The Power of "Is": A Featured Snippet Case Study
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The Power of “Is”: A Featured Snippet Case Study


I’m not a literary scholar, but I believe it was Hamlet that said “to have a featured snippet or not to have a featured snippet?” Ever since featured snippets came onto the scene, sites have been trying to secure them.

My team and I wanted in on this craze. Throughout our journey of research, testing, failure, and success, we found some interesting pieces of information that we wanted to share with the community. I’ll walk you through what we did and show you some of our results (though can’t share traffic numbers).

It was Britney Muller’s webinar on Feature Snippet Essentials and the release of the featured snippets cheat sheet that inspired me to capture what we’ve learned.

What are featured snippets?

A featured snippet is the box that appears at the top of the search result page that provides information to succinctly and accurately answer your query and cites a website.

Why are featured snippets important?

A featured snippet is important because it represents an additional SERP feature that you can secure. Usually located at the very top of the results page, featured snippets offer you greater visibility to searchers and can boost brand recognition.

Our featured snippet plan of attack

  1. Research, research, and more research on how to pull this off
  2. Identify keywords we wanted to target
  3. Change how we structured our on-page content
  4. Measure, test, and repeat the process

1. Research, research, and more research

We spent a great deal of time researching featured snippets. We looked at different ways to find featured snippet opportunities and researched how to optimize our content for them. We also went and saw Kellie Gibson speak on featured snippets volatility.

Did we implement everything from what we learned during this discovery phase into our featured snippet strategy? No. Are we perfect at it now after a year and a half of practicing this? No, no, no. We are getting better at it, though.

2. Identify keywords we wanted to target

We originally started out focusing on big “head” keywords. These represented terms that had indeterminate searcher intent. The first head term that we focused on was HRIS. It stands for Human Resources Information System — sexy, right?

Note: Looking back on this, I wish we had focused on longer tail keywords when testing out this strategy. It’s possible we could have refined our process faster focusing on long tail keywords instead of the large head terms.

3. Change how we structure our on-page content

We worked closely with our writing team to update how we lay out content on our blog. We changed how we used H2s, H3s (we actually used them now!), lists, and so on to help make our content easier to read for both users and robots.

In most of the content where we’re trying to rank for a featured snippet, we have an H2 in the form of a question. Immediately after the H2, we try and answer that question. We’ve found this to be highly successful (see pictures later on in the post). I wish I could say that we learned this tactic on our first try, but it took several months before this dawned on us.

4. Measure, test, and repeat

The first blog post that we tried this out on was our “What is an HRIS” article. Overall, this post was a success, it ranked for the head term that we were going for (HRIS), but we didn’t win a featured snippet. We deemed it a slight failure and went back to work.

This is where the fun started.

Featured snippet successes

We discovered a featured snippet trigger that we could capitalize on — mainly by accident. What was it?

Is.

Really. That was it. Just by adding that to some of our content, we started to pick up featured snippets. We started to do it more and more, and we were winning more and more featured snippets! I believe it was this strategic HR example that clued us onto the “is” trigger.

So we kept it up.

Featured snippet won for "employee orientation"
Featured snippet won for "hr business partner"
Featured snippet won for "employee development plan"

What did we learn?

I want to preface this by saying that all of this is anecdotal evidence. We haven’t looked at several million URLs, run it through any fancy number-crunching, or had a statistician look at the data. These are just a few examples that we’ve noticed that, when repeated, have worked for us.

  1. Blog/HR glossary – We found that it was easier for us to gain featured snippets from our blog or our glossary pages. It seemed like no matter what optimizations that we made on the product page, we weren’t able to make it happen.
  2. Is – No, not the clown from the Stephen King novel. “Is” seemed to be the big trigger word for winning featured snippets. During our audit, we did find some examples of list featured snippets, but the majority were paragraphs and the trigger word was “is.”
  3. Definitions – We saw that definitions of the head term we were trying to go for was usually what got the definition. Our on-page copy would have the H2 with the keyword (e.g. What is Employee Orientation?) and then the paragraph copy would answer that question.
  4. Updating old posts – One surprising thing we learned is that when we went back to old posts and tried adding the “is” trigger word, we didn’t see a change — even if we added a good amount of new content to the page. We were only able to grab featured snippets with new content that we created. Also, when we updated large amounts of content on a few pages that had featured snippets, we lost them. We made sure to not touch the sections of the page that the snippet was pulling from, but we still lost the snippet (some have come back, but some are still gone).

Conclusion

A few final things to note:

  1. First, while these examples are anecdotal, I think that they show some practices that anyone wanting to capture featured snippets can do. 
  2. Second, this was process was over a 12–18 month period and we’re still evolving what we think is the best way for us and our content team. 
  3. Third, we had a lot of failures with this. I showed you one example, but we’ve had many (short-form content, long-form content, glossary terms, blog posts, etc.) that didn’t work. We just kept measuring, testing, and optimizing. 
  4. Lastly, I need to give a shout out to our writing team. We massively disrupted their process with this and they have been phenomenal to work with (effective interdepartmental relationships are crucial for any SEO project).

Let me know what’s worked for you or if you have any questions by leaving a comment down below.

Note: On January 23, 2020 Google announced that featured snippets would no longer be listed twice on the first page. For more information, you can check out this thread from Google Search Liaison. This may change how valuable featured snippets are to companies and the amount of clicks a listing gets. Before you start to panic, remember it will be important to watch and measure how this affects your site before doing anything drastic. If you do decide to go nuclear and to remove your featured snippets from the results, check out this documentation.





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What's happening with featured snippets?
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What’s happening with featured snippets?


There’s a lot of changes happening to featured snippets. Google still plans to remove them from the right side and into the main listings. But there have been some additional questions raised about how we look at ranking in the SERPs. Rank Ranger’s Mordy Oberstein explains what’s been happening since Jan. 22 and how things stand in the SERPs as of today.

Below is a transcript of the video.

Hi. My name is Mordy Oberstein and I’m the CMO of Rank Ranger. I want to talk to you today about featured snippet de-duplication. What has happened? What has not happened? What’s been a bit problematic along the way. So let’s start with Jan. 22. Google says – hey, we’re de-duplicating the organic URL that represents the featured snippet. In other words, featured snippets have a URL within the box itself and that same URL was showing up among the top-ranking results on Page One of the SERPs. So two URLs on the same page. What a win! 

Google said – hey, that’s not gonna be the case anymore. We’re de-duplicating that organic URL, which means the only time the URL is going to show up is in the featured snippet itself. 

Now, what was happening when Google started doing this was the URL that was ranking on Page One of the organic results were showing up on Page Two of the SERPs.

It was showing up is as a very first result on Page Two of the SERP, and we looked at a deep data set on this and found that every single instance of featured snippets with the URL ranking on Page One, the URL now moved to the top of Page Two of the SERP. 

And of course, that looks sort of like, well, Google, are you manually placing that URL there?  Which, of course, brings up questions manual manipulation. Oh, the horror. Which, of course, was not the case.

Google said no, no, no, that’s not the case. There’s no guarantee where you’re going to rank with that URL now. It could be a Page Two, Page Three, Page Four, Page Five. I could keep counting or it may not rank it all. And lo and behold, a few days later, I was looking at some featured snippets and wonder what happened with that URL. Well, that was now ranking at the top of Page Two. And, it was gone.

We ran a deep data set again and we found that it was totally gone. Google has completely de-duplicated the URL. The only instance at all of the URL ranking is in the featured snippet itself. 

Now, this brings up the question of the right-hand side showing featured snippets. So Google has this thing that looks sort of like a knowledge panel and featured snippet got married had a baby. It appears to the right of the organic results. It’s this big, old, you know a gozinta box, as my grandmother would say, and it has a URL in there. 

Now, with the de-duplication, the only time that URL was showing up was at the right side of the page, which meant that the only time the user would see is if they scan over the right side of the page, and CTR was becoming a factor and becoming an issue for some people. 

People start to complain, and Google said – hey, we hear you, which is really great. And Google said we’re going to move that right size showing featured snippet to the main column to address your CTR concerns. So moral of the story: If life hands you something that you don’t like, you should keep complaining and complaining and complaining until something happens. But really good job by Google’s saying we’re going to move that and so forth. 

So now fast forward. A few days after Google said that and people were noticing that the right-hand side featured snippet did not move over. But what was happening was that Google re-duplicated the URL. The URL represented by that right-hand side featured snippet was again showing in the organic results. So your CTR concerns had been addressed. 

Let me show you what this looks like. Pardon me a second while I switch my screen here. 

Okay, this is an explorer panel we call an explore panel because that’s what Google calls it in the HTML. It basically looks like a knowledge calendar featured snippets. But like I said and you see a URL here and Google has placed the URL for the BBC right here.

So the URL is back in the main calm of the organic results. Really cool point, by the way, when I was running this last night to prepare for this video, I noticed that The New York Times was a URL in the explore panel in this right-hand side featured snippet. It had the organic result, of course, and it was also ranking in the top stories box. So three top showing URLs and that’s pretty cool.

Now, since we’re talking about hybrid SERP features here is a combination of a direct answer and a featured snippet. You can see it’s all direct answer up top and all featured snippet on the bottom. It’s like the mullet of featured snippets. 

The URL here has always been showing on the SERP. It was never de-duplicated. I’ve been tracking us the whole way through. It has not been duplicated. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be or if Google hasn’t gotten to it yet.

But for any of these queries that bring up the direct answer featured snippet it like BB King guitar famously named Lucille. You get the Wikipedia URL and you get the Wikipedia URL again in the organic results again. Not sure if that’s an aberration or not, But that’s the case so far. 

I’m out. I meant to add, by the way, with the explore panel of the right-hand side featured snippet. We ran 5,000 queries, keywords that bring up this right-hand side featured snippet and in every single case, the URL was back within the organic results.

So no need to fret what Google will do here. But that’s a good question – will it amend its original announcement and say – hey, we’re going to keep the status quo URL in the organic results, URL in the right-hand side featured snippet or is more changing coming eventually? Like I said, it would originally move that featured snippet on the right-hand side to the main column. 

Now, this brings up another problem, and that’s what you consider the featured snippet. You can’t call the zero position box anymore because it’s organic one. Google’s pretty much said that Google has said rather than the featured snippet is now the top-ranking organic result. Now, this makes rank tracking a little bit complicated.

So word to the wise, when you see you rank number one, you have to be able to understand what that means, because ranking number one as your typical organic results. You know, title description, URL and ranking number one as a featured snippet are not the same thing, right? Big old box. Lots of words, very trying a picture in there. Perhaps it’s far more clickable than your typical standard organic results. So when you now show up number one, what does that mean? Are you number one as the featured snippet or are you number one as your typical standard traditional organic results?

Make sure you know which type of number one ranking you have. 

So again will be interesting to see what happens with that right side showing organic, that right side showing featured snippet. Will it be placed into the main column, or will Google revert back and say – hey, we’re taking that back. We’re going to keep it on the side with this duplicate URL still in there. 

So fascinating. Very interesting. Perhaps a little bit stressful with what’s going on right now. But that’s what it is and we’ll see what happens because a lot of change going on.

Anyway, thank you very much for listening. I hope this is really helpful. Hope this was enjoyable. And I hope to see you at SMX West coming up soon. I’ll be there. I hope you’ll be there and have a chat with you. Would be really great to meet with you at SMX West, which coming up really soon. All right, Take care.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Mordy is the head of marketing for Rank Ranger, an industry leading all-in-one SEO reporting suite. Outside of helping to build the Rank Ranger brand, Mordy spends most of his time working to help educate the SEO industry by publishing a constant stream of in-depth research and analysis. You can hear Mordy take up the latest issues facing the SEO community on his weekly podcast, The In Search SEO Podcast.



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