A little while ago I spoke at the MegaComm conference but never got a chance to share my presentation with the world-at-large. The gathering itself was meant for technical content creators to learn more about their craft. You might ask what this has to do with SEO? Well, everything! Technical content and the how-to queries that bring this content to the SERP is the bread and butter of SERP features such as Featured Snippets, Related Questions, and Video Carousels.
Technical content creators should be very concerned about search, and in particular SERP features. More than being concerned, they should know what SERP features to focus on and how to hone in on them! Let's have at it then!
Why Search Matters for Technical Content
You might be wondering why search is important for technical content so I will give you a few examples. First, and I know this is hard to hear, but some people throw out their product manuals immediately when they open the box. In these instances, if folks
do need instructions they will either search for a video that will help them or search for the manual online either by PDF or from an article.
You might say that you've already created content online and there's nothing to worry about. That's great! But is it findable via search? Allow me to put some data on this in order to show you the importance of
search for technical content creators.
A study shows that 70% of people want to be left alone and do not want to interact with your company. They don’t want to talk to a customer representative to get help. They just want to find the answer to their question and be done with it. They don’t even need to go to your website to achieve that! Why take the time to go through your documentation list when you can just ask Google?
If that’s not enough to convince you of the importance of search, your documentation being findable on Google can lead to a 45% increase in your traffic!
You might say that you’re part of a big brand and that no one will even think of going to another site so they’ll go straight to your site… so who needs search? This is what we call in the biz Direct Traffic. To answer that we can look at some big brands and see how much of their traffic comes from direct traffic and how much from search.
Maybe you’re like ESPN where 76% of its traffic is direct and only 14% is via search. However, ESPN is the be all end all of
sports so it makes sense for them to have major direct traffic. Now let’s look at Amazon where 50% of its traffic is direct traffic while 30% came via search. Now 30% may seem low, but to
Google this is a major issue they’re trying to combat as it affects their own Shopping program (we’ll get into this later). All things being equal, your brand is more likely to be similar to HP and Samsung where over 60% of their traffic is from search.
Does Technical Content Do Well in Search?
Yes! Google loves help documentation. You should be thinking of search as a great opportunity for technical content. In some cases, and I’ve seen this with my own content, documentation ranks higher than studies and deep opinion pieces. So don’t dread search but rather look at it as an opportunity.
The Problems Search Presents to Technical Content Creators
Search is terrific and has tremendous upside. However, it does present some unique challenges.
First off, when people search for content on your website they will obviously receive content from your site. However, when people search for content on Google, even if your site is in the top spot, you are still competing with other sites on the SERP.
Forget the number of sites per se, there are also so many types of sites, so many different types of content on the Google SERP. Google very much wants to meet multiple intents on a given results page. When you rank on the SERP you are competing with the multiple intents Google applies to the query. That means any given user may see any given set of diverse content. As a result, a user may decide your type of content is not as relevant as another content variation Google presents them with.
Google Can be A SERP Competitor
Not only are you competing with other sites on the SERP, but you are competing with Google ITSELF. What do I mean? Let me give you an example.
Let’s say you run a hotel and you’re trying to rank for ‘Hotels near Boston, MA’. For this query, Google has what’s called a hotel Local Pack that lists up to four hotels in the Boston area. If your hotel is not in this hotel Local Pack then most likely people will not find your hotel. This is what I mean that you’re competing with Google. More than that, Google will display information or answers to queries on the SERP, thereby removing any reason for the user to head over to an actual website! In such instances, most users won’t even bother to look at all the organic sites on the page!
There are so many examples of Google SERP features where the answer to the user’s query can be found in one of Google’s many SERP features.
SERP Features: Highly Relevant to Technical Content!
Now that I have shown you how Google is a competitor, you should by now know the importance of SERP Features. That said, I want to let you know that for technical content searches SERP Features are highly prevalent and even more important than the "average” site. So let’s forget about organic rank for the moment and focus more on why SERP features are highly relevant to technical content creators and how such creators can leverage Google's search page elements.
Let’s take an example query, ‘how to add money to PayPal’. The first thing you’ll see is the "Featured Snippet” (1). Under that is the "People also ask” box (2), then the first ranking organic result (highlighted in red), and finally the "video carousel” (3). Notice how small and bare the first organic result is relative to the SERP features? The first result! Who is going to notice and interact with it when there are bigger and flashier things on the page?
Now take the keyword ‘how to install mobileye’. In this case, there is no Featured Snippet or People Also Ask box, but there is a video carousel above the organic results which is huge in comparison. Why would anyone click on the link to your page when there is a video to watch instead?
By the way, don’t think that people will scroll down from "above the fold” to "below the fold” to find your site because most people don’t go "below the fold” nowadays.
What SERP Features Should Technical Content Creators Focus On?
At this point, I think we understand that while SERP features are important in general they are extremely applicable to technical content creators (whose content is the bread and butter of the ‘how-to’ query). Now let’s talk about the three SERP features that are without a doubt the most important and relevant to technical content creators.
A Featured Snippet is a box that answers the query by taking a "snippet” of content from a page. Note that a Featured Snippet includes a URL to a website. Featured Snippets are a great opportunity for websites to garner a lot of traffic. This is especially true for technical queries as most of the time the full content will not show up in the Featured Snippet thereby forcing the user to continue to your site. As of the time of this writing, Featured Snippets show up on 6% of all searches (desktop US).
Related questions are exactly how it sounds, questions related to your query. The feature shows a dynamically loading series of questions. That is, as you click on a question, more questions load. Upon clicking a question the tab expands to reveal its answer. This answer is essentially a Featured Snippet in that it presents a small section of content that is followed by a URL. Related Questions appear on 33% of searches (desktop US) which makes it quite prevalent.
Video carousels show up on around 15% of desktop SERPs (US) and they’re great to rank inside of because... they’re videos. People would prefer to watch a video than read a document. Though, the feature shows for more than just ‘how-to’ queries and is, in fact, relevant to a broad range of search terms.
When I said that Featured Snippets show on only 6% of queries that is referring to the ENTIRE web, but for technical
sites we know there is a greater tendency for Google to show these SERP features. Part of this is because Google has taken a far more energetic approach to these features. Google now says, "We are going to use these features to target users.” They want to ensure they are satisfying every user's needs for their search and who now have a greater tendency to use SERP features to do so.
Observe. Take the keyword ‘bathtub cost’ and here you’ll see there are "bubble filters” at the bottom of the Featured Snippet. As an aside, these filters show up about 8-9% of the time. Why are these filters here? Because this keyword can have different interpretations and may lead the user to refine their query. Perhaps you balked at the cost of buying a new tub, so you would rather resurface it… Google gives you access to that information via the bubble filter. Perhaps you didn’t even mean to search for the cost of a bathtub but rather a jacuzzi. No need to execute another search, just use the filter. By the way, you know what you get when you engage any of the filter options? A new SERP with a new Featured Snippet!
Try this on for size… Below is a multi-faceted Featured Snippet. It’s two Featured Snippets right on top of each other. The second Featured Snippet is either used to further increase knowledge on a topic or in case the user had the intention for the second snippet and not the first.
Know, the above image is all that shows "above the fold”. In this case, if your URL is not inside one of the Featured Snippets… you’re not going to be seen!
Even when your site is organically above the fold it’s barely recognizable. Can you find the organic URL in the below screenshot among all the SERP Features?
We talked about the importance of SERP Features and by now you should be on the hype train to get your URL in the Featured Snippet. Easy, right? After all, your brand made and developed the product/service in question! Not so fast! Let’s take a look at the keyword ‘what battery does the canon t6 use’. Notice the URL to the Featured Snippet is not from Canon’s site! This is a big loss to Canon’s site traffic! The fact that your brand name is in the query does not make it automatic that your URL will be in the Featured Snippet.
The point is… you can’t bank on your brand, product or service being a part of the keyword. To rank inside a Featured Snippet, a Related Question, or a video carousel requires an optimization strategy.
How to Capture Featured Snippets for Technical Content
So what can you do to get your URL into a Featured Snippet? It's not terribly complicated and while things are not entirely in your control there are some steps you can take to increase your chances of winning a Featured Snippet.
Take a bullet!
For technical content bullet points are awesome. You might be already doing this as it’s a great way to display content for your users. Even if you already use bullet points… use them even more… even when you think you may not have to.
Make a List!
Lists are great for the same reasons as bullet points as Google also loves them. Try to find opportunities to segment your content in lists. The idea of a Featured Snippet is to present a bit of content that is super easy to digest… which is why Google loves to feature lists!
Bring it to the Table!
Google loves tables. If you have the opportunity you should create a table or take a list and turn it into a table. An even better idea is to create both! Create a list and then a table to represent it.
Stay Image Hip
Images in your documentation are great as they help your users understand the technical content and they can be Featured Snippets EVEN FOR A DIFFERENT URL! Google will sometimes pull content from one site, but the image will be from another site. If you have a SERP competitor who got their URL into the Featured Snippet but doesn’t have an image then that is a great opportunity for you! Searchers can click the image and arrive at your site…. Which is far more likely for technical content images. Below, the image does not serve much of a purpose Not so with technical content where a good image can be far more helpful than any sort of text copy.
All of the advice I gave in regards to Featured Snippets also applies to Related Questions. Remember, Related Questions are very similar to Featured Snippets so if you’re optimizing for
one you’re optimizing for the other. Now there is a way to target the questions in the Related Questions box (which we’ll get to later) but in terms of the snippet of content in the Related Questions, you can see my advice on Featured Snippets.
Video - The Perfect SEO Companion to Technical Content
We spoke about the importance of video in technical content which is substantiated by a study that showed that 98% of the people surveyed said they have looked at a video to learn how to do something. We all know you need to make videos, but the question is should I put them on YouTube? Can’t I just host them on my site? And the answer is a resounding YES in favor of hosting your videos on YouTube!
The reason for this is that what shows on YouTube and what shows on the results page are not exactly the same. If your video isn’t on YouTube, you may be showing on the video carousel, but if someone bypasses Google to do a search on YouTube they won’t find your video!
Note, ranking high on YouTube or within the video carousel doesn’t mean you’ll rank high on the other. I wrote a whole study showcasing this but just as an example, for a ‘how to’ query, the first carousel card usually ranks number nine on YouTube. Meaning, even if you don’t rank well within YouTube you can be featured prominently as part of the SERP’s video carousel!
But wait! There’s more!
There’s yet another reason to have your videos in the video carousel. 55% of SERPs that have a Featured Snippet also have a Video Carousel. What does that mean? It means if you can’t get the Featured Snippet spot you get another chance to be clicked by having a video. Not just another chance but a good chance as people often prefer to watch a video rather than reading! (Sad, but true.)
The same thing goes for Related Questions. 58% of SERPs that have a Related Questions Box also
have a video carousel. Again, out of the three SERP Features we’re discussing here, videos might be the most enticing for technical content users to click on.
Saving the best for last, not only can you get your video in the video carousel, but you can even get your video in the Featured Snippet. Instead of a video carousel on the page, video Featured Snippets offer you a really large video box that shows your YouTube video (users can then watch the video as an overlay on the SERP).
In the end, video is a great backup plan for not getting the Featured Snippet and it offers your users another opportunity to click on your content.
I can’t stress this enough. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Make videos.
Behold the Power of Keyword Research for Technical Content!
How do you ensure that the keywords people are searching are displaying your content? How do you know what keywords to target?
91% of people said that they will love to read your documentation, but they want it to be catered fully to them. They want to see what will benefit them and not what you want them to see. So how do you know what people actually want? How do you target these people?
Let’s look again at the keyword ‘reset settings
samsung s8’. Let’s say you’re Samsung and you have a documentation page that helps people who are having difficulty resetting their phone settings. If Samsung wanted to get its URLs inside the Related Question feature how could it do so? How would they know what question to consider? The answer? It’s all about keyword research.
Keyword research is a discovery process for what people are searching for related to topics that you write about. And you can be very specific. You can search for keywords related to ‘reset settings
samsung s8’ or you can take a step back and see what people are looking for with ‘samsung settings’.
Ignoring all of the other questions related to other Samsung products, the keyword research here showed that Samsung mobile device users were interested in three things. (As an aside, to make this determination, all I did was look at the questions and categorize them.) Meaning, of this whole list of keywords/questions I found there to be three different user intents, i.e., the different things people will intend to find when searching ‘samsung settings’.
How to set up your phone
How to find phone settings
How to change those settings
Let’s see how these three intents are related to the query ‘reset settings samsung s8’. The first one is not related at all as the user is having trouble with getting their phone initially set up and is not related to changing settings. The second intent is more related as it’s about finding the settings, but it’s not how to change them. The third intent, how to change the settings, is the closest intent related to your documentation.
So what can you do with this information? Well, let’s think this over for a second. When writing documentation on how to change the phone’s settings do you need to first write how to set up the phone? No! The user should know at this point how to set up his phone and will find that information irrelevant. Imagine coaching an NBA player on how to perfect his three-pointer, but before you start you say, "But first we have to learn the basic rules of the game.” He’ll start laughing at you. He’s been playing basketball his whole life so of
course he knows the basic rules!
In cases like this, it’s important to stay focused on the query at hand otherwise you’re going to overwhelm the user. So in regard to starting the documentation with how to find the phone settings, that makes no sense because it’s irrelevant to changing the settings.
But you shouldn’t ignore the people who are searching for how to set up their phone either. If you ignore them they will see your documentation in the Featured Snippet, click on it, notice it’s not related to their query, and immediately leave the page. And the worst part is that Google will notice that people are bouncing on your Featured Snippet and will decide to remove your URL Featured Snippet spot! (All things being equal, of course.)
So how can you resolve this dilemma? My advice is to make a "Related Articles” link. In the documentation page, set up a big image thumbnail that says, "You might be interested in ‘How to Set Up Your Phone’. Click Here.” That way they will go to the appropriate documentation and stay on your website as opposed to going back to Google. Make sure it’s an image and not just text because a) they may not notice it and b) it’s more enticing to click on.
Sippin' the Search Juice!
We covered a lot so let’s end with the main points.
For technical content, whether it be a research study, help center, or knowledge base, SERP features are paramount. Yes, you should rank organically, but SERP features show more than frequently and you should take advantage of them as users tend to click on them as they are more noticeable and visual.
For the Featured Snippets make sure you’re making lists in your documentation. Bullet lists, numbered lists, as many as possible. Subdividing the content gives Google more questions to answer with your content. Break that content into more headings and make more lists!
Make sure to have images in your documentation as much as possible since Google will often add an image to the Featured Snippet, and it may not be the same URL as the content per se!
Videos on YouTube! For obvious reasons they’re important and they’re also great compensation if you don’t get into the Featured Snippet or Related Questions box.