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In Search [Episode 44]: Dealing with the Evolution of Featured Snippets





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The In Search SEO Podcast Community Question of the Week!




SEO Community Question #44







Summary of Episode 44: The In Search SEO Podcast 




In Search SEO Banner 44



Featured Snippet aficionado, Nigel Stevens, joins us to discuss his outlook on the zero-position box!

  • What tips the scales when Google chooses content for its Featured Snippets? How can you know?
  • How to use Featured Snippets to understand keyword intent.
  • How should you structure your Featured Snippet strategy & what should you expect from it.

Plus, we look at the whole nofollow attribute kerfuffle. What happened, what’s going on, and what to make of it all!




What’s Behind Google’s Change to ‘NoFollow’ Hinting? [00:03:36 - 00:19:57]



Last week, on September 10th, all hell broke loose on Twitter. Everyone and everything went nuts about Google’s change to the nofollow link attribute. Specifically, the attribute will now be treated as a "hint” rather than as a directive.

For those who don’t know, Google has also introduced two new link attributes: a sponsored attribute for sponsorship/paid links, and a UGC (user-generated content) attribute for links in things like the comments section.

Now for the kicker. The traditional nofollow link attribute which was used to avoid coming off like a link scheme or when linking to sites you’re "unsure of” will only be treated as a "hint.” What all this means is that Google may see your nofollow attribute and say, "Eh, even though you put a nofollow here, we’ve decided to factor this link into your site’s ranking process or rankability.”

Plus, as of March 2nd, 2020, Google will use the nofollow "hint” to decide if a page should, in fact, be crawled and indexed. So a page from a nofollow link can be crawled and indexed if Google thinks it fit!

We know what you’re thinking, WHY???!!!

Well, Google did give us an official statement:

"Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.”

[Just as a random sidenote, Bing has said that they’ve always considered nofollow links as "hints.”]

There are two popular theories behind Google’s statement.
  1. The major news publishers have developed the practice to automatically nofollow the hell out of everything. As a result, Google has an issue understanding the full backlink profile of certain sites.
  2. The other idea is more conspiratorial, but nothing we haven’t seen before. To quote a Tweet from the CEO of SEO Israel, Nati Elimelech, "Is Google trying to milk SEOs for more data by creating two new link properties?” Meaning, with the new sponsored and UGC attributes, Google will get more specific data on what links people use.
There’s also the issue that SEOs don’t see any reason why using these new link attributes will help. Danny Sullivan said this will help Google understand things better, but SEOs won’t do it just for the greater good.

Mordy remembers an interview with Rand Fishkin where he explained how the early versions of Penguin were set up to get data from websites so it’s plausible… beyond plausible that Google is looking to gather more data here.

The thing that’s weird about all this to Mordy is he gets Google wants to analyze anchor text and link practices, but what does that have to do with using the links as part of the ranking picture? Are you saying that Google can’t analyze anchor text and linking practices, or even crawl the linked page, or even index it, and not consider our linking to that page as a "1st-party endorsement”? As something that should be part of the ranking picture? Something here just isn’t right.

What Mordy can say, in his opinion, is this was a poor and vague roll-out.

What exactly is the "hinting” process? When will a nofollow link be part of your profile and when won’t it? What if a bunch of weird sites are linking to you with the nofollow attribute? Do you have to consider disavowing them? John Mueller did come out a few days later and said you don’t have to consider disavowing links, but Google should have been clear about these sorts of things from the very start.

There has to be transparency and this does not come off as being transparent. We should have a very clear understanding of why this was needed and what the "hinting” evaluation process will look like.

Mordy did pose one theory that might be a bit out there. He supposes that it’s possible that Google made this change as a way to discourage no-follow links. Whereas previously a content creator would link to a site they’re unsure about by using the no-follow directive… now, with "hinting” it might not be worth the risk (as you don’t know that Google won’t factor the link into your ‘ranking profile’). The result might be forgoing those borderline links altogether and only linking when you’re completely confident about the site you are linking to.




Where We Stand with Featured Snippets: A Conversation with Nigel Stevens [00:20:03 - 00:57:55]



[This is a general summary of the interview and not a word for word transcript. You can listen to the podcast for the full interview.]

Mordy: Welcome to another In Search SEO Podcast interview session. Today we have an industry speaker, author, and Featured Snippet aficionado. He is the CEO of Organic Growth Marketing. He is Nigel Stevens.

Welcome!

Nigel: Thanks, it’s great to be here.

M: So what is Organic Growth Marketing and who did your amazingly awesome avatar?

N: I found this guy on Fiverr who did it for $6 dollars and once he did mine he did it for my whole team.

We’re a small team that works with select clients, mostly in the B2B SaaS space. Also some B2C software like Unsplash and Soundcharts, and a little e-commerce. We mostly focus on content SEO, organic acquisition, and all the things in between.

M: Awesome. So let’s get right into it with Featured Snippets. So everyone is on the same page, what is a Featured Snippet, how do they impact search, and how have they evolved over time?

N: Featured Snippets are a type of rich result where Google pulls an answer from a top-ranking webpage into position zero. Meaning, historically position 1 was the top-ranking position, and now Featured Snippets is the top result and it usually appears on top of other features like Map Packs and other rich results.

Over time, I’ve seen it evolve a lot. It used to be basic Q&A, like what time/day is the Superbowl. Now it’s gotten very advanced like having lists of different options. I’ve even seen some product pages that are targeted to intent keywords that are getting Featured Snippets.

M: Thank you for that. Let’s start with what I call Featured Snippet URL custody. We did a study a little while ago that showed that Google’s Featured Snippets are like a bad divorce with one site having about 75% of URL custody and another site only getting the URL inside a given snippet about 25% of the time. What is Google looking to accomplish when it changes that URL out within the Featured Snippet? Why not just leave that "main” URL 100% of the time? Is it just about diversity? Is it about Google adjusting intents?

N: Everything with SEO involves taking the very obfuscated, possibly false information Google tells us, and forming our theories. I think it’s primarily two factors and the first is ‘Always be testing.’ I read a book from the first marketer ever at Google who was discussing how they tried a bunch of different logo colors (even pink!) and it showed that Google will literally test anything and everything and that's always going to be the answer to why Google changes anything. Especially further down the SERP on page 2 and beyond, they’re always going to get data to validate to move up URLs. And on page one they’re not going to use the same Featured Snippet forever, they’re going to keep testing.

The second factor is freshness. Google confirmed not so long ago that freshness is a factor in snippets which makes sense. Why would Google embarrass itself with outdated information? So between those two factors, there’s always something to change.

M: I think the freshness is just the tip of the iceberg. You are seeing much more inside the Featured Snippet and more queries showing up with Featured Snippets. Is it just a freshness algorithm or is there more going on?

N: I think there are two elements. There’s freshness even for evergreen content like an article on sales tools shouldn’t have tools from 15 years ago, but rather recent tools. The other thing is how Google is combining a news feed with the front page of Facebook. Something I noticed is publishing an article and getting it on to page one within hours and it’s on for a few days and then you have to work getting it back up the search results for evergreen. That’s where you have to look at the snippets and the top results for intent to see how much is this driven by freshness and how much is it just evergreen content. If you search, for example, Donald Trump, you will see different results every day because Google determined the intent isn’t autobiographical, it’s showing the latest about Donald Trump.

M: Yeah, those types of keywords can be hard to strategize for. Is it possible to build a Featured Snippet strategy on keywords where you know it will change week by week or day by day?

N: As an example, I work for a company that does travel and they want to rank for "best ‘x’ credit cards” and that needs to be topically fresh. When you look at the top results for similar queries all of those pages are being updated every month. It shows you the intent remains the same, but the offers will change. So it’s an underlying principle that’s reinforced by freshness, if that makes sense.

M: That does make sense. What criteria do you think Google looks at when deciding between two perfectly good pieces of evergreen content for a Featured Snippet? What do you think tips the scale?

N: It’s ultimately arbitrary as I’m seeing what happens in search results and developing hypotheses and beliefs based on that which is inherently arbitrary. What I try to do is learn from the Featured Snippets and think of what can I do that’s similar and what can I do to differentiate.

Take a look at a term like ‘full spectrum cbd’ and the Featured snippet compared full spectrum to broad spectrum. I was working with a company and they didn’t have a section in their content that defined and compared them. So we created this page, cited a source, added a little more detail and sure enough within a day we were in the Featured Snippet for a while.

The underlying process is to see what the current Featured Snippet is and make a hypothesis on it. This matches intent where you’ll do something similar but slightly different. Sometimes I got snippets that were very different.

M: You have this idea of using the Featured Snippet to determine user intent. It's a fascinating idea, can you share it with our good listeners?

N: One thing I see that’s interesting is two Featured Snippets stacked onto each other, aka multi-Faceted Featured Snippets, I found those are oftentimes complementary and they don’t stick for a certain query. To me, that’s a blatant example of Google trying to determine the intent behind a query.

What I find fascinating is those queries where all you get in the search results are list examples or sometimes you just get a definition of ‘x.’ And sometimes you get this broad mix of intents where the Featured Snippet will be used as a guiding force of what needs to be on the page.

For example, the other day I looked at the query ‘CMMS’ (computerized maintenance management system). The snippet is a ‘what is’ definition but a lot of the pages are landing pages that are trying to sell you something. What it tells me is that people need a little education but you don’t need to write a book on this. You don’t need a 5,000-word article, you just need to define what it is, but you can also make your article more direct-response and CTA-driven.

That doesn’t mean your whole article has to be about that. You can have one type of intent you can optimize for on the page and the title tag. If a page has multiple types of intent you want to hit on them with different title tags and if the query is broad enough you can rank well on all of them and rank for multiple snippets. You might not need a page for each one of these snippets.

If you have good sitelinks and provide a clear answer to each of these related questions, the same page can rank with different snippets. It’s an oversimplification to say one page can only rank for one intent. I try to do the most with fewer pages.

M: That’s very interesting. How far can you go with having different intents showing on the same SERP? How do you know how far to go and how far not to go?

N: This is a chicken and egg problem. If all you do is 100% based on what you do on the existing SERP, you can either believe the existing SERP is awesome and all I can do is something like this but slightly better, or is there nothing better out there and I have to make a hypothesis that the current intent isn’t being fulfilled?

M: Right, and it’s true that it’s only to a certain point do you know the answers. Sometimes you need to trust in your hypothesis and take a leap of faith.

Two things I want to briefly go over. One is about headings and H2s. Google has advanced so far, how can it rely so much on headings? You see so many Featured Snippets that are just a list of H3s. How do you feel about this?

N: People sometimes like to write trends articles to show how advanced Google is. Two things can be true: 1) Google can be very advanced and be able to split through content to find exact things. And 2) it sometimes still likes to be spoon-fed content. Even in a broad sense, I see sites all the time doing shady stuff. I recently saw this snippet where it looks like it’s coming from one part of the page, but what’s really happening is Google is pulling out bolded sections and mish mashing parts of the page together. And that’s crazy! But most Featured Snippets come to having an H2 as the name of the list and H3s as the sublists. I think the guiding principle is Google doesn’t need to see headers to understand, but if you spoon feed it to them they understand it better. Google is advanced, but it will still rely on the basics.

M: To jump back on the variations on queries and Featured Snippets that show up. Why do you think that is? For example, if I search for ‘how to throw a curveball’ it is a totally different Featured Snippet then if I search for ‘ways to throw a curveball.’ One is a paragraph format and the other is a list format. Why is that?

N: That’s one case where you have to think from a content strategy perspective. Are going to assume that these are separate and that they don’t have to do with each other or are you going to draw a line in the sand and say that this is stupid and there’s no reason these have different answers?

I remember one example that I worked on, years ago, where there were a lot of separate results for ‘ecommerce KPIs’ and ‘ecommerce metrics’ and there was maybe one page that ranked for both. At first, I thought it would make sense to create two pages, but I thought that if you optimize for both and then use both within the text you will rank for both. By looking at existing results, my first bet was to try to get one page and after a month or so, if one term isn’t ranking I’ll spin off another page. I’d rather have one really great page with sitelinks where users can get to the right answer for both. I’d rather be proven wrong on that than try a 2004 SEO strategy of having 10 keywords with 11 unique pages.

M: Are you saying that because that’s what you believe in or it’s a matter of scale as there’s no way you’ll be able to create so many pages for so many keywords?

N: It’s both. We think we can provide a better user experience this way. Even outside of SEO, it will be a poor UX. And on the resourcing side, it’s a lot easier to write one page with two sections. For each new page you write you need to provide a little bit of context so it doesn’t make sense to separate them. You should think about how you can get the most from the fewest pieces of content. You should need it to be proven that you need a new page rather than assume.

M: By the way, people think this is some great advancement in Google that it will show how-to vs ways-to. I think it’s a flaw. I’m satisfied with either one of them, I don’t see any difference. I feel that Google will get better at consolidating what these terms mean into one understanding so you only have one URL showing up for both.

N: I think an important underlying principle is you can either not be data-driven and say we think we should have these articles based on nothing or see that in current search results these have unique intent so we’re going to create them. It’s easy to get boxed in your own little lane where you get mesmerized by the same 20 keywords and forget that Google has this monumental task of managing the world’s information and a lot of the time the results are something that will be improved upon. You can instead foreshadow how intent will be consolidated and be a leader instead of a follower.

M: Exactly. Let me jump into something controversial for a second. We always think of Featured Snippet URLs as very qualitative pages that hit user intent. But how much is it that the quality of the content versus Google using snippets as a way to come off as an authority?

N: Let’s take this one step further. Google is a public company with shareholders. Their job, strictly speaking, isn’t to serve user intent, but to sell ads with rising CPC. At the end of the day, Google wants to keep people on the SERP until they click an ad and to attain users by offering good results. They’re always trying to optimize for these two things which makes sense. They’re a public company that needs to return steadily increasing gains to their shareholders.

And this is where intent comes in. You don’t need to read who’s playing who, who’s the quarterback, what are the betting odds, etc. You’re fulfilling the intent by not clicking.

There are others which are more of a tease. If someone searches ‘customer engagement’ and they’re completely satisfied with, "Customer engagement is…” that’s totally fine. I’ve seen queries similar to that get snippets and get a huge traffic boost. I think it’s a combination of intent, the type of user you have, and how much depth there is to the query/question.

M: Well, for the Superbowl they’ll just show you the Patriots because that’s who will play and win.

Let’s talk mobile for a minute. I’m in the middle of a study comparing the URLs used in desktop Featured Snippets to mobile. Thus far, there seems to be about a 90% match. Meaning the same URL is used on both devices 90% of the time. What about that other 10%? Why would Google not make it 100%?

N: My approach would be more to ask why are they so similar most of the time? One thing you notice with any company is people saying that half their traffic is mobile but it doesn’t convert as well. And this is where marketers don’t think as human beings. You have to think of when you’re using your phone versus using your desktop. Google’s job is to help fulfill intent. Right now, and this is totally anecdotal, it’s a lot harder to do something on your phone than on desktop. So if Google is trying to help you do what you want, why would it give you the same results for both? Google should segment between giving people a quick answer and giving them a whole article. Sometimes if you’re in a commute you have time to read, but other times you’re at a restaurant with friends and you’re looking for that quick answer.

I’m saying this partially anecdotal but it’s also data-based because when you look at different metrics on different devices, it shows that people interact differently. Google will show different results depending on how people interact. That’s the whole point of this conversation, user intent varies by device.

M: That’s interesting. Do you think mobile Featured Snippets will be like Direct Answers at a certain point?

N: I’d say yes, but how would marketers and websites evolve? If you’re trying to have the same engagement or micro-conversion experience it won’t make sense. I find people testing, "Send this to me to read later,” or, "If you want to read more like this, sign up.” Or stuff like jump-to links where if I’m on my device and I don’t have the patience or time I can just click on what I’m looking for and find it. You can actually help people find stuff quicker especially on mobile when they don’t have as much time to find stuff.

M: What’s really interesting is in my study there were a lot of instances where there was a Featured Snippet on desktop, but not on mobile. Why is that?

N: Anecdotally, that doesn’t make sense if you’re assuming Google is this all-seeing, all-knowing, infallible being. Maybe it’s because they haven’t found a better way of doing it yet or maybe they believe that whatever metric there was for that query wasn’t being fulfilled. I have a feeling no one at Google has a great answer to that as they’re continually trying to figure it out. It is a very great question though and I’ll be curious to monitor those numbers.


Optimize or Disavow It

M: Assuming you could only do one or the other, which would you do? Optimize for a ton of low-difficulty Featured Snippets or one solid big-time traffic generating Featured Snippet win?

N: I think this says a lot about one's overall philosophy. Do you buy that one stock you’re all sure of or do you set aside your money for the index fund? Ultimately, I like taking chances and going for the big fish partially because if you ran a probability and payoff analysis it would be worth it and also because I still love the rush when for a high volume query and you see the traffic go up. There’s nothing quite like it.

M: Thank you, Nigel, for coming on!

N: Thank you, Mordy. It was very fun.




SEO News [01:01:12 - 01:05:23]



Restaurant Recommendations Now in Google Discover Feed: Good news for those who love to eat. Google’s Discovery Feed is now showing restaurant recommendations!

Google Ads Bans Experimental Medical Treatment Ads: Google continues its hardline stance against bad health information being shown on the SERP by having Google Ads banning experimental treatments from the SERP and beyond.

Google’s Old Search Console is No Longer Available: Goodbye, old version of Search Console. Google has killed access to the old Search Console and is redirecting users to the new version!

Google to Give More Preference to Original Reporting: Google is now giving more weight to the original creator of content. Google announced that the original source of a news story will get preference on the SERP!



SEO Fun Send-Off Question [01:05:23 - 01:08:22]



If Google was a 90's pop song, which song would it be?


Sapir chose "I don’t want to miss a thing” by Aerosmith solely for the title. Google doesn't want to miss a thing and keeps changing and updating its algorithms to improve the search and gain more data. Mordy chose "Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum for those folks who think Google is a runaway train. Not that he thinks that himself.

Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.

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