Google’s Featured Snippet box, or as others call it, position zero, isn’t a new phenomenon. Sure, it’s gone through a few facelifts and name changes over the years, including a recent update favoring fresh information, but people have been getting quick tidbits in the coveted position zero since 2013. Also, optimizing your content was a strongly proclaimed trend for 2019. As Google tries to give people (including prospective students) answers to their queries without forcing them to even leave the SERP (Search engine results page), it’s critical for every enrollment marketer to take featured snippets seriously. First, here’s a quick definition: featured snippets exist on a Google (SERP) and are used to provide concise, direct answers to queries posed on Google.
How do you optimize your pillar page for the featured snippet?
These are the steps we will be covering later on in this page:
Before we dive into how to do each of these seven steps though, I want to take a step back and actually go into the what and why behind the featured snippet. The last thing I want to do is help people do something just because everyone else is or because it’s trending.
When it comes to enrollment marketers (and as people in general), we need to understand the bigger picture and reasoning of our actions. Without it, we’re simply checking boxes and going with the flow, and that doesn’t help anyone.
1. What is Google's Featured Snippet?
2. Why is Google’s Featured Snippet Important?
3. Step 1: Assess Your Current Status
4. Step 2: Identify Your Competition
In short, Google wants to answer everyone’s questions without forcing a user to leave the results page and click into a website page. For example, if Google is able to dissect a page’s content to identify which schools are the best for those interested in cybersecurity, and then give a whole list of them without requiring a searcher to read an entire article (ex. Best Schools for Cybersecurity Programs), then that’s exactly what they are going to do!
As a user, this is great. With featured snippets, I can get a quick answer to my question and don’t have to waste time reading through paragraphs of text or disabling ad blocker for every site I go to. But as an enrollment marketer, this can be extremely painful - especially if your school isn’t listed. Don't worry, we’ll get to that later.
While this chunk of text is useful for explanations and definitions, it wouldn’t work for everything. That’s why Google has a few other types of featured snippets, namely, the listing and table format (FYI, the table format is very rare. I couldn’t even find an example of one).
A quick tangent: there are also various SERP features that seem similar to the featured snippet, but actually aren’t under the same classification. You’ve most likely seen all of them at some point, but some major SERP features that aren’t featured snippets are:
In short, featured snippets are your way to get to the top of the SERP and have a fighting chance against ads, better organic positions, and the People Also Ask accordions. The best part? You don’t even have to rank #1 organically to earn this spot.
Now that we’ve gone over what a featured snippet is, we can focus on the why. And while I covered various aspects of this in the previous section, it’s important to really understand the power of this feature.
Take a relatively competitive Google search for example – let’s say “MBA”. When you search for that in Google, you’d probably see something like this:
As you can see, getting into the featured snippet spot isn’t just something that is nice to have anymore. It’s something you’re going to need if you want visibility on the SERP today, because even if you rank #1 organically, people aren’t even guaranteed to see you. In case you didn’t see in the image, the #1 organic position is the Wikipedia article about halfway down the page.
Let’s tackle this from another angle too. As we all know, voice search (and mobile browsing) is only becoming more popular. When your screen all of sudden doesn’t exist (searching via voice) or the screen size is drastically reduced (on mobile), think about how much more important it will be to place at the top. Voice assistants like Siri, Alexa, Google Home, and Google Assistant are constantly trying to find the best answer to people’s questions. And how do you think they are finding those answers? My money’s on featured snippets.
If you’re someone who likes data and hard numbers, then buckle up. According to an Ahrefs study of two million featured snippets:
Hopefully, you’re starting to see more of the why behind featured snippets. Now, let’s take a look at the basic steps you need to take to start ranking for the featured snippet position.
After you achieve a Featured Snippet, you’ll be measuring to find out how it’s impacted your bottom line. So, to be able to do that, you first need to determine what your current status is.
Basically, you’ll want a before and after screenshot of the page or pages in question. Most of your hosting platforms should have some basic analytics tools built in, but if not, hopefully you had some other sort of analytics tool installed.
Since this is an organic SEO play, you’ll want to know:
Something I like to do is research everything I can on the URL using SEMRush and export all the organic rankings and traffic I can find that this page is generating. I’ll then archive that away and based on those keywords, I’ll start searching through Google and take screenshots of any of the SERPs that currently have a featured snippet that isn’t me. This is just a nice way to show a before and after photo when you steal the spot away from your competitor.
While your specific company might have more unique metrics they are trying to track, the above items are some pretty basic ones that you’ll want to follow closely as you work towards the featured snippet position.
Before you jump into keyword research and on-page optimization, you need to figure out what you’re up against. Luckily, the competitive research you’re about to conduct shouldn’t take more than an hour (depending on the tools you have).
The simplest thing you can do to begin is to open up an incognito window, visit Google, and then start searching with keywords that you are already ranking for in the top 10 positions. Check out SEMRush to figure out what your best ranking keywords are and then go from there.
Theoretically, you should start seeing SERPs full of ads, featured snippets, People Also Ask boxes, and the organic search results.
What you need to do is make a note of what kind of featured snippets are currently in place. For example, if you were searching for “should i get a masters in information technology?” and saw that the featured snippet was a paragraph, your goal shouldn’t be to try to make the list on your page the new featured snippet. Find what’s already winning, and then make yours better.
We’ll find out how to format that paragraph (or list, if applicable) soon.
Since many featured snippets deal with a question of some kind, you’ll want to do some quick research into the questions people are asking around your keywords. Again, I would use a tool like SEMRush to do some keyword research and find out all the related and question-like queries people are making.
That way, when I get to adding that code and content to my page, I know exactly what I should be using.
If you don’t have access to a tool like SEMRush or Moz, there are still some great options for you to work with.
First, see what Google is auto-filling when you begin typing your question. This is a great way to find out what people are searching for and what Google thinks they might be searching for.
Then, you can check to see what all the People Also Ask boxes are writing about. Those are great topics to write content on that support your pillar page (i.e., cluster content) and continue to help establish your pillar page as the main hub of information.
If you’re not a web developer, don’t worry. Adding HTML code for featured snippet purposes is actually really easy. As it turns out, the cleaner and simpler your code is, the more easily Google will be able to crawl it. So really, it’s a win-win.
But as we’ve mentioned before, there are 3 main kinds of featured snippets: paragraph, lists, and tables. I won’t even go into tables mostly because the code is a little more difficult if you’re not used to HTML and it’s just not a heavy hitter in terms of featured snippet appearances.
Featured Snippet Code for a Paragraph-type
Let’s break this down really quick. The <h2>’s are telling your browser that this is a semi-important header on the page. Right beneath it is a simple <p> tag that tells the browser to make this a regular paragraph of text.
So by structuring your featured snippet code this way, you can basically tell Google “here is the important question people are asking in the <h2> tag and here is the answer in the <p> tag.”
Featured Snippet Code for a List-type
<li>The First List Item</li>
<li>The Second List Item</li>
In this case, the purpose of the <h2> tag is staying the same. But instead of giving the answer inside of a <p> tag, we want to list out a number of answers. To make a list in HTML, you either use a <ol> or <ul> tag to choose between an ordered list or unordered (i.e., bulleted) list, and then use <li> tags for each item in your list.
As you can see, it doesn’t take that much technical know-how to add HTML to your page that is optimized for the featured snippet position. Obviously, content is still king and quality matters, so make sure your content actually answers the user’s query.
As mentioned above, when people enter a query in Google and see all the results, you need to make it clear that your page is the answer to that query. So, for example, you searched for “what's the difference between a bachelor's and master's degree” and you see a nice paragraph featured snippet with some basic information.
When you click into the actual page, you’ll see the question is stated in the top left (in an <h1> tag).
When you optimize the content on your page though, remember these rules of thumb:
Keep your code clean and simple, and write your content in the language that your visitors use.
Now that you’ve optimized your page with some featured snippet code, it’s time to make sure Google knows that something has been updated. The easiest way to do this is to log in to your Google Search Console account and submit your sitemap. This way, Google gets notified that they should take a look at your pages since something was changed. If for some reason, you don’t want to submit your sitemap, maybe because you only changed one page, you can just copy and paste the URL of the page you changed into the search bar at the top that says “Inspect any URL in yourdomain.com” and then click on Request Indexing after the search is complete.
Once you either submit your sitemap or just re-index a few pages manually, don’t keep doing it every day after that. Google is working on crawling your site — the last thing you want to do is spam them with requests.
With Google taking care of the backend work, it’s now up to you to make sure you know whether your changes were a success or not.
As a reminder, here are the basic items you’ll be measuring:
Now comes the hard part. Waiting.
It may take a while before Google decides to update the current featured snippet, assuming it deems your content more helpful than the current winner. You’ll have to be patient and monitor the SERP for a few weeks. If after a month or two, you don’t see a change, then it is time to do some digging and see if you can reformat your content or update the text so that it better aligns with the language and pain point of the user.
So why should you, as an enrollment marketer, care about optimizing your content for the featured snippet position?
Well, just consider the following reasons:
Featured snippets aren’t some fad that Google is playing around with. They’ve been around for years and Google is only going to keep refining their algorithms and making more of them. After reading this, you might just think you need to appease the Google overlords so you can get into this position. But that’s where I say you’re wrong. Thinking that way is equivalent of taking painkillers for a broken ankle without going to the doctor for help. You’re addressing the symptoms, not the root cause.
In this case, the root cause is creating quality content that people are able to easily understand and digest, content that keeps them on the page because it’s helpful, and content that is formatted using clean and consistent HTML. Do that, and you’ll set your content up for featured snippet success.
And the best part (at least I think it’s the best part)? You don’t know if it’s going to work!
You have to experiment to find out what readers are actually trying to get answered. You’re not going to win every snippet, but you’ll have the opportunity to do some real data work that helps your organization understand your audience’s language, pain points, and increase your brand affinity.
By Patrick Eng
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