The classic view of ranking first in the search results being the be-all and end-all of organic search has long since passed.
Featured snippets and other SERP features can often, but not always, show above what was traditionally thought of as position one. As SEOs, we need to adjust and ensure we’re optimizing for the entire SERP.
What are featured snippets? Why do they exist?
Featured snippets aim to answer the searcher's question quickly. Google pulls content directly from the website, taking away the need to click through to the site, which is really useful for users!
As of August 2020, the Advanced Web Ranking Google SERP Features tool reports that featured snippets appear on around 10.5% of mobile SERPs in the U.S and a massive 16.4% of mobile SERPs in the UK.
While the percentage may seem small, we're talking tens of millions of featured snippets appearing every day, so they're something to consider with your SEO strategy.
Examples of featured snippets in search
Featured snippets appear differently depending on what format best suits the search query.
No matter which format Google uses, a title and link to the website accompanies the content, so there's still the opportunity to get those clicks.
You'll most commonly see them as the following.
These are usually a definition, description, or a concise answer to a question. Answer box-style featured snippets are around 50 words and can include an image.
These are usually displayed when information needs to be in a specific order, such as how-tos or the "top" or "best" of something.
Unlike the above, if a specific order isn't necessary, the result will appear as a bulleted list.
Google extracts a table from a page and displays it on the SERP; often found when comparing data.
These are mostly pulled from YouTube and result from Google deciding this format will best answer your question.
Google also sometimes jumps to the section of the video that it thinks best answers your question. Super useful!
List/paragraph + image combo
These usually show a list or paragraph combined with an image. The image shown within the snippet isn't necessarily from the site used for the text part of the snippet; users who click the image are taken to Google images.
A variation of the above snippet shows a grid of images above the text; again, all from different sites.
How do featured snippets impact traditional organic listings?
First, a site can no longer claim both the featured snippet spot and an organic listing.
Historically it could, which made implementing a featured snippet strategy a no-brainer.
Second, that clickthrough rate will either skyrocket or plummet, depending on the complexity of the answer.
For example, the below snippet for "what is a chromebook" gives a pretty good idea of what a Chromebook laptop is so that the clickthrough rate will be lower.
However, if the search is for "how to do SEO," there's a high chance your clickthrough rate will increase as you can’t answer that question within such a short amount of text (thankfully).
A great thing about featured snippets is that even if you're not ranking either position one or two, you still have the opportunity to jump ahead and rank at the top of the SERP. Then, you can send a detailed SEO report to your clients showing them the improved positions in SERPs with the featured snippets.
Ahrefs ran a featured snippets study and found that it's possible to jump from a lower spot, such as position five, straight to the featured snippet position.
It also means that unless you're on page one, you've got no chance of getting that position. In the same study, they found out that 99% of featured snippets come from page one!
In some cases, featured snippets become even more critical because of the number of SERP features and ads above position one.
For example, in this SERP there is a featured snippet, a People Also Ask box, videos, a knowledge graph snippet, and then finally the organic listing.
This will dramatically reduce CTR for position one, so it's worth implementing a strategy that considers how you can increase coverage on the entire SERP, not just position one.
You have the option of avoiding snippets by adding the following into the head of the ranking page.
You can also add &num=9 to the URL when searching within Google to see where you would rank if you didn't have the snippet.
In most cases, you don't need to do this unless you really want to avoid taking that spot, but you should evaluate this on a case by case basis.
How to evaluate this is something I’ve recently written about for SEMrush, where I outlined a process for evaluating the benefit of snippets; the process looks a bit like this:
Highlight keywords you capture snippets for
Check where you rank organically using &num=9
Use the max-snippet tag so you no longer capture the snippet
Evaluate CTR / clicks to the page to see how it is impacted
Either keep/avoid snippets on that page
The above is a lot of work, though, so I’d only really consider doing this for terms with high search volumes.
Implementing a featured snippets strategy
Now we’ve given a good idea of the purpose of featured snippets and all the different forms they come in, how exactly do you start capturing them?
Start by finding quick-win terms
First, prioritize by using your highest-ranked terms, as these will be much easier to turn into a featured snippet.
Realistically, you need to rank within the top 5 on the SERP. When looking for opportunities, that's the best place to start. Look for keywords that rank higher than position five and rank on a SERP with a featured snippet.
Doing this helps you build a strategy that will provide returns in traffic quickly, rather than optimizing all your content for featured snippets, even when there may not be an opportunity to capture one.
By prioritizing like this, you’re going to achieve quicker results, which can help you garner support for further investment into a featured snippet strategy.
Highlighting quick-win terms in Advanced Web Ranking is so easy, it can be done in just two simple steps.
In the keywords report, filter for featured snippet SERP features only.
Apply a position filter for anything in the top 5.
Once I’ve gone through and optimized for all of those keywords, I repeat the above steps but filter for keywords ranking in positions 5–10.
After that, you should have covered all potential "quick-wins."
Next, highlight longer-term opportunities
For the second stage of your strategy, you’ll need to do some keyword research to see the opportunities outside what you currently rank for.
As always, keyword research is the basis for any SEO strategy, so make sure to invest time in doing it well.
If you don't have much experience with keyword research, Moz has a great guide to get you started, which you can find here.
One way to highlight snippets is by using Ahrefs to enter a keyword for your topic then filtering it in the "Phrase match" report.
Featured snippets are more likely to show when asking a question; in your research, it's worth using terms such as why, what, where, how, or best.
Featured snippets also tend to not always show for every search, so I don’t always rely on “Featured Snippet” filters in any tool when doing research.
Considering these two insights, you could just optimize based upon what is in the Ahrefs “Questions” report.
Or you could use phrase match and use the "Include" filter with your own list of terms.
Make sure to select "Any word." Here is a list of keywords that I used for this example: "what, where, who, when, how, can, best."
The results for the two examples are very different, so it's worth using both.
This list you’ve curated can now be part of your overall content strategy. You want to be writing content that can rank for these keywords and ensuring you're optimizing it to show in the snippet.
How to optimize for featured snippets
Once you have your set of quick-win and longer-term snippet opportunities, it's time to perform a SERP analysis.
This is a manual process, but one I'd strongly advise not to skip.
Now you have your list of target keywords, it's time to optimize content.
To start, search the keyword you are targeting.
You can see here the format that the featured snippet takes.
In this case, it's a list. Now you know that you should replicate the list format when creating content for this snippet rather than creating a paragraph of text.
For example, if your content currently reads:
“A few ways to increase your Instagram following is by posting at least once a day, use hashtags, engage with your followers, use different formats like Instalive and finally, post at times your content is more likely to be seen.”
Optimizing it as the following will have a higher chance of taking the featured snippet spot.
Five ways to get more followers on Instagram (as a heading tag)
Post content at least once a day
Use relevant hashtags
Engage with your followers
Use different formats such as live videos
Post your content at times where it is more likely to be seen
It looks a lot clearer in this format, doesn't it?
However, paragraphs are still one of the most common formats found within featured snippets. You'll notice whenever a paragraph snippet is shown, the answer is usually succinct, definitive, and clear.
When targeting a paragraph snippet, keep your answer short, as Google wants to show the answer on the actual SERP.
As far as how succinct, A.J. Ghergich found in a study that the average length of a featured snippet is around 40–50 words.
Another tip: don’t forget what we said earlier about list and paragraph snippets also frequently including imagery. Optimizing to get an image show is as simple as using relevant, high-resolution imagery in your content with descriptive alt text.
Another consideration is how you’re structuring your page. This goes back to the simple article optimization tip of using headings to structure your content.
To make it clear to Google that you’re answering a question, put the question or a close variation in a heading tag, then provide your answer directly below.
After you’ve provided your answer, you can then expand on it underneath.
This writing copy method is called an inverted pyramid style, and it works incredibly well for capturing snippets.
So, to summarize optimizing for snippets, make sure you:
Replicate the format of the snippet shown on the SERP
Answer questions succinctly (within around 40 - 50 words for a paragraph)
Closely replicate what users are searching for in header tags before answering
Use an inverted pyramid style to answer the question first and then provide further details
Done with featured snippets? Take this a step further with People Also Ask.
For your long-term snippet strategy, if your keyword set is on the heavy side, you should balance the reward vs. effort by grouping your keywords into categories and then measuring the average difficulty of that category vs. traffic available.
I usually plot this onto a bubble chart using Google Sheets so I can see if there are any easier opportunities within the dataset.
How to track your featured snippets
One key thing to consider before you embark on your road to featured snippet success is to ensure you have a proper measurement in place.
Once you’ve set your target keywords, use a rank tracker to see how successful your optimizations have been.
Advanced Web Ranking has easy to use SERP feature tracking. Once you’ve uploaded your keyword set, you’ll get a plethora of reports not just to measure featured snippets, but all SERP features for you and all your competitors.
The main things to remember are:
Prioritize your quick-wins
Do your keyword research and focus on informational terms
Check the SERP for more information on the current featured snippet
Create or optimize existing content to be concise and in the correct format
Track your featured snippets to ensure you remain in that position
The featured snippet spot is a great position to aim for, mainly because you'll discover many opportunities along the way that you can implement into a broader SEO strategy.
By optimizing your on-page content for a featured snippet, you'll find your content becomes more structured and better organized. While the featured snippet spot is your aim, you'll likely notice additional organic ranking improvements.