conspiracy theories as inappropriate sources to show in a featured snippet.
Regular users like you and me can also submit feedback on featured snippets, whether we love or hate ‘em. Just click on the grey Feedback link beneath the featured snippet box:
What’s the future of featured snippets?
Google acknowledges that featured snippets are not perfect, and they’re not designed to be the be-all-end-all answer to a searcher’s query. Some answers are more complex than can be included in a single featured snippet, and sometimes people want to learn more from a variety of resources.
That’s why they still provide the original blue links below featured snippets. They’re also currently testing new types of featured snippets to address the complexities of search.
Related featured snippets
SEOs love to call out Google when they make a mistake. One recent example came from a featured snippet for “how did the Romans tell time at night.” The original featured snippet explained how Romans used sundials to tell time, although obviously sundials would not have been used during the night. However, Google’s algorithm wasn’t totally off, since the featured snippet was relevant to the time-telling portion of the query.
For these “near-match” results, Google is testing a format that shows a featured snippet answering a closely-related question with that new question featured above the answer. This makes clear the answer is for a different, but related question, but it may be a question the searcher would find useful, leading them to click through to the site for more information related to their specific query.
Featured snippet tags
Google is also testing including “tags” with featured snippets. These allow users to filter the content of a featured snippet to more specifically answer their particular query.
In the sample below for “how to setup call forwarding,” the original answer comes from Verizon, but if the searcher is an AT&T customer, they can just click that tag instead. This is a way for Google to help users find the information they need in instances where they didn’t get it 100% right on the first try.
Multiple featured snippets
Google also teased a third featured snippet format that would be “coming soon”: multiple featured snippets for a single query (yes, SEOs, this will further push down the rest of those blue links). This format has a similar appearance to the “People also ask” boxes already present in Google, which show related questions to the searcher’s query to help ensure Google delivers what they want.
Google offers another use case for showing multiple featured snippets. Sometimes the way the searcher phrases their query can deliver radically different information, depending on the perspective of the source website. In the examples below, both searchers are wondering if reptiles serve as suitable pets, but because they used sentiment words like good in one case and bad in the other, they received contradictory answers.
Google admits this is due to the tendency of featured snippet algorithm to pick content that mimics the searcher’s own bias, and they are investigating how to resolve this: “There are often legitimate diverse perspectives offered by publishers, and we want to provide users visibility and access into those perspectives from multiple sources.”
What’s next for featured snippets?
The world of SEO is always changing, and that evolving world now includes featured snippets.
Stay up-to-date on the latest changes to featured snippets by following the official Google @searchliaison Twitter account (can’t hurt to follow @dannysullivan, the man behind the scenes, either), and bookmarking the official Google blog.
Michael Quoc is the founder and CEO of Dealspotr and oversees the influencer marketing platform and social shopping community that connects small e-commerce businesses with lifestyle influencers and bloggers to run promotional campaigns at a low cost. Dealspotr’s unique value among other platforms is a focus on exclusive deals and discount codes. On Dealspotr, influencers share compelling discounts with their fans to increase shopper interest and drive greater conversions.”