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How Often Does Google Change Featured Snippet URLs? [Study]


Red Reverse Arrows

Scoring Featured Snippets is just one of those SEO topics that has become almost mythological. Getting your URL into a zero position box is the win of all wins. But while we're all talking about winning, Google is shifting URLs in and out of Featured Snippets much the way a disc jockey switches music tracks during a radio broadcast. This, of course, begs the question... how often does Google change URLs within its Featured Snippets? 





On Tracking Featured Snippet Volatility 



Before we get into the thick of it all, let me elaborate on the data I collected and my method for showing how stable/volatile URLs within Featured Snippets are. 

To get started I collected 350 keywords that produce Featured Snippets (as of the time of this writing). I then recorded the number of URLs used in each keyword's Featured Snippet over the course of both 30 and 90 days. Additionally, I recorded the number of URL changes per each keyword's Featured Snippets for both time periods. That is, I recorded both the number of unique URLs used within any given Featured Snippet as well as how many times Google oscillated between those URLs over the course of both 30 and 90 days.

Since I wanted to compare URL stability within the Featured Snippet both at 30 and 90-day intervals, any keywords that were not longstanding producers of the SERP feature were disqualified (As is obvious, since how could you possibly show 90 days of data if the keyword only started producing a Featured Snippet last week?). 

At the same time, any keywords that have produced a SERP that contains a Featured Snippet, but not in a consistent manner, were also excluded from inclusion in this study. That is to say, if a keyword produced a Featured Snippet one day, but not the next, and continued with this pattern over a number of days, I did not make use of it. It should be noted that not every keyword that I did include showed with a Featured Snippet each and every day over a 90-day period. If a keyword, for whatever reason, did not result in a Featured Snippet being shown on the SERP and where this behavior was a one-time aberration, the keyword was included within this study. I merely treated such instances as cases where Google was "testing the SERP."  

Lastly, I looked at the data from a few vantage points. I wanted to see how different types of keywords behaved. To this extent, I segmented the data according to how to keywords, those that include the phrase best, and so forth.




Featured Snippet URL Stability: A First Look at How Often Google Changes the Links Inside Featured Snippets 



There's a lot of data to look at here and a whole heap of tidbits and implications that come out of it. Let's start slowly, with a bit of a baseline of sorts. That is, before we get into the various ways I segmented the data, here's what the data-set showed overall: 


Baseline Featured Snippet URL Behavior


Great, so what exactly do we have here? 

Let's discuss the data reflecting a 30-day period first. The most telling data tidbit is the number of times Google changes out the URL each month. On average, it appears that Google makes but two changes to the URL within a 30-day period. What's happening here is that Google is testing out another URL, often reverting back to the original link used within the Featured Snippet. This is corroborated by the number of URLs that Google is using for a Featured Snippet within a 30-day period. The search engine uses an average of 1.7 URLs for its Featured Snippets, overall, and within a 30-day period. Being that this figure sits under 2, and considering the number of times Google changes the URL each month, we can see that Google is toggling between the original URL used and an alternate URL.   

The pattern appears even when looking at the data covering the 90-day period. Don't be fooled by the number of URL changes Google made within the 3 month period. Sure, Google switched out the URL within a Featured Snippet an average of 6.6 times within a 90-day period, but it only made use of 2.4 URLs. Meaning, for the most part, even over a 3-month timeframe, Google generally considers but two URLs for Featured Snippet consideration and oscillates between them.

Notice, the number of URLs used within a 90-day period does exceed two. This does mean that other URLs, other than the "2" I've referred to thus far, are in the mix. That said, in general, we're dealing with two URLs here.


Why Two Featured Snippet URLs Matters



Great, so Google tends to move back and forth between two URLs within any given Featured Snippet, so what? Well, for starters it means that getting your URL into a preexisting Featured Snippet is perhaps a bit harder than we may have thought. If you're not one of the two sites that Google is toggling between, you may want to place your Featured Snippet hopes into other keywords. 

At the same time, if you do see that you're moving in and out of a Featured Snippet, but not occupying it for long stretches, fret not. Seeing such behavior means you may be on the cusp of victory! If your URL is moving in and out of a Featured Snippet every so often it may be a sign that with a bit of help (i.e., optimization) Google could make your URL the dominant URL.   




Breaking Down Googe's URL Featured Snippet Behavior by Keyword Categories 



As I alluded to earlier, aside from the aggregate averages (discussed above) I segmented the data according to various categories that represent specific types of keywords. Specifically, I pulled all of the how to keywords out to create a data subset for the keyword type. The reasoning here is a bit obvious, how to keywords are the bread and butter of Featured Snippets, and I wanted to see if Google treats the URLs used within such Featured Snippets any differently. At the same time, I also pulled informational keywords that were not how tos into its own list. This way, I could see if any change in URL behavior was due to the use of the word how to or was attributed to the nature of the query, not the phraseology.   

Also, and along a similar line of thinking, I created a data subset for keywords that start with the word best. Here too I created two subsets, one that included product keywords that began with the word best and another for keywords that began with best, but were not product queries (i.e., best table vs. best way to lose weight). The idea was to see if Google relates to queries with the word best differently overall, or if the search term relating to a product establishes its own dynamics. 


Featured Snippet URL Behavior - 'How to' Keywords 



Looking at URL behavior in comparison to the dataset overall, which will act as our baseline of sorts, there's a slight variance in the extent to which Google is swapping out the URLs for 'how to Featured Snippets'. Here's what the data shows for 75 how to keywords: 


Featured Snippet URL Behavior: How-to Keywords


First off, the average number of URLs Google uses within 'how to Featured Snippets' within a 30-day period matches that seen for the dataset overall. Now, the number of URL changes within a 30-day period show a slight divergence. The dataset overall showed that Google swaps URLs within Featured Snippets 2.2 times each month. However, the figure was 13% lower when looking at the Featured Snippets associated with how to keywords.  

A very similar pattern was seen when analyzing the data over a 90-day period. There was a slight dip in the number of URLs used within the 'how to Featured Snippets' when comparing the data tracked over 90-days to that of the dataset overall for the same time period. That said, and like the data for the 30-day period, there was a more noticeable difference between the average number of URL changes for the how to keywords as compared to the aggregate dataset over 90-days.

Specifically, for how to keywords Google changed the URLs within such Featured Snippets 5.6 times over 90-days, that's a 16% decrease in URL movement. Meaning, over a 90-day period, I observed that Google tends to swap out the URLs within 'how to Featured Snippets' less often than those that do not include the term how to

For the most part, it seems that this more stable trend may relate more to the type of query represented by the term how to rather than the usage of the term per se. When looking at information queries without the how to phraseology (150 keywords), I saw similar numbers to that seen within the how to subset.


Featured Snippet URL Behavior - Informational No How-to Keywords


While the above shows a slight variance in the figures per se (see the number of URLs Google made use of over 30-days as well as the number of URL changes seen over 90-days), the trend as compared to the dataset overall is a statistically perfect match. That is, with both the how to dataset as well as for the informational keywords lacking the how to term, the URLs within the associated Featured Snippets behaved similarly as compared to the dataset overall. 

Specifically, the number of URLs showing within Featured Snippets (30-days) for both data subsets was all but the same. Similarly, and again over a 30-day period, there was a decrease in the number of times URLs were swapped within the Featured Snippets for both subsets as compared to the aggregate data. 

The same was seen during the data analyzed over 90-days. Both the how to and standard informational query subsets saw a decrease in the number of URL changes seen as compared to the aggregate dataset. Here though, the standard informational queries, that did not make use of the term how to, did not see as dramatic a shift in URL stability within the Featured Snippet. While the how to subset saw but 5.6 URL changes over a 90-day period, the standard informational queries produce Featured Snippets that presented 5.9 URL changes during the same period. This, however, was still lower than the number of URL changes seen overall, which stood at 6.7 per 90-day period. 


Featured Snippet How-to URL Comparison



What How-to and Informational Queries Mean for Featured Snippet URL Stability



The major takeaway here is that whether or not an informational query employs the term how to, the URLs within Featured Snippets that show for informational queries are of a more stable nature. Interestingly, it does seem from the data the use of the term how to does create a bit more URL stability within the Featured Snippet (but not by much). This could possibly be due to the overtly clear intention of a how to keyword. Consider that a standard informational keyword, at least according to how I've defined the category consists of keywords such as titanic letters, fallout shelter guide, and about title insurance, which can, in theory, be interpreted a couple of ways. Keywords that employ the term how to are less open to other interpretations. This could be what's behind the slight divergence. Note, this is not a concrete conclusion, but a theory that is plausible having looked at the keywords within both subsets. 

In either case, if your URL exists within a query that is purely informational, i.e., does not relate to product or service procurement (we'll get to those in a moment), Google is less apt to remove your URL from showing. Conversely, getting Google to pick up your URL for such Featured Snippets is a bit more difficult for these types of keywords. 




Best Keyword and Product-Oriented Featured Snippet URL Volatility 



Last up, I took a look at keywords that start with the term best, as such keywords often produced list-based Featured Snippets. As I sorted through Rank Ranger's database for such keywords it became apparent that there are two ways users employ the term best (generally speaking). The first is to hunt down the best product/service. This includes queries such as best freezer, best online brokers, and best hotel credit card. Alternatively, the term best can be used, albeit less frequently, as part of an informational query (i.e., best top gear episodes, best places to retire in the world, and best branding ideas).  

Due to this, I segmented the "best" keywords that I pulled out of my overall dataset according to those keywords associated with a product as well as those that reflect an informational query. Note, I collected a substantial set of best keywords (60) that reflect product queries. However, the data I am about to present only includes 30 best keywords that reflect informational queries. That said, the data, in my opinion, adequately represents the category. 

Let's take the data for product-oriented best keywords first since here we get our first serious data divergence. Have a look: 


Best Product Featured Snippet URL Behavior


As you can see, URLs within Featured Snippets produced by product-oriented best keywords are far more volatile than the dataset overall, across the board. The most striking metric is the number of URL changes over a 90-day period. The baseline saw 6.7 changes over a three month period whereas product-oriented best keywords showed over 10 changes. That's a 34% increase in URL instability for the Featured Snippets these "best product-oriented" keywords produced. 

Though you probably can guess the answer at this point, let's go ahead and ask the question anyway... Does this data have to do more with the term best or with the nature of the query? To help answer that, here's the data on keywords that use the term best, but present an informational query: 


Best Product vs. Best No Product Featured Snippet URL Changes


What we get here is the exact opposite than the data we just saw for best keywords that are product-oriented. Here, the Featured Snippets that were produced by the keywords were far more stable than their product counterparts and were, in fact, more stable than the baseline/aggregate dataset. Meaning, Google, for the Featured Snippets produced by informational best keywords, has a propensity to the leave URL within the SERP feature alone. 

Just to throw some numbers at you, Featured Snippets for best informational keywords underwent: 

  • 36% fewer URL changes over 30 days as compared to the baseline data. 
  • 31% fewer URL changes over 90 days as compared to the baseline data.
  • 100% fewer URL changes over 90 days as compared to those produced by best product-oriented keywords. 

Lastly, the data for the URL behavior inside of Featured Snippets produced by best informational keywords is quite similar to that seen for the snippets produced by informational queries that do not contain the phrase how to (which we analyzed earlier): 


Best No Product Compared to Now How to URL Behavior


The similarity between the data leads me to think that the limited number of keywords I used (again, 30) indeed accurately reflect this "keyword genre."

 

Best Case Scenario for Featured Snippet URL Stability  



Product queries seem to produce a high-level of Featured Snippet URL volatility. Whether or not that is dependent on the term best or not, is a question I have not answered (as I did collect data on product queries without the term best). I would, however, speculate, that the URL instability shown in the data has less to do with the term best and more to do with the nature of the query. All things being equal, that is a far more logical possibility. 

In either event, you can clearly see the URL stability presented by informational queries vs. product queries. This, of course, is a double edge sword. The greater number of Featured Snippet URL changes when combined with the greater number of URLs utilized makes "winning" such Featured Snippets a bit easier. The question is, just how long will your URL last within such Featured Snippets? 




Featured Snippet URL Behavior Takeaways 



I know I've thrown a lot of data and comparisons at you. Allow me to then just simply offer the two big takeaways (as I see them)from the data we just looked at:

  1. Overall, moving into a preexisting Featured Snippet is harder than we may have thought. Google, on average, oscillates between just two URL options. 
  2. Featured Snippets are made for informational queries. When information meets product/service, URL behavior within the Featured Snippet appears to change. Google moves URLs in and out of the Featured Snippet significantly more often than for the informational queries I looked at. E-commerce sites looking to score Featured Snippets may want to consider the value of a "snippet win," factor that into their overall strategy, and track such URLs very carefully.   

There are certainly other insights that you can pull from the data we've looked at here. However, for me, these are the two items that really stuck out. 




A Word on Featured Snippet URL Stability 




Paper Airplanes Splitting


Are the URLs inside of Feature Snippets stable? That's a hard question to answer even with all of this data. On the one hand, there are multiple URL swaps made to the average Featured Snippet each month (on average, of course). At the same time, there generally seems to be a very limited pool of URLs in the mix, as we've noted the data points towards Google oscillating between but two links.

The question to me at this point is when Google is playing with two URLs for Featured Snippet placement, what is the market share of each URL? That is, over a 30-day period, how many days does one URL appear inside the Featured Snippet over the other? That's definitely something I plan on looking into. Anecdotally, during the course of the research, my overall impression was that Google gives primacy to one URL while it toys with the idea of showing that second URL and at times places it within a Featured Snippet. It would therefore also be interesting to look at how long URLs tend to hold on to such dominance (assuming my observation is correct). 

In either case, the Featured Snippet URL behavior shown in the data presented here paints a picture of both how Google views the essential purpose of a Featured Snippet as well as how the search engine continuously pokes at URL diversity within the zero position box. 





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