Content Strategy Director
Regular Googler? Chances are you’ll have seen a fair few changes to search engine results pages (SERPs) over the years.
In the early days, Google would serve-up a list of hyperlinks, favouring those that answered your query in the most relevant and authoritative way. Now its SERPs are a lot more sophisticated, including questions and answers, images and videos.
Let’s take a look into the different types of SERP features and how they can be used to our advantage, as well as how to protect content from being swallowed whole...
SERP features are any response in a search engine results page that sits outside of the traditional ranked organic text results. They typically show when Google has a good understanding of what you’re looking for.
Position 0 was a term coined to represents the additional opportunity to rank for SERP features that appear above the organic listings. As traditional results are ranked 1-100+, with everyone after the top spot, a SERP feature above position 1 presented an additional opportunity to rank.
This recently changed when Google announced that, in an effort to ‘declutter’ the results, it will no longer repeat a listing that’s elevated into the featured snippet position. As a featured snippet that appears at the top of a SERP can now be considered position 1, it’s even more important to optimise for them.
Let’s take a look into the different types of SERP features and how they can be used to our advantage, as well as how to protect content from being swallowed whole…
The term ‘SERP feature’ is very broad. It covers many different types of results, with more being introduced all the time. Each SERP feature has been designed and tested by Google to answer a specific type of intent, and they can be broadly categorised into four areas:
Rich snippets are additional links and information included in an organic listing, providing extra information about a business or entity. Crucially, these can have a big impact on click-through rate and have also been shown to boost conversion rate in some cases. Google uses structured data (e.g. Schema.org markup) to decide which links and information to show as rich snippets, making them easy to control. Common rich snippets include:
These are hyperlinks to other relevant pages within the same website, like category pages, hero products, contact details and store locators.
Most likely to appear for: brand searches, though increasingly for non-brand too
A search bar can also appear in branded searches, allowing users to use the internal site search and be taken directly to an internal search results page for that website
Most likely to appear for: brand searches
Reviews and ratings
Google will pull ratings, and occasionally reviews, into a search result where the page has the correct Schema.org mark-up
Most likely to appear for: product searches
Price and availability
For product-specific searches, Google can pull the current price shown on a product page directly into the SERP listing using schema.org mark-up. Google can also show whether the product is out of stock – an important snippet to optimise for if you want to reduce bounce rate.
Most likely to appear for: product searches
Like the ‘People also ask’ box, FAQ rich snippets anticipate a searcher’s related questions and expand to show answers pulled from your webpages. The obvious benefit here is that you have complete control of the answers it shows.
Most likely to appear for: branded informational searches
If you want to improve the click-through rate to a recipe page, you may want to give people a taste of how the dish is made. Recipe rich snippets can include additional information like preparation time, calories and imagery.
Most likely to appear for: recipe searches
When the relevant result is a video on YouTube or elsewhere, it may include a thumbnail preview.
Most likely to appear for: searches where Google has seen that people prefer video results, including some how-tos and trending videos.
Featured snippets are information blocks that will often show above the organic results. They aim to satisfy a user’s intent directly in the SERPs and are generally pulled straight from a webpage. Common featured snippet formats include:
Paragraph (text) snippet
Google often pulls a relevant paragraph from a page to directly answer a query that has a single, clear response. It’s most likely to pull content from a webpage when a commonly-asked question sits in the title, followed by a clear and concise answer.
Most likely to appear for: ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ questions
These snippets usually appear when a user is looking for a list of steps on how to do something, or a ranked list of items. These are taken from sites that have marked up numbered lists with the relevant HTML code.
Most likely to appear for: recipes, ‘how to…?’, ‘how do I…?’, ‘top ten...’
Bulleted lists appear when a user is looking for less structured information. These are taken from sites that have marked up bulleted lists with the relevant HTML code.
Most likely to appear for: ‘best of’ lists, unranked items, feature lists
Google will pull tables from a webpage to display relationships between values. They’re often used for comparing products (e.g. the specifications of digital cameras) – ideal for specialist retailers. These rely on having the relevant HTML markup for tables.
Most likely to appear for: lists, pricing, rates, data e.g. nutritional information
Frequently-asked questions and answers can be pulled into featured snippets when relevant content is marked up with FAQ Page Schema.org markup, so make sure they work as standalone copy.
Most likely to appear for: branded questions
Google can pull relevant videos into feature snippets and, using closed captions, play this at the point that it answers the user’s query.
Most likely to appear for: a wide range of informational searches e.g. tutorials and how-tos, news and reviews
These are most often pulled from sites with lots of user-generated content (UGC), answering common questions that have multiple answers. This can include questions about specific products; answered by previous purchasers.
Most likely to appear for: product-related and ‘advice’ questions
Recipe snippets feature a wide range of structured elements including ingredients, method, cooking time, nutritional information etc. The highly structured nature of recipe content makes it perfect for structured data; so much so that Google often uses recipe featured snippets to explain the feature or the application of Schema.org mark-up.
Most likely to appear for: ‘recipe for...’ and specific questions about calories and cooking time
Google’s Knowledge Graph is a huge database holding millions of datapoints around search terms (location, people, businesses, events etc.) and the relationships between them.
The database is fed by a number of information sources including Wikipedia, Freebase, Lexico, and LyricFind. It also uses information taken directly from relevant or official websites, like Local Business and Organisation Schema. Data is pulled into the Knowledge Graph in image or text form, and you may come across details like…
Businesses (branch or store)
Google will also enrich its primary search results by pulling in results from its other engines - including video, images, and maps. Not strictly featured snippets, rich snippets or Knowledge Graph results, the below features sit within the main SERP and may appear at the top, bottom or in the middle.
This refers to a set of video results that can’t be played in the SERP, but link to the video location on YouTube or elsewhere.
Most likely to appear: when Google’s noticed that people prefer video results. This may include how-tos and trending videos.
If a keyword has strong search volume in Google image search, chances are images will be pulled into the universal result too.
Most likely to appear for: informational searches where an image is needed to illustrate a point clearly, or answer a query more directly than text could (e.g ‘what does a manatee look like?’).
If there‘s navigational intent behind a keyword, or a type of business is mentioned but it isn’t specific, a stack of local listings may appear with the Google map interface.
Most likely to appear for: generic navigational searches and searches for business types
Just in case the current SERP and any featured snippet hasn’t satisfied a user’s intent, Google’s People Also Ask snippet offers popular questions related to the query. Each question is expandable and pulls a featured snippet from that result – kind of like a SERP within a SERP.
This is a crafty move by Google that’s likely to play a huge role in shrinking the total classic results within a SERP – more on this later…
It’s easy to see how ‘richer’ results (that answer a query directly in the SERPs) provide a better user experience. People can find answers faster, without the need to review web pages to decide whether the information can be trusted.
But what does this mean for brands and marketers? Is there any value in targeting SERP features, and if so, how do we approach them?
Now at this stage, you might be thinking, “questions answered directly in SERPs? There goes my organic traffic!” And you’re right – some have reason for concern...
SERP features that aim to be the last step in a user’s journey could spell bad news for your traffic figures, and have caused fewer people to click through to site.
The real trouble comes when a question can be fully answered in a featured snippet. Take the example of CelebrityNetWorth.com. Launched in 2008, the sole purpose of this website was to provide a database detailing how much celebrities are worth. The business thrived for a long time; boasting high volumes of organic traffic and a healthy income from ad revenue.
But when Google began showing its entire database of 25,000 celebrities in featured snippets in 2016, the site’s traffic plummeted, advertisers pulled out and the company was forced to downsize significantly.
Cases like this have led to controversy around featured snippets – with many arguing that Google is essentially pinching websites’ content and traffic.
CelebrityNetWorth.com is an extreme example – it saw a huge drop in search traffic because it’s built around a very specific singular need. But for most websites, featured snippet visibility could bring you additional clicks.
Let’s say you currently rank in position four but Google’s also used your content to populate a snippet in position zero. If the featured snippet goes some way to satisfy the user’s intent, it’s very likely you’ll take clicks from whoever ranks in position one.
For some sites, a prime spot in the SERPs can also be valuable with no click. Presenting your brand as an expert and answering a direct question helps build authority and may make it a more obvious choice to revisit later – establishing your place on the consideration shortlist.
A large percentage of current voice search results are the same as those shown as featured snippets. Why? Well-optimised content should be suitable for each result type, consisting of around 50 words and a concise answer – this works as well for voice search as it does for featured snippets.
Google Home or Siri attributing information to your brand is a powerful way to grow brand awareness and trust and Google will send the relevant URL to the user’s device to read in more detail later. Read our voice search guide to find out more.
SERP features are hugely valuable to brands and marketers. They offer a glimpse into how people that search for a keyword have been engaging with the SERP and the type of content they’re looking for. As mentioned in this guide to visual search, Google constantly updates the types of results it shows based on how people interact with them.
If Google notices a lot of people switching to image search from universal search for ‘interior design ideas’, for example, they’ll cut out this step in the journey by including image feature snippets in the universal results.
By looking at the Google’s chosen SERP features for a query, you can understand which content formats and types a searcher is interested in and use these insights to shape your own content to meet audience needs. This can inform the breadth and depth, how much focus we put on visual elements, whether to present information in lists, and how to structure sub-headings and topics.
Most rank trackers now include information on which SERP features are showing for specific keywords, and where applicable who is ranking. Some tools also include a ranking for traditional SERPs, and a ranking for all SERPs shown: helping you understand whether your website is really at the top of page one or the first result below a competitor’s nicely-optimised featured snippet.
Tracking click-through rate for specific terms in Google Search Console may also help to highlight search terms where SERP features are eroding traffic and where optimisation for these might be needed.
Schema.org structured data mark-up may help your content show for certain types of result, and in some cases it’s essential. This mark-up helps search engines understand information on a web page in terms of entities and properties (for example, the price and ratings of a product).
The right formatting is important for SERPs. Particularly in the case of featured snippets, Google needs to understand how relevant content is to a user’s question. The most obvious way to do this is to ask the question in a heading and follow it with the answer, a list or a table.
The answer should be written so it can stand alone without the context of the rest of the page. Try reading the content aloud to check it would make sense as a voice search result.
The number of search results will shrink as Google’s confidence in user intent grows. Ever heard the joke that the best place to hide something is on page two of Google? It’s increasingly true - the average click-through rate of a result beyond position 20 is less than 2%. But in time, even making it to second position might not be good enough.
Google has introduced SERP features and infinite scrolling to emphasise even more on page one results and to make sure people get the answer they want with as little effort as possible.
Although a likely end point of this will be a single answer box, Google will still need to accommodate different intents. This is where the People Also Ask box comes in. It allows people to refine their searches and find what they’re looking for – without ever leaving the SERP.
But Google is some way from one true answer. While it can now answer many informational queries directly, it only partly helps us make decisions to act.
Google also seem increasingly keen to improve the experience for users trying to find answers for more obscure questions and while People Also Ask is one place for this the upcoming rollout in December 2020 of Page Passages will show relevant passages of pages in results that answer a question even when the page as a whole is on a much wider topic: read more about this in our post here.
Search is often one of the first steps in our decision-making journeys, as we consider a wealth information from different sources and in various formats before acting on them. And it’s in Google’s interest to keep as many of these steps within its search results until it finally offers not just answers but solutions.
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