Featured snippets are a summary answer to a search query and they appear above all other organic URLs on Google's search engine results page (SERP). Snippets are intended to give a quick answer to users and will favor pages with information formatted in a way that Google perceives to be the best for the given subject matter.
What does this mean to you as a digital marketer?
It means you can jump to the #1 position in search (after paid ads, of course) just by structuring your content in a way that Google likes. This is every marketer's dream, but for me, it was about to turn into a nightmare.
Editor's note: We had complete control over the snippet as of August 2017. The battle in this space is ongoing. As of this post's publication date and time, we've been battling back and forth to keep ownership of the snippet. This highlights that if you are competing with a determined 3rd party, it can be work to keep your snippets!
Setting the stage
You wake up early on a Monday. Go for a 2km run, drink water, read a book, eat a wholesome well-balanced breakfast, and as soon as you get into the office all hell breaks loose. A competitor has a featured snippet on one of your top-performing organic keywords. You're bleeding out organic conversions every hour that this thing exists. What do you do? Let's find out.
What happened exactly?
Digital marketing is a very fun and competitive space. Some people are constantly trying to get an edge by leveraging snazzy new Google features, others are chasing after the latest tech flavor of the week (hooray chatbots), and some just spend their time pumping out long-form sales blog after long-form sales blog and then laze around in their pajamas (shout out to Neil), and then everyone promotes themselves in an inane marketing doublespeak battle royale.
But sometimes...sometimes, people play dirty and leverage the dark arts of SEO to achieve a leg up—and while this isn't outright wrong, it isn't necessarily right either. Think of it like leaving an empty roll of toilet paper in the stall for the next person, or—sticking the bathroom analogies—closing the stall door behind you so people think it's still occupied. Supposing the evildoer in these analogies wants to own that bathroom stall, these tactics are helping them achieve their dastardly goal.
The problem with featured snippets
Leading up to the election in 2016, there was a huge scandal around fake news that has lasted far into 2017 and beyond the election itself . One notable example in search marketing was the classic "Is Obama planning a coup?" featured snippet—a conspiracy blog had managed to nab the featured snippet for the search with their blog post. Despite the fact that this question was absurd, it still managed to pass muster when it came to the rules of featured snippets, and the article in question was the only one taking the question seriously enough to answer it in a way that Google deemed snippet worthy.
Google can sometimes mix media sources to create featured snippets. This went awry with a serious article about "internalized oppression" included a satirical video clip on the same topic.
These examples may be just as misleading as the questions they purport to answer, but this can just as easily happen to you (as it did to us). One example was intentional and the other is just Google combining assets—it just goes to show you what a properly formatted answer can do to get you SERP real estate—no matter the question.
When a competitor publishes outright lies about your products, services, or pricing, you're not going to be a fan of featured snippets—you're gonna hate them. Hopefully, you then searched something like "How to steal back your featured snippet" or "How to get a featured snippet quick," you found this article, and now you're learning from our debacle.
A competitor stole our featured snippet
Circling back to our snippet issue. A competitor of ours managed to get a snippet filled with unsavory and incorrect information when people searched for "Vendasta Pricing." This ultimately led to a painstaking (and sometimes heartbreaking) journey to reclaiming the snippet.
For the featured snippet, they included products with our platform subscriptions. Not only that, but the way the snippet was formatted set a precedent with Google to include our most expensive public subscription tier front and center.
When users clicked into the post itself, it was littered with typos and inaccurate subscription details. Amongst the numerous gaffes spread throughout their content, they also had a number of marketing jabs—it was very apparent that they weren't playing nicely at all.
Just so you're not forced to look at the site yourself here are a few examples:
This is the table that Google draws the featured snippet from. This pricing mistake has to be intentional. It's sooooo blatantly incorrect and misleading, it's almost like they were trying to get Google to feature other information in the snippet.
Tin foil hat moment: what if they are trying to game the system? Perhaps this is snippet sculpting 101, make parts of the table less appealing to Google so you can force it to show what you want. I can overlook "onboarding hee" as a typo, but this snafu has measurable consequences in that it directly shapes the snippet.
Steps we took to recover the snippet
With some work, we did manage to get the snippet reclaimed. In the remainder of this post, I'll talk about what we did to make this happen (and how you can too). First off - here is what we managed to create to bump theirs out of position. We removed onboarding fee for a type column and added a photo with a spreadsheet (which started a pseudo timer on staleness of that content). A lot more work went into the page but I'd like to focus on the high level strategies and what we did that worked.
In this section we'll cover the following steps to reclaiming a lost featured snippet:
1. Study their content & snippet
a. Identify the snippet
b. Figure out why they're ranking
2. Optimize your content to be 10x better
3. Test, Rinse, and Repeat
1. Study their content and the snippet
tl;dr: Learn as much as you can about the type of snippet and the content on their ranking page: onsite / technical SEO, offsite SEO/backlinks and general site performance
This part is critical and can be broken into two subsections:
Researching their tactics
Figuring out why they're ranking
It isn't easy to reverse engineer Google's inner workings around why a snippet ranks, but you should have a lot of information available, so let's dive in.
a. Identify the snippet
tl;dr: Learn about the tactics they’re using for their snippet. Is it a (bullet list, table or paragraph?). See more details on all the different types of snippets here.
Start simply by looking at their snippet—what is its structure? Is it a bulleted list, a table or perhaps a paragraph? Whatever it is, you're going to have to use the same format and beat them at the terms that Google has defined.
This is the time to find out what your competitor is doing right and the type of question a user is searching for. Your competitor must be answering the question in the right way to get the snippet, and it’s time to find out what exactly that “right way” is. Find out why they are ranking high, which methods they are using, and what they are doing above and beyond others competing for that snippet. Find out what techniques they employ, identify, and follow their tactics—but this time, do it better.
Review their keywords and find out which primary keywords are driving traffic to their site. See the general SERP rank for those keywords. The higher the position, the better your chance to take back the featured snippet. Compare their result to your own strategies and see where you can improve.
b. Figure out why they're ranking
tl;dr: Are they the only one playing the game? Are they doing something above and beyond others in the area?
Using the mozbar extension, or proxies, or simply changing the URL on Google, you can check for their snippet in multiple countries (e.g. .com, .co.uk, .ca, .com.au etc...), see where it ranks, and check for variations. You should also take the time to check for different desktop, tablet, and mobile versions of the snippet to see if yours outranks them in one of these spaces. Lastly, you can check from multiple Google profiles to see if Google is actively testing the snippet.
Before really digging in, ask yourself: If this competitor only has the snippet on .co.uk, or mobile searches, does this bother me? How much search volume and how many leads are we losing to this snippet issue?
Common tactics that will give lift to a snippet include the following:
- Ensuring metadata is as good as can be
- Page title / description
- Open graph tags (specifically og:image tags can be used)
- Adding an image near the snippet area
- Adding diverse metrics and dimensions into tables
- Ensuring that the snippet content is mobile optimized
- Having more and better content on the page related to the snippet
Once you think you've figured this out you can move onto optimization!
2. Optimize: Identify what you can do better
tl;dr: Get more links, have a faster site, get more organic traffic, increase user engagement, have more time on page, etc.
Now that you’ve researched and identified their snippet-stealing tactics, it’s time to optimize your content to match and beat theirs. Optimization, when done properly, can make your site ten times more visible in the eyes of Google. Employ the necessary tactics like link building, quick straight-forward answers, and better user engagement. Always strive to be 10x better than they are.
If you do not have a section on your page optimized for a featured snippet, then you might want to start by simply copying exactly what they have with a few minor changes. If your page outranks theirs, and you've copied the content exactly (maybe with some of the lift steps mentioned above) then you should get the snippet. If you don't outrank them, then you have have to start devising ways to make your snippet drastically better.
3. Test, Rinse, Repeat
tl;dr: Add better markup, decrease your page loading time, document your changes, wait for any snippet changes (18-36 hours), refine your page, and then repeat
Once you've got your snippet added and optimized, then you're ready to start your test. This is the time to stop making changes and wait for Google to decide what to do next.
You may want to manually submit your page to Google for re-indexing, or you can wait for them to act on their own. Our pages have a larger traffic volume, so we found that Google would pick up snippet changes within 18-36 hours. There shouldn't be any harm in manually submitting your page as changes are mad,e but Google will start forcing you to fill out captchas if you do it too often.
Manually Add your URL:
Again—I can't stress this enough—don't make changes while waiting for the results (unless there is something blatantly incorrect, of course). Take this time to work on other content or write out a list of everything you've changed, plan for what you're going to change next, set-up a dart board with your competitors logo on it—whatever you do don't mess with your test! Otherwise, you won't know which change did or did not move the needle in your favor.
Bonus round: Monitor their changes
tl;dr: Hire some little birds to keep an eye on their pages, monitor differences in SERP, and document everything
By using a free tool like VisualPing, you can keep an eye on your competitor's pages. If they make a major change you can sometimes respond quicker than Google and circumvent any snippet changes. With other tools like SerpLab, Ahrefs, or SEMRush, you can monitor SERP and sometimes snippet positions, but it can also add a lot of overhead.
That all said - nothing beats just doing a quick Google search!
How do you recover a stolen snippet?
To recover a featured snippet, follow this formula:
- Start by copying the formatting and markup that your competitor is using
- Make it better through tactics like adding images near the snippet area, ensuring your headings and lists are properly formatted, adding metrics into your tables, as well as adding dates showing when it was last updated
- Manually submit your site to Google
- Wait 18-36 hours before making additional changes
- Review and repeat steps 2-5 as needed
How do you recover a stolen snippet really fast?
At SMX West in March of 2017, this was brought up to a Google panel, and the comment from the search team was something along the lines of: "If you see a grossly inaccurate featured snippet, then have everyone you know report them on Google."
This is not a permanent solution though—Google will review the snippet, and if the offender isn't in violation, then they'll just switch the snippets back.
The only other relatively quick option is to send a cease and desist letter. There are a number of templates online to create these, and if you're lucky, then your competitor will take down their page. If you're unlucky, and dealing with a fly-by-night company, then they probably will ignore your request (looking at you, Synup).
In the end, we did manage to recover our stolen snippet. And while we weren't able to get the snippet in the exact format that we wanted without tipping the scale back to our competitor, the important thing is that we succeeded.
In retrospect, this ended up being about three weeks of small tests, recovering the snippet one day and losing it again another. We would find ourselves having taken over Desktop UK searches, but lost mobile searches. Or(...).
The key to our success was ultimately our persistence and determination to stick to diligent testing.
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful individuals with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
-- Ray Kroc, McDonald's founder
Ray Kroc also defrauded the original McDonalds brothers out of their brand and business model. That aside—he was a model of persistence and using every asset to get ahead. The bad guys don't think of themselves as bad—they're just working hard trying to move the ball forward in whatever way they can—just doing their best.
At the end of the day, Synup is kind of like this obese chihuahua—just "doing their best" to get ahead. In this instance, it involves playing a little dirty. We all have kids to feed and we are all trying to "do our best".
As of publishing this post Sept 6th, 2017, Synup has the "Vendasta pricing" featured snippet again on .ca searches. To combat this, we're going back to our test, rinse, and repeat process. While they only have that one spot, we're going to continue to work on this process and make the most of our legal channel resources. The turf war is back on.
Hope you enjoyed reading! Feel free to ask questions or provide your tips in the comments section below.