Summary: Optimizing for search can be a tricky prospect. You have to anticipate what people search for and how they will phrase it, and then have a strategy to claim the top spots on Google.
How do people search the web? This turns out to be a much deeper question than we’d ever anticipated, given that the very concept of “searching the web” has only existed for about 30 years or so. It turns out that studying web search unlocks all kinds of questions relating to technology, psychology, semantics, and even a bit of cognitive theory.
So the goal of every search is to learn something, whether it’s “how do I create a Google Ad campaign?” or “where can I buy a snowblower?” or “was the actor who played the dwarf in the dream sequence in Twin Peaks also the guy who played Samson on HBO’s Carnivale?” Now our goal in SEO and content marketing is to field the questions relevant to our target customers’ needs—and our business goals—and provide the answers that Google anticipates will be the most useful.
Not All Search Results Are Alike
In recent years, Google has taken to splitting organic search results into different sections to try to make the results more useful to users. These have expanded over time due to popularity until there’s now a menagerie of different search engine results page (SERP) features.
What are the different kinds of Google search results? They are collectively referred to as “featured snippets” and they include…
- Featured paragraph: A mini-article excerpted from the source link
- Direct answers: Short, factual responses that answer queries like a math problem or statistic
- Map pack: Features a map and typically appears for any location-based queries that include “near me”
- Lists: Often appear for “top ten” or list steps for “how-to” information
- Tables: For spreadsheet-oriented information such as quarterly company earnings
- Video: In case there’s a YouTube hit that directly matches the query
- Carousel: For categorical queries, often directed towards making a purchase
- “People also ask” (FAQ): Questions and answers related to that query
- Ads: PPC ads are also given a special placement at the top of the SERP
There’s more snippet variety than we can reasonably list, with more being added. And that’s not counting the special responses for queries like “do a barrel roll” or “Google doodle Pac-Man.” Featured snippets and other structured queries now account for about 12% of all searches.
Sometimes there can even be multiple forms of a featured snippet on one SERP. There is one important thing to be aware of with featured snippets: they are designed to answer the user’s query efficiently, sometimes too efficiently, to the point of the user getting what they needed right there in the SERP and not needing to click through to your website!
Zero-Click Searches: Controversial?
Web marketers and online businesses do express some anxiety that featured snippet SERPs are robbing them of website traffic. This can even lead to a significant revenue leak. Some studies have shown that as much as 50% of search traffic stops right there at the SERP. Is this cause for concern?
There may be a response to that concern sooner than we think. The US Justice Department is currently pursuing an antitrust action against Google. The charges include “…creating a continuous and self-reinforcing cycle of monopolization…” While not directed at SERP snippets specifically, we wouldn’t be surprised if this comes up in a hearing at some point.
Be that as it may, it is still worthwhile to strive for the front page on any SERP, which is almost guaranteed when you format your information to be snippet-friendly (which we’ll show you how to do in a minute). A featured snippet on Google still sends traffic to your website, even if it’s not as much as a number one organic spot previously did.
Even if searchers don’t click, coming up in a featured snippet still gets you valuable brand exposure and recognition. Searchers are exposed to your brand and learn that you have information on the topic and that Google values enough to put at the top, making it more likely that they’ll remember you. When they’re ready to purchase, they’ll be more likely to come back to your brand, even if they didn’t click through the first time. The decision to buy isn’t always done in one step. All said and done, coming up on top of a SERP with a featured snippet is still better than not making the front page at all.
Find The Questions Your Customers Are Asking
To rank at the top with featured snippet inquiries, we’ve established that you have to anticipate searches and phrase your content in such a way that it’s obvious for Google’s crawlers to ascertain that you have the answer. Google has been applying natural language processing to indexed pages and search queries, so it has improved at matching queries to answers. Most of the time, all you have to worry about is using natural language to address a common inquiry, and Google does the rest.
How do you find out what queries your target audience and customers have? There are plenty of tools you can use to play “query detective” to learn the keywords, questions, and phrases used in your industry or related to your business.
- Search forum and discussion websites like Quora, Reddit, and Stack Exchange, noting the way people phrase queries.
- Gain insight into your customer’s concerns with data gathered from customer feedback forms, comments left on your site, ratings and reviews of your business, etc.
- Poll your sales team and other employees who work directly with the public, to find out the questions they frequently answer.
- Review Google Analytics to see what searches lead users to your site
- Use SEMRush and other SEO tools to help you find new search phrases associated with a keyword.
- Find the questions your customers are asking using AHRefs’ free keyword generator.
- Get ideas from Google’s own “People Also Ask” feature.
- Uncover related queries and search volumes using Google Ads Keyword Planner.
Let’s stop here for a quick example. Let’s say your college is trying to attract more applicants for your MBA program. Using the above avenues, you can discover some associated keywords and specific queries people have about an MBA degree:
- How many years does an MBA degree take?
- What is an MBA good for?
- What salary does an MBA graduate typically get?
- What universities offer an MBA program?
- What are the fees to get MBA?
There is something important to note about search queries: They don’t always use perfect grammar. You should focus on the core keyword elements of those queries. We can take the above queries and distill them to things like “MBA cost,” “MBA fees,” “MBA salary,” etc. But in the copy text, we can expand that to anticipate as many forms of the key phrase as possible in our content.
You can also apply a bit of psychology and find new opportunities. With college degree queries, we frequently see questions pop up in the form of “Is 45 too old to get a … degree?” Then similar queries for age 50, 40, and so on. What is this telling us? There are people in their middle ages (young Gen Xers and older Millennials) who are looking at our current economy (stormy due to the COVID-19 effect) and are considering beefing up their qualifications for the rest of their careers. Nobody is addressing these queries, so this can be an opportunity to write several pieces around the theme of “you’re never too old” and include some testimonials and success stories from middle-aged alumni.
Keep Your Finger on the Pulse of the Internet
Now that we have an idea of how to find queries related to a given topic, what about brand new topics? This is just where being an avid social media user can come in handy! Paying attention to your streams daily helps you spot popular trends, albeit you have to sort through a lot of useless line noise. Still, you check Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at least once a day anyway, don’t you? While you’re there, check out trending hashtags, trending YouTube videos, and the like.
Find out what’s trending in your industry by following blogs and social media feeds of the movers and shakers in your field of business. Sometimes it’s worth keeping tabs on your competitors’ websites and blogs as well.
Along with this, you can monitor trends websites like:
- Google Trends: The most popular current searches
- Answer the Public: Collates popular questions about broad topics
- Hootsuite: Has a social media trends section
- Pinterest Trends: The most popular topics on Pinterest
- AllTop: A fast feed digest of trending stories on top news sites
- Exploding Topics: Scours the internet to identify emerging trends
You can always indulge a creative impulse and find an opportunity to work a trendy topic into your content even if it doesn’t necessarily fit into your industry. This kind of content can help your audience’s attention and show that your business stays up to date on trends. Don’t make it the mainstay of your blog, but you could, for instance, hop on the cryptocurrency trend by highlighting a story about how three graduates of your computer science program did something innovative with blockchain technology. Remember, the unusual angle is the one with less competition and more opportunity to rank highly or capture featured snippets.
Assessing Competitive Questions
Take a close look at the kinds of questions and responses that Google already highlights for queries in your field. Take note that featured snippet questions tend to be short and concise. Ask yourself:
- How can I answer this question?
- If the question is already “taken,” how can I provide a better answer?
- What is the next question a user would ask, which nobody has answered yet?
- What is the user actually looking for?
- Do you have more authority to answer this question than the current answer? (For Reddit / Quora results, the answer is always ‘yes’)
- Do I have an existing page that can already answer this question if I reword it? (This happens surprisingly often)
- Can I answer the same question using a different featured snippet format? (is there a video result yet?)
- How much competition is there for this query?
Remember that for certain categories of queries about medical, legal, financial, and other fields deemed “your money or your life,” Google applies “EAT” for “expertise, authority, and trust.” If there is an answer niche claimed by a less authoritative source, you can pounce on it and provide a source with more authority behind it. Google does rebuild the search index and improve its algorithms periodically, so a claimed featured snippet spot is not permanent.
Not every common question is worth chasing. Some have so much competition that you’re unlikely to claw to the top of that heap with a humble WordPress post. Instead, look for the edge cases, the areas with less activity. If you can get 80% of the hits from a query with a 100K volume, that’s a sure win compared to getting 10% of the hits from a query with a 600K volume.
Sometimes it’s worth tackling a really tough, controversial question that’s a point of debate in your industry, even if you can’t provide the definitive answer but can provide an “all-sides” answer. Sometimes it’s worth having a glossary or wiki section just to answer all those definition queries. Remember also, people ask “stupid” questions, too. Sometimes the best questions to chase are the blindly obvious ones!
How to Claim That Snippet
Once you determine the questions you’ll target, develop the content that answers those queries, the rest is up to formatting:
- Use a Q&A format: header tag question, short paragraph answer
- Reflect the question in the page title (“Things people ask about MBAs”)
- Try to use different phrasings of the same query in your text to pick up on every search permutation
- Use the appropriate schema formatting
- Use on-page SEO best practices
Most importantly of all, put the user first! Make sure your information is as complete as possible, as easy to understand as you can make it, and takes the user’s best interest at heart. The world is thirsty for knowledge. If you can help satisfy it, you can improve the world’s knowledge quotient and clean up in business while you’re at it.