Google’s featured snippets started as an experiment almost a decade ago.
They have since become an integral part of Google’s SERPs, showing up for lots of queries.
In fact, featured snippets are now considered organic position #1, so it is part of any SEO strategy.
What are featured snippets?
Featured snippets are selected search results that are featured on top of Google’s organic results below the ads in a box.
Featured snippets aim at answering the user’s question right away (hence their other well-known name, “answer boxes”).
The recent studies reveal that featured snippets have an average 35% click-through rate.
Being featured means being on top of everything (except for ads), in the most prominent spot:
Types of featured snippets
There are three major types of featured snippets:
Paragraph (an answer is given in text).
List (an answer is given in a form of a list)
Table (an answer is given in a table)
Each type can also include an image, and that image may come from a third-party page that is not featured. There may be 2 images included inside the featured box:
An older study from STAT: the most popular featured snippet is “paragraph” type.
Featured snippets or answer boxes?
The terminology may still be pretty loose here. Many people (including myself) are inclined to refer to featured snippets as “answer boxes,” obviously because there’s an answer presented in a box.
While there’s nothing wrong with this terminology, it creates a certain confusion because Google often gives a “quick answer” (a definition, an estimate, etc.) on top without linking to the source:
To avoid confusion, let’s stick to the “featured snippet” term whenever there’s a URL featured in the box, because these present an extra exposure to the linked site (hence they’re important for content publishers):
Do I have a chance to get featured?
According to another older research by Ahrefs, about 100% of featured pages already rank in top 10 of Google. So if you are already ranking in top 10 for related search queries, you have very good chances to get featured.
Featured snippets appear and disappear for the same queries but you have higher chances to get featured if there’s already a featured snippet showing up for your target query (i.e. Google has already identified search intent for your query as informational).
Obviously, based on the purpose of the search section (i.e. to give a quick answer), you have a higher chance of getting featured if you answer a lot of questions in your content.
Identify all kinds of opportunities to be featured
Start with good old keyword research
Multiple studies confirm that the majority of featured snippets are triggered by long-tail keywords. In fact, the more words that are typed into a search box, the higher the probability there will be a featured snippet.
It’s always a good idea to start with researching your keywords. Moz’s Keyword Explorer is a good place to start.
When performing keyword research with featured snippets in mind, note that:
Start with question-type search queries (those containing question words, like “what,” “why,” “how,” etc.) because these are the easiest to identify, but don’t stop there…
Target informational intent, not just questions. While featured snippets aim at answering the user’s question immediately, question-type queries are not the only types that trigger those featured results. According to the aforementioned Ahrefs study, the vast majority of keywords that trigger featured snippets were long-tail queries with no question words in them.
It helps if you use a keyword research tool that shows immediately whether a query triggers featured results. SE Ranking offers a nice filter allowing you to see keywords that are currently triggering featured snippets:
You can also run your competitor in Serpstat and then filter their best-performing queries by the presence of featured snippets.
This is a great overview of your future competition, enabling you to see your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.
Browse Google for more questions
To further explore the topic, be sure to research popular niche questions.
Tools like Buzzsumo and Text Optimizer can give you a good insight into questions people tend to ask around your topic:
Identify search queries where you already rank high
Your lowest-hanging fruit is to identify which phrases you already rank highly for. These will be the easiest to get featured for after you optimize for answer boxes (more on this below).
Google Search Console shows which search queries send you clicks. To find that report,
Click “Performance” .
Check the box to show the position your pages hold for each one and you’ll have the ability to see which queries are your top-performing ones:
Note that Search Console labels featured snippet positions as #1 (SEO used to call them position 0). So when you see #1 in Google Search Console, there’s nothing to do here. Focus on #2 and lower.
You can then use the filters to find some question-type queries among those:
Go beyond traditional keyword research tools: Ask people
All the above methods (albeit great) tackle already discovered opportunities: those for which you or your competitors are already ranking high. But how about venturing beyond that? Ask your readers, customers, and followers how they search and which questions they ask.
MyBlogU: Ask people outside your immediate reach
Move away from your target audience and ask random people what questions they have on a specific topic and what would be their concerns. Looking out of the box can always give a fresh perspective.
MyBlogU (disclaimer: I am the founder) is a great way to do that. Just post a new project in the ” Brainstorm” section and ask members to contribute their thoughts.
Seed Keywords: Ask your friends and followers
Seed Keywords is a simple tool that allows you to discover related keywords with help from your friends and followers. Simply create a search scenario, share it on social media, and ask your followers to type in the keywords they would use to solve it.
Try not to be too leading with your search scenario. Avoid guiding people to the search phrase you think they should be using.
Here’s an example of a scenario:
And here are the suggestions from real people:
Obviously, you can also create similar surveys with tools like WP Forms or Google Forms.
Organize questions and keywords
I use spreadsheets to organize questions and keyword phrases I discover (see more on this below). Some of these questions may become a whole piece of content, while others will be subsections of broader articles:
I don’t try to analyze search volume to decide whether any of those questions deserve to be covered in a separate article or a subsection. (Based on the Ahrefs research and my own observations, there is no direct correlation between the popularity of the term and whether it will trigger a featured snippet).
Instead, I use my best judgment (based on my niche knowledge and research) as to how much I will be able to tell to answer each particular question. If it’s a lot, I’ll probably turn it into a separate article and use keyword research to identify subsections of the future piece.
Optimizing for featured snippets
Start with on-page SEO
There is no magic button or special markup which will make sure your site gets featured. Of course, it’s a good idea to start with non-specific SEO best practices, simply because being featured is only possible when you rank high for the query.
Randy Milanovic did a good overview of tactics of making your content findable. Eric Brantner over at Coschedule has put together a very useful SEO checklist, and of course never forget to go through Moz’s SEO guide.
That being said, the best way to get featured is to provide a better answer. Here are a few actionable tips:
1. Aim at answering each question concisely
My own observation of answer boxes has led me to think that Google prefers to feature an answer which was given within one paragraph.
An older study by AJ Ghergich cites that the average length of a paragraph snippet is 45 words (the maximum is 97 words), so let it be your guideline as to how long each answer should be in order to get featured.
This doesn’t mean your articles need to be one paragraph long. On the contrary, these days Google seems to give preference to long-form content (also known as ” cornerstone content,” which is obviously a better way to describe it because it’s not just about length) that’s broken into logical subsections and features attention-grabbing images.
Even if you don’t believe that cornerstone content receives any special treatment in SERPs, focusing on long articles will help you to cover more related questions within one piece (more on that below).
All you need to do is to adjust your blogging style just a bit:
Ask the question in your article (that may be a subheading)
Immediately follow the question with a one-paragraph answer
Elaborate further in the article
This tactic may also result in higher user retention because it makes any article better structured and thus a much easier read. To quote AJ Ghergich,
When you use data to fuel topic ideation, content creation becomes more about resources and less about brainstorming.
2. Be factual and organize well
Google loves numbers, steps and lists. We’ve seen this again and again: More often than not, answer boxes will list the actual ingredients, number of steps, time to cook, year and city of birth, etc.
Use Google’s guide on writing meta descriptions to get a good idea what kind of summaries and answers they are looking to generate snippets (including featured snippets).
Google loves well-structured, factual, and number-driven content.
There’s no specific markup to structure your content. Google seems to pick up <table>, <ol>, and <ul> well and doesn’t need any other pointers. Using H2 and H3 subheadings will make your content easier to understand for both Google and your readers.
3. Make sure one article answers many related questions
Google is very good at determining synonymic and closely related questions, so should be you. There’s no point in creating a separate page answering each specific question.
Creating one solid article addressing many related questions is a much smarter strategy if you aim at getting featured in answer boxes. This leads us to the next tactic:
4. Organize your questions properly
To combine many closely related questions in one article, you need to organize your queries properly. This will also help you structure your content well.
I have a multi-level keyword organization strategy that can be applied here as well:
A generic keyword makes a section or a category of the blog
A more specific search query becomes the title of the article
Even more specific queries determine the subheadings of the article and thus define its structure
There will be multiple queries that are so closely related that they will all go under a single subheading
Serpstat helps me a lot when it comes to both discovering an article idea and then breaking it into subtopics. Check out its ” Questions” section. It will provide hundreds of questions containing your core term and then generate a tag cloud of other popular terms that come up in those questions:
Clicking any word in the tag cloud will filter results down to those questions that only have that word in them. These are subsections for your article.
Here’s another good guide on identifying your keyword modifiers (groups) and using those to structure your content.
Here’s a good example of how related questions can help you structure the article:
5. Make sure to use eye-grabbing images
Paragraph featured snippets with images are ridiculously eye-catching, even more so than regular featured snippets. Honestly, I wasn’t able to identify how to add an image so that it’s featured. I tried naming it differently and I tried marking it as “featured” in the WordPress editor. Google seems to pick up a random image from the page without me being able to point it to a better version.
That being said, the only way to influence that is to make sure ALL your in-article images are eye-catching, branded, and annotated well, so that no matter which one Google ends up featuring, it will look nice.
Here’s a great selection of WordPress plugins that will allow you to easily visualize your content (put together graphs, tables, charts, etc.) while working on a piece.
There are lots of image editing apps and tools to create original images
Finally, there are ways to watermark your images (to brand them better) or even to create a free logo in case you don’t have one yet.
Optimizing and branding your images well is crucial for featured snippet optimization because images are often included in featured boxes, and in many cases those images come from different domains.
Clicking images within featured images enlarges that image inviting the user to go to the linked site. In other words, this can be a traffic-building opportunity for non-featured sites.
Google is pulling these images from Google Images search results, so image optimization is important for driving traffic from featured snippets.
Also don’t forget to update and re-upload the images (on WordPress). WordPress adds dates to image URLs, so even if you update an article with newer information the images can be considered kind of old.
Monitor your progress
You are already monitoring your organic positions, and featured snippets are tracked as #1 position these days.
For your most important keywords, you may want to set up closer monitoring to be alerted when Google changes anything:
How about structured markup?
Many people would suggest using Schema.org (simply because it’s been a “thing” to recommend adding schema for anything and everything) but the aforementioned Ahrefs study shows that there’s no correlation between featured results and structured markup.
It takes a lot of research and planning and you cannot be sure when you’ll see the results (especially if you don’t have too many top 10 rankings just yet) but think about this way: Being featured in Google search results is your incentive to work harder on your content. You’ll achieve other important goals on your way there:
You’ll discover hundreds of new content ideas (and thus will rank for a wider variety of various long-tail keywords)
You’ll learn to research each topic more thoroughly (and thus will build more incoming links because people tend to link to in-depth articles)
You’ll learn to structure your articles better (and thus achieve a lower bounce rate because it will be easier to read your articles)
Update: We have released a featured snippet optimization tool. With it, you can see exactly what your featured snippet opportunities are and what it may take to grab each of them (based on where the featured page ranks organically, where your page ranks and what type of featured snippet to optimize for.)