The Power of "Is": A Featured Snippet Case Study
Posted by EricSerdar
I’m not a literary scholar, but I believe it was Hamlet that said “to have a featured snippet or not to have a featured snippet?” Ever since featured snippets came onto the scene, sites have been trying to secure them.
My team and I wanted in on this craze. Throughout our journey of research, testing, failure, and success, we found some interesting pieces of information that we wanted to share with the community. I’ll walk you through what we did and show you some of our results (though can’t share traffic numbers).
What are featured snippets?
A featured snippet is the box that appears at the top of the search result page that provides information to succinctly and accurately answer your query and cites a website.
Why are featured snippets important?
A featured snippet is important because it represents an additional SERP feature that you can secure. Usually located at the very top of the results page, featured snippets offer you greater visibility to searchers and can boost brand recognition.
Our featured snippet plan of attack
- Research, research, and more research on how to pull this off
- Identify keywords we wanted to target
- Change how we structured our on-page content
- Measure, test, and repeat the process
1. Research, research, and more research
We spent a great deal of time researching featured snippets. We looked at different ways to find featured snippet opportunities and researched how to optimize our content for them. We also went and saw Kellie Gibson speak on featured snippets volatility.
Did we implement everything from what we learned during this discovery phase into our featured snippet strategy? No. Are we perfect at it now after a year and a half of practicing this? No, no, no. We are getting better at it, though.
2. Identify keywords we wanted to target
We originally started out focusing on big “head” keywords. These represented terms that had indeterminate searcher intent. The first head term that we focused on was HRIS. It stands for Human Resources Information System — sexy, right?
Note: Looking back on this, I wish we had focused on longer tail keywords when testing out this strategy. It’s possible we could have refined our process faster focusing on long tail keywords instead of the large head terms.
3. Change how we structure our on-page content
We worked closely with our writing team to update how we lay out content on our blog. We changed how we used H2s, H3s (we actually used them now!), lists, and so on to help make our content easier to read for both users and robots.
In most of the content where we’re trying to rank for a featured snippet, we have an H2 in the form of a question. Immediately after the H2, we try and answer that question. We’ve found this to be highly successful (see pictures later on in the post). I wish I could say that we learned this tactic on our first try, but it took several months before this dawned on us.
4. Measure, test, and repeat
The first blog post that we tried this out on was our “What is an HRIS” article. Overall, this post was a success, it ranked for the head term that we were going for (HRIS), but we didn’t win a featured snippet. We deemed it a slight failure and went back to work.
This is where the fun started.
Featured snippet successes
We discovered a featured snippet trigger that we could capitalize on — mainly by accident. What was it?
Really. That was it. Just by adding that to some of our content, we started to pick up featured snippets. We started to do it more and more, and we were winning more and more featured snippets! I believe it was this strategic HR example that clued us onto the “is” trigger.
So we kept it up.
What did we learn?
I want to preface this by saying that all of this is anecdotal evidence. We haven’t looked at several million URLs, run it through any fancy number-crunching, or had a statistician look at the data. These are just a few examples that we’ve noticed that, when repeated, have worked for us.
- Blog/HR glossary – We found that it was easier for us to gain featured snippets from our blog or our glossary pages. It seemed like no matter what optimizations that we made on the product page, we weren’t able to make it happen.
- Is – No, not the clown from the Stephen King novel. “Is” seemed to be the big trigger word for winning featured snippets. During our audit, we did find some examples of list featured snippets, but the majority were paragraphs and the trigger word was “is.”
- Definitions – We saw that definitions of the head term we were trying to go for was usually what got the definition. Our on-page copy would have the H2 with the keyword (e.g. What is Employee Orientation?) and then the paragraph copy would answer that question.
- Updating old posts – One surprising thing we learned is that when we went back to old posts and tried adding the “is” trigger word, we didn’t see a change — even if we added a good amount of new content to the page. We were only able to grab featured snippets with new content that we created. Also, when we updated large amounts of content on a few pages that had featured snippets, we lost them. We made sure to not touch the sections of the page that the snippet was pulling from, but we still lost the snippet (some have come back, but some are still gone).
A few final things to note:
- First, while these examples are anecdotal, I think that they show some practices that anyone wanting to capture featured snippets can do.
- Second, this was process was over a 12–18 month period and we’re still evolving what we think is the best way for us and our content team.
- Third, we had a lot of failures with this. I showed you one example, but we’ve had many (short-form content, long-form content, glossary terms, blog posts, etc.) that didn’t work. We just kept measuring, testing, and optimizing.
- Lastly, I need to give a shout out to our writing team. We massively disrupted their process with this and they have been phenomenal to work with (effective interdepartmental relationships are crucial for any SEO project).
Let me know what’s worked for you or if you have any questions by leaving a comment down below.
Note: On January 23, 2020 Google announced that featured snippets would no longer be listed twice on the first page. For more information, you can check out this thread from Google Search Liaison. This may change how valuable featured snippets are to companies and the amount of clicks a listing gets. Before you start to panic, remember it will be important to watch and measure how this affects your site before doing anything drastic. If you do decide to go nuclear and to remove your featured snippets from the results, check out this documentation.
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