That’s right — position #1, the elusive goal for so many SEOs, may not matter so much anymore. Crazy statement, right? Trust me… follow me for just a minute.
The screen shot below shows what Google refers to as a featured snippet, also known as a direct answer. (It’s also one I searched recently when baking, realizing I forgot to buy self-rising flour and hoping I wouldn’t have to go back to the store. Anyway, moving on… )
As you can see, the direct answer information is displaying above the initial search result. I don’t even have to click on the link to find the answer I need. I’m able to see that if I pull the baking powder and salt out of the cupboard, I can save myself a trip to the store.
While this is great for the end user, it means that MyRecipes.com provided me the information I needed, but I never visited their site. In many instances, however, the consumer is still going to visit the website because they need more information than what’s displayed in the direct answer.
So why does position #1 not matter as much? While the direct answer shown above does come from the #1-ranked website for the search query, it doesn’t always work this way. The direct answer is pulled from the site with the best answer, and Google doesn’t seem to care how it’s ranked.
In the example below, the featured snippet has been pulled from the #3-ranked result. (Not that I’ve ever searched this particular query in a sleep-deprived moment during the past year… )
Can you imagine the difference in traffic for the #3 result with the direct answer vs. the #1 result without? Normally, the top organic ranking would have the highest click-through rate; however, the direct answer is likely taking traffic from the top result here (if not getting the majority of the clicks).
It’s important to optimize the content on all of your properties, not just your website. Yes, you really do need to include full content descriptions on your social profiles, because you never know what Google’s going to deem the best candidate for a direct answer.
In the example below, Google has chosen a featured snippet from a video on Pottery Barn’s YouTube channel for the search query, “how to hang drapes.” A page from Pottery Barn’s website that contains tips and how-tos for hanging drapes is #1 in the SERP — but because they’ve optimized their YouTube video description, it’s been selected as the direct answer. This benefits Pottery Barn in the long run, because now they have more real estate above the fold.
The video is embedded in their website, along with additional supporting content on hanging drapes. Pottery Barn’s how-to guides provide a great information resource for customers, and that’s likely why Google’s rewarding them with both the featured snippet and the #1 position in the SERP.
The featured snippet is pulled from the video description on YouTube:
So, what does all of this have to do with your SEO content strategy? When you provide useful information that’s easy to follow and understand, it could be used as a featured snippet in Google search results. If that happens, you will likely see a boost in traffic to your site — perhaps even more than the top organic result.
If you have optimized your site and your social channels, you can potentially gain a bigger portion of the SERP landscape through the featured snippet and position #1 ranking. However, even without #1, if you have the featured snippet, you are essentially the new #1.
Now that you understand the reward, you need to determine how to go after the direct answers. Start by searching Google for some of your target keywords (especially long-tail variations that take the form of a question) and find out if these queries trigger a featured snippet.
If these searches do produce direct answers, look at the sites that are obtaining them and evaluate what they’re doing differently. If you have the right information on your site to answer the query, double-check your setup. Do you have a dedicated page for each question with comprehensive, high-quality content? Or do you answer the question as part of a larger FAQ page? You may need to make some changes in order to win the featured snippet placement.
Direct answers are still relatively new, and they’re not on all queries. You may find that they’re starting to add them for queries related to your vertical, but the number of questions being answered is limited. Remember, even if a particular query doesn’t trigger a direct answer now, it may in the future — so you can always start creating content with that in mind.
Keep in mind that featured snippets are more commonly found on informational queries rather than transactional ones, so optimizing your content for direct answers will primarily be for the purpose of capturing searchers at the top of the funnel. In other words, plan your content accordingly; don’t try to use product pages to obtain featured snippets unless it’s appropriate to do so.
Position #1 isn’t as important as being the direct answer. Focus on creating great content that’s useful to your audience, and target the queries that would send someone to your site. While simple answers such as “what is a substitute for self-rising flour” may not drive tons of traffic, queries like “how to hang drapes” will likely drive traffic and quite possibly revenue in time.