TL;DR: The content you already have could be the key to unlocking the coveted featured snippet location in Google’s search results.
Google is transforming the way we get our information. The days of consumers sifting through a list of links is coming to an end as Google further rolls out their direct answers (featured snippets) to more and more search results. According to new research from Stone Temple Consulting, 60% of people want direct answers to their questions without having to visit a website or another app. Another factor driving the need for direct answers is the expansion of skills and capabilities for voice-activated virtual assistants like Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri.
People like to refer to featured snippets as “Position Zero,” because they’ve replaced the coveted first position as the holy grail of search engine optimization. Thanks to the research of Stone Temple Consulting, we have insight into how content ranks for feature snippets, because the criteria for position one and “Position Zero” are demonstrably different: featured snippet content is often pulled from the third, fourth, or fifth search result.
Based on typical consumer click-through rates on page one of Google search results, this bump to the top is huge for content that might otherwise never be seen. And since, according to Stone Temple Consulting, almost 30% of Google queries tested returned featured snippets, the odds are increasing that searches your brand competes on are generating featured snippets.
Google Wants Tech Writers to Care about Marketing (and Vice Versa)
So here’s the thing about featured snippets: they are there to help people do things or learn things with less effort. And what the research shows is that Google values the quality of the content—its depth, its clarity—above all else. For most companies, the content creators who have the information that customers need to learn about your products are the tech writers. Too often, though, this high-value content never gets exposed to search engines.
Think about all the product documentation your company generates, and then think about all the “How do I…” or “What is…” questions that can be answered by that content and could make for a standout featured snippet. One of the conclusions from the Stone Temple Consulting study was that the text for the featured snippet needed to be surrounded by valuable, related content.
In other words, the answer to the question needed to be part of a larger, more in-depth article. So while featured snippets are only (generally) three lines of text, Google wants more substance to back up their featured snippets for when consumers eventually click through.
Our customers know the value of exposing their product documentation to the world wide web, and we have found, like Stone Temple Consulting, an increase in the number of featured snippets being generated. Companies who expose their content are snagging featured snippets for both branded and unbranded terms because of the depth and quality of the content they’re making public.
In Figure 1, you can see an unbranded search result has generated a featured snippet for Bona, the worldwide leader in hardwood floor care, even though their page ranks fourth overall. Or, check out the featured snippet in Figure 2 for Cisco Meraki, leaders in the cloud-managed IT space, being generated for the unbranded search “VPN setting.” In both cases, the featured snippet is being sourced from their product documentation.
Maybe you don’t need to take your tech writers out of engineering or product and place them under marketing, but it would be silly to deny that the content they create can have an impact on your brand’s online presence. Tech writers are the ones with the knowledge to help your customers do stuff the right way with your products, and people overwhelmingly turn to Google first to figure those things out.
Creating Content That Will Not Only Cut It, but Snippet
So the question then is, how do you create content that nets you this coveted spot? Here are some tips based off of the Stone Temple Consulting research and our own customers’ anecdotal evidence.
- Know the questions people are asking about your brand and products
Marketing departments with SEO strategies already know the keywords that matter to their brands, but sometimes the questions people are asking around using a company’s products get overlooked by marketing and documentation teams. This miscommunication opens up the door for third parties and competitors to steal away customers when they’re searching for you!
Stone Temple Consulting suggests surveying customer support, product marketing, and sales teams to understand what questions they commonly get asked about the product. Then, make sure you’ve got the content (online) to provide the answer.
- Surf your (not featured) snippets
According to Stone Temple Consulting, 451 (75 percent) of the featured snippets they looked at had three or more lines in the regular snippet (the text that shows up below the URL). This is a good way to review the quality of your content, as longer snippets tend to indicate more useful information. For snippets that fail to meet the three-line minimum, you can mark these articles as requiring additional editing to make them more valuable.
- Write out loud
Clarity is clearly (ha!) an important quality of the content Google likes to promote to featured snippets. Writing out loud has two meanings: the first is general writing advice, which is to read aloud your writing so you can hear the mistakes and confusing phrasing. It will make you cringe and probably hurt a little to have to say what you write, but it’s the single greatest way to improve clarity.
The second meaning is geared towards our voice-controlled future: with Google Assistant and Siri giving us more and more of our information audibly, it’s more important than ever to make sure your content sounds as good as it reads.
- Provide depth beyond the answer
There is a correlation between the likelihood of becoming a featured snippet and the content that doesn’t make it into the snippet. Even though Google’s aim with featured snippets is to provide the answer without clicking through, the quality of the content on the page is a key indicator of the authority of the snippet.
Check out the search results in Figure 3 for the question “how to change compatibility mode in Chrome.” The featured snippet is generated by Optimizely’s MindTouch site, which is the third search result. The first two search results are from Google’s own forums; even though the forum queries match the Google query exactly, the forum posts have only a few lines of content on the page. Optimizely’s article, on the other hand, is rich with other useful content related to the topic.
As the way we interact with information evolves, it is more important than ever to create high-quality content that helps people do and learn things. As Google continually tweaks their search engine capabilities in new ways to value this type of content, companies have a greater opportunity to take control of their online brand and get their high-value product documentation in front of customers.