Change is afoot in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), more so than the already fast moving cycles of algorithm updates, penguins, pandas and penalties. The days of bragging about being “number one on Google” may soon be replaced by proud proclamations of “I got snipped by Google.”


Near the end of 2015, Google announced that mobile had overtaken desktop search for the first time ever. By 2016, they moved to a mobile first index. Between the rise in mobile and the impending future of digital assistants becoming a large part of search volumes, that number one spot on the search results page doesn’t quite have the same clout as it used to.


With mobile, the beginning of voice search was upon us. It is clear that Google has done a lot of work with all of the voice search data that we’ve been signing away, when asking for nearby cafes and searching for answers to those quiz questions that we got wrong yesterday.


Increasingly, these voice searches are being responded to in kind, with voice answers read back to you. If your question is answered satisfactorily, there is then no requirement for you to dig any further in a search for a better answer.  


For many online queries, Google’s knowledge graph offers an instant answer without the user needing to delve into the wild west of external websites on the topic. However, a large volume of these instant answers (the kind Google reads you when you ask what percentage of your brain you use (it’s not ten)) do still come from external websites. Although these websites do get a mention if read out in a voice search, these featured snippets are becoming more and more prevalent regardless of how one is searching.


There is now a featured snippet gold rush on the horizon and it’s growing at quite a pace. Search Analytics company, STAT, did some excellent work compiling a large sample of data to find out just how prevalent these snippets are, with some very surprising results:


  • In January 2016, featured snippets were present for around 9% of searches. By July 2016, that number had grown to 15%, a 66% increase in just six months.
  • Dependent on certain industries and search types, these numbers can vary. The results show that featured snippets are more prevalent for financial, mathematic, health, DIY and ‘requirement’ searches, and less common for searches that are subjective in nature.
  • Some 44% of featured snippets have a “People Also Ask” section on the same results page.
  • As of July 2016, some 63% of featured snippets are being shown in paragraph form.
  • Moreover, list snippets were 19% of featured snippets in July 2016, having grown from just 10% in January the same year.
  • The fastest growing type of snippet is the table snippet, having grown from 7% to 16% of snippets in six months, a whopping 128% increase.


The initial fear (by eternally anxious digital marketers’) that users would not click through if the answer was easily accessible, seems to have been largely unfounded in recent data. One may conclude that Google must be doing a fairly quality job in offering up these answers to common searches, in that several case studies have shown vast Click-Through Rate (CTR) boosts for content featured in a snippet.


The algorithm certainly isn’t perfect however, and there are some situations, especially geographically, where answers offered up in featured snippets are just plain out of place. On my adventures down the rabbit hole, I managed to find a spot where NZ Post was shunned for USPS rates in a featured snippet.

Google Snippet Example

While I’m sitting in my office in Wellington wanting to know what a postage stamp costs, USPS rates are probably not high on the list of things that I would like to find in my search.


This highlights both a unique challenge and an opportunity that we have to work with here in New Zealand. The key challenge at present is that there will be situations where we will essentially be trying to ‘steal’ a snippet from a large international competitor, whom in most cases will boast a winning combination of strong authority and high traffic volumes. While we expect the algorithm to become more relevant geographically over time, the lack of search volume in New Zealand will likely make this a slow process.


The opportunity that comes with this however, is that we get a ‘sneak peak’ of current and future snippet opportunities by scouting out the overseas market. We have the ability to see what kind of answer Google is looking for on different searches, and through this, prepare our clients to pick up that snippet upon it becoming available in New Zealand.


If you are looking to uncover featured snippet opportunities you may have, the what and how of featured snippets comes into play. Using Search Console, one can get an idea on the amount of snippets that are floating around for your keywords, by simply filtering the search queries you are appearing for by searches containing “how” and “what”. This will give you a great indication of featured snippets, but remember to pay attention to the themes that come out of your search as well.

Search Console Keyword Search Example


You may find that there are snippets for many “what” questions related to a certain topic, but the much shorter and more common search term may display the same snippet. A search for “what is a cross lease property?” for example, displays a snippet that additionally shows for the search “cross lease”.


When it comes to ‘stealing’ a featured snippet, there a few key aspects to the process:


  1. Make sure you currently rank within the first page for the featured snippet query that you are looking to target. The percentage of featured snippets is higher the further you go up the search rankings on that page, but only 30% of featured snippets come from the number one ranked page.
  2. Ensure that you assess the volume of the snippet search query. Although gaining these featured snippets has shown to be an excellent opportunity to increase Click-Through Rates, if only ten people ask the question each month, even a 100% CTR is not likely to make a meaningful difference to your organic traffic or leads.
  3. Check the ‘People Also Ask’ (PAA) boxes that often feature in the search results as well as featured answer snippets. Sometimes, getting one snippet can lead to more as the PAA areas of information are often related featured snippets.
  4. Check what kind of content is getting snipped in other markets for similar queries that you are targeting. Doing this can provide you with a solid foundation for formatting your content and ensuring that localised insights are more suited to your audience.
  5. Formatting plays a big part. In some cases, especially if you are ranking within the top five for a search with a featured snippet, the information you have will be sufficient to gain a snippet. It may just require some re-working to specifically answer the question in a succinct manner or in another format, such as a table or list.


On the subject of formatting, the STAT survey data shows that pages with featured snippets typically convey a range of characteristics, including:


  • Tables within the content were found to be 22% more likely in a page with a featured snippet compared to one without.
  • An orderly list was found to be 42% more prevalent in pages with a featured snippet compared to those without.
  • The use of exact match keywords within the title and heading tags of the page was additionally found to be prevalent.
  • Faster page response times were also observed, with some pages boasting a 19% faster response rate on average.
  • Easy page readability was consistent throughout the pages with a featured snippet.


To win a featured snippet, it essentially comes down to answering a question satisfactorily, succinctly and in the format that best suits the type of query at hand. If a user would like to know the cost of a potential service, it may suit them to see all their different price options in a tabular form. Moreover, If an individual is asking how to complete a task, an ordered list with step-by-step instructions may be hard to beat.


So there you have it, there’s a new gold rush on search results pages everywhere and it’s coming soon to a vertical near you. Answer popular questions about your industry, in the right format and you might just tap into a new vein of traffic!
If you would like to dive deeper into the data, you can find a whitepaper and a presentation from the July 2016 STAT update here.


Jarryd Rautenbach


Jarryd Rautenbach

Tuesday, 7th March 2017