Since Google introduced featured snippets in 2014, “position zero” has been considered one of the most coveted spots in SERPs.
Featured snippets allowed websites to vie for extra traffic by appearing both at the top of organic search results and again in the top 10 results.
Or that was the case, until Google rolled out a deduplication update on January 22, 2020, ending the era of featured snippets as so-called “position zero”.
In an attempt to declutter SERPs and improve user experience, Google now won’t surface the same URL twice on page one. The first page of search results will show a featured snippet plus nine search results (instead of 10), and the featured snippet’s URL won’t reappear on page one.
Given that featured snippets receive around 8.6% of all clicks, while 19.6% of clicks go to the first search results beneath it, many webmasters and SEOs aren’t happy with the update and have actively discussed the option of opting out altogether using Google’s nosnippet tag.
Post-update, it may seem like featured snippets’ once-powerful ability to impact CTR and gain extra brand visibility is all but a memory now.
But is that really the case?
Let’s take a look back to see how featured snippets have transformed over the past few years and try to understand whether they are still worth fighting for in 2020.
The evolution of featured snippets
From the get-go, featured snippets were introduced to better serve users who rely on voice search, as well as those who look for information on the go on their mobile phones (which, let’s be real, is most of us). Giving users a succinct answer to their query at the top of SERPs, featured snippets functioned much like answer boxes, and are often (mistakenly) referred to as such.
Unlike featured snippets however, answer boxes don’t include a link or branded content (e.g. a favicon).
To illustrate the difference between the two, take a look at the following two examples.
If someone asks Google about the time zone in Singapore, they receive a definitive answer directly within the answer box, like so:
Meanwhile, someone wondering whether dual sports bikes are street-legal would generate this kind of answer back in 2017:
As you can see, in 2017 Google was not quite as good at providing accurate responses in featured snippets as it is now.
Around this time, the often-cited study by Ahrefs was conducted, claiming that featured snippets get fewer clicks than position one below it.
There are a few reasons featured snippets might result in a lower click-through rate.
Firstly, some searchers struggle to differentiate between featured snippets and ads, and so opt to avoid clicking on them altogether. Secondly, it’s possible the featured snippet has done its job and provided the searcher with their answer from the comfort of the SERPs, meaning there’s no need to click through to learn more. Other times (though less and less these days), Google will do a subpar job of surfacing the relevant information, so a searcher will need to look elsewhere to find their solution.
Google’s machine learning capabilities and featured snippet algorithms have seriously evolved since their initial inception. To illustrate the evolution of featured snippets, here’s the answer you’d get in 2020 when searching that same query about dual street bikes:
Google has certainly gotten much better at scraping for truly relevant information while leaving out the excess details.
For this reason, paragraph featured snippets have gotten shorter and list snippets, on the contrary, now provide more information to give a comprehensive answer to the user’s question.
In its attempts to give users relevant answers that are in line with their search intent, Google has now gone one step further. The search engine has developed several types of featured snippets for different types of queries — paragraphs for “what” and “why” questions, bullet lists for ratings, numbered lists and videos for “how-tos” and DIY, tables for more complex data sets.
In the past few years, new types of snippets have been introduced to cover cases where the query is too broad and user intent is not quite so clear.
The different types of featured snippets
According to Moz, half of all featured snippets are now part of a carousel — that’s when you’ll find additional buttons that can narrow down your query below the title and URL of the page the snippet comes from, like so:
The moment you click one of the buttons, a new featured snippet relative to the more specific query will appear. So, with carousel snippets, Google basically offers users several snippet queries to choose from.
What’s interesting here is that top-ranking results do not change when you refine your query within the snippet. Another observation is that if you start with a more specific search query in the first place, you’ll get a totally different featured snippet, and not the one Google offers when you click on the carousel button.
Another type of featured snippet Google has been testing in 2019 is accordion snippets.
In accordion snippets, Google won’t show the links to the websites where it sourced the text and images from until a user expands one of the boxes — that’s when a carousel of snippets with links appears. As you might expect, when the SEO community first spotted this kind of snippet, there was some unrest.
Today, accordion snippets can rarely be found in SERPs — possibly because they haven’t yet passed Google’s rigorous testing with flying colors. As you can see, the query from the screenshot above now shows a regular numbered list snippet:
Image link snippets
Meanwhile, I’ve noticed new snippet types being tested too, like featured snippets that include clickable links to more specific queries placed below the unattributed pictures. If you click one of those, your initial search query will be replaced and a whole new SERP will appear.
So it seems like Google is still searching for the perfect snippet layout that addresses users’ queries in the most effective way. Although, of course, it’s likely that different snippet types will suit different types of query.
It seems some of these new types of snippets are not yet widespread, but if Google finds them to be serving their purpose efficiently, it’s possible they could soon gain a bigger share of the SERPs.
Do users click on featured snippets?
From looking at the aforementioned examples, we can see that featured snippets are not what they used to be just a few years ago, which means we cannot conclusively rely on the CTR conclusions made by Ahref’s study back in 2017.
What we really want to know is, do users click on featured snippets in 2020?
As snippet boxes continue to offer more relevant information, more people might consider clicking the snippet link to learn the details.
On the other hand, if the suggested answer is exhaustive — and with all the fine-tuning Google undertakes, this will often be the case — the user’s search will likely end in no click.
Besides which, even when users are eager to click the link to find out more, they may have more than one option to click on. Carousel buttons or one of the more specific links under images may drag users away from the website that owns the original snippet.
Unfortunately, there are no up-to-date studies that show CTR for every type of snippet. And with Google’s deduplication update, that’s the information we all desperately need in order to understand how to proceed with featured snippets.
So it looks like your best bet for now will be to do some personal testing (think about what your audience wants, rather than Google) and try to understand if featured snippets will help you achieve your goals.
For example, if you’re currently ranking in position seven (with the average CTR being slightly above 2%), getting promoted to position one shouldn’t do you any harm. Even if the snippet doesn’t result in much growth in CTR, at least your brand visibility will benefit.
For websites ranking in the top 3 results, however, owning a featured snippet could mean a loss in organic traffic.
But remember, every industry is different, so don’t be too quick to make judgments without getting some numbers to rely on.
How to measure the efficacy of featured snippets
If you already own some featured snippets, you should be able to tell how Google’s recent update has impacted your traffic and CTR metrics using Google Analytics data.
If you’ve spotted a traffic drop, it means most of the clicks you previously received came from your top position in SERPs and not from the snippet.
If you find featured snippets are no longer working for you, you can always reclaim your traffic by using the nosnippet tag, although it’s worth bearing in mind that opting out of featured snippets altogether will mean you won’t have a chance to appear in searches undertaken by the likes of Alexa, Siri, and Google Home.
If block your page from being used in a featured snippet (as you can do by setting max-snippet to a low enough number) you’ll likely lose voice search queries as well. https://t.co/3w2CuOjXtx
— Marie Haynes (@Marie_Haynes) February 1, 2020
Alternatively, you can try to optimize your snippet for more clicks — the next section of this article offers some tips on how to do this.
If you don’t own any featured snippets and are wondering whether you should try to conquer some under the current circumstances, here’s what you can do:
First, get the list of keywords you rank for in the top 10 and single out those that come with a featured snippet. You can check every query manually or use ranking tracking tools for this.
SE Ranking, for example, currently tracks 16 SERP features including featured snippets, so you can easily filter out the kind of keywords you need.
Four out of five keywords in the example above have featured snippets. To check what kind of snippets the competing website owns, you can take a look at the cached copy of SERPs for each query.
So in the example above, two of the snippets are actually right-hand side snippets (the type that often gets mistaken for a knowledge panel) — that’s why this example still ranks number one for “Bali honeymoon” despite not owning the featured snippet.
And while side snippets might look quite appealing to some, there’s not much sense in websites trying to conquer them given that side snippets aren’t as successful in terms of gaining brand visibility. As you can see in the example below, unlike with featured snippets, neither the brand’s favicon, name, nor URL is visible.
Along with the deduplication update to featured snippets, Google has said that right-hand side snippets will slowly make their way into the main body of SERPs.
Although nothing’s set in stone right now — right-hand side snippets seem to be all over the place:
Yea, and it’s hard to look at data and make a decision when the RHS snippets were de-duped and then that was rolled back and then they are going to get moved inline again, and then de-duped again. pic.twitter.com/KiNMX1KOOn
— Dan Leibson (@DanLeibson) February 7, 2020
Another two snippets from the sample project pictured above turned out to be a paragraph with a picture from a different website and a bullet list with pictures that lead to a new Google search.
So is it worth trying to steal these kinds of featured snippets from your competitors?
Well, if the example above managed to grab the snippet real estate for these queries, chances are the snippet boxes would feature pictures linking out to different websites just like they do now.
This is a bit risky from a CTR perspective as the website would no longer appear in SERPs as positions four and two.
But as we know, he who dares wins. And if you don’t succeed in boosting CTR the first time around, you can always try some of the following tips to encourage users to click your website link.
How to get more clicks through featured snippets
As we discussed earlier, featured snippets that look like paragraphs in most cases give answers to “what”, “when” and “why” questions. Paragraph featured snippets are likely to give a definition to some notion or a short explanation.
To entice searchers to click through to your site, see if you can offer them some further details right after the definition or explanation. Your aim here is to encourage the search user to want to learn more. Think of it like telling a story— you want to encourage them to learn how it ends.
Here’s a great example of a clickable featured snippet that says there are three reasons and only mentions two of them within the snippet, leading users to click through to discover the last answer:
For numbered and bullet-point list snippets the emphasis should be on the number of points on the list. As a general rule, the total content count should be over eight.
In the case below, a “more items” link will appear at the bottom of the list prompting users to click.
So if your featured snippet has less than eight points, consider adding a few more entries to your list.
For table featured snippets the focus is once again on the quantity of content. With such snippets, Google shows a maximum of three columns and nine rows, but it can be even fewer than that.
The main point to bear in mind is that whenever there are more rows in the table than displayed within the snippet, the “X more rows” link is added to the snippet. If your snippet doesn’t contain such a link, try adding more rows to your table.
That being said, your end goal should always be to serve the search user — so don’t add unnecessary information if it won’t help them.
Finally, all types of featured snippets can come with pictures. The problem here is that Google often pulls the text from one website and the image from another — just like in the examples discussed earlier.
Naturally, you don’t want to have a competitor’s image with a link displayed in your featured snippet — after all, people may click the image link instead of visiting your website.
So, if you don’t have an image on your page where the text is being pulled from, make sure to add a relevant one in. Then, put the image in question directly under the paragraph, list, or table that is displayed within the snippet.
It’s also important to use a proper alt tag and to use proper Schema markup to make the crawling process even easier for Google.
Google continues to tweak and refine its algorithms and desktop appearance in order to give users more comprehensive answers directly in SERPs.
By surfacing relevant content, using additional buttons to refine the search, and incorporating extra links to relative subtopics, users can often get all the necessary information from the featured snippets without visiting the websites they cite.
For content publishers, this could mean lower CTRs and, with the recent deduplication update, it looks like owning a featured snippet may no longer be beneficial for all websites.
However, don’t be too hasty to give up on featured snippets just yet.
Chances are that in your particular case an attractive snippet box at the top of SERPs will be contributing to your site traffic. If not, making a few alterations to the text can help make your featured snippets more clickable.
In any case, my advice would be not to solely rely on somebody else’s judgments and to do some testing of your own, too.
As it stands, the recent deduplication update is not going away any time soon and featured snippets are surely here to stay, so it’s in your best interest to adapt to their changing functions.