How to land the top spot in Google search with featured snippets in 2021

Search is changing. Most search engines now don’t just bring up a page of 10 search results and two ads at the top when you type in a query. Instead, Google search queries can bring up a whole range of results, and sometimes answer your questions without you ever having to click through to a page.

Take, for example, a search like this: “how many days until halloween.”

Example of a featured snippet

A featured snippet counting down the days to Halloween. Image Credits: Ryan Sammy

You can see that instead of displaying the top result right away, Google answers the question for you in a rich snippet. It also gives you related search queries featuring countdowns for other holidays. On the right is a knowledge panel from Wikipedia about Halloween, and below that, you’ll see the featured snippets section. These snippets will expand when clicked with answers for related questions.

Featured snippets are collections of sentences or words that Google pulls directly from a webpage relevant to the search query.

Finally, after these answers to your queries and any related questions, you get to the first result. At this point, do you even need to visit the website?

Google search is not what it used to be. We all want to be No. 1 on the search results page, but these days, getting to that position isn’t enough. It might be worth your while to instead go after the top featured snippet position.

What’s a featured snippet?

Featured snippets are collections of sentences or words that Google pulls directly from a webpage relevant to the search query. These snippets are displayed right below the search box and are meant to answer search queries quickly. The snippets can appear in the form of lists, how-to steps, tables, short paragraph boxes and other formats.

Don’t panic: ‘Algorithm updates’ aren’t the end of the world for SEO managers

Every time there is a rumor of a Google algorithm update, a general panic ripples through the SEO community. There is a collective holding of breath while the numbers are analyzed and then a sigh of relief (hopefully) when they survive the algorithm update unscathed.

After the update is released, and especially if it is confirmed by Google, a slew of articles and pundit analyses attempt to dissect what Google changed and how to win in the new paradigm.

I believe all this angst is entirely misplaced.

The Google algorithm is made out to be some sort of mystical secret recipe cooked up in a lab designed to simultaneously rob and reward sites at the whims of a magical, all-knowing wizard. In this outdated schema, the goal of every SEO and webmaster is to dupe this wizard and come out on the winning side of every update.

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This idea is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what happens in a Google algorithm update — and a fundamental misunderstanding of Google. The reality is, algorithms are not your enemy. They are designed to help create a better, more accurate user experience. Here are a few pieces of perspective that should help reframe your relationship with algorithms.

Google’s algorithms are extensive and complex software programs that constantly need to be updated based on real scenarios.

Google is just trying to help

First, let’s establish this: Google is only trying to help. The company wants to ensure a pleasurable, high-quality user experience for the searcher. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not a wizard, and its system is not meant to rob and reward sites arbitrarily.

Keep that in mind as we continue.

Google’s algorithms are extensive and complex software programs that constantly need to be updated based on real scenarios. Otherwise, they would be totally arbitrary. Just as bugs are reported and fixed in a software program, search engines must discover what’s not working and create solutions.

Google, like any other software company, releases updates with big leaps forward to its products and services. However, in Google’s case, they are called “major algorithm updates” instead of just product updates.

You are now armed with the knowledge of exactly what a Google algorithm update is. Is it not, then, gratifying to know there is never a reason to panic?

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A drop in search traffic isn’t necessarily hurting you

If a site experiences a drop in search traffic after a major algorithm update, it is rarely because the entire site was targeted. Typically, while one collection of URLs may be demoted in search rankings, other pages likely improved.

Seeing the improved pages requires taking a deep dive into Google Search Console to drill into which URLs saw drops in traffic and which witnessed gains. While a site can certainly see a steep drop off after an update, it is usually because they had more losers than winners.

Any drop is most definitely not because the algorithm punished the site.

If you see a drop, in many cases, your site might not have even lost real traffic; often, the losses represent only lost impressions already not converting into clicks. With a recent update, Google removed the organic listing of sites that had a featured snippet ranking. I saw steep drops in impressions, but the clicks were virtually unchanged. Gather and study your granular data for a clearer rendering of information rather than assuming the site has become a winner or loser after an update.

Focus on a great user experience, just like Google

Websites that focus on providing an amazing and high-quality experience for users shouldn’t fear algorithm updates. In fact, updates can provide the needed impetus to excel. The only websites that have something to fear are those that should not have had high search visibility in the first place because of a poor user experience.

If your website provides a great experience for users, updates are actually likely to help you because they winnow those poorer quality sites out of the running.

If you focus on a good user experience, there will be pages that may lose some traffic in algorithm updates, but in aggregate, the site will typically gain traffic in most scenarios. Digging into the granular data of what changed will likely support the idea that websites do not suffer or benefit from algorithm updates — only specific URLs do.

Updates are a fact of search life

Google will, and should, continuously update its algorithms. Google’s primary motivation is to have an evolving product that will continue to please and retain its users.

Consider that if Google leaves its algorithm alone, it risks being overrun by spammers that take advantage of loopholes. A search function that provides too many spammy results will soon go the way of AOL, Excite, Yahoo and every other search engine that is functionally no longer in existence. Google stays relevant by updating algorithms.

Updates are a part of search life.

Chase the user, not the algorithm

Instead of chasing the algorithm, which will inevitably change, I believe that every website that relies on organic search should train its focus somewhere more important: on the user experience.

The user is the ultimate customer of search. If your site serves the user, it will be immunized from algorithm updates designed to protect the search experience. There is no algorithm wizard — only SEO masters who have figured out how to apply best processes, best procedures and actions for your website.

Algorithms and updates have only one purpose: help a user find exactly what they seek. Period. If you are helpful to the user, you have nothing to fear.

This post is an excerpt from “Product-Led SEO: The Why Behind Building Your Organic Growth Strategy.”

Leverage public data to improve content marketing outcomes

Recently I’ve seen people mention the difficulty of generating content that can garner massive attention and links. They suggest that maybe it’s better to focus on content without such potential that can earn just a few links but do it more consistently and at higher volumes.

In some cases, this can be good advice. But I’d like to argue that it is very possible to create content that can consistently generate high volumes of high-authority links. I’ve found in practice there is one truly scalable way to build high-authority links, and it’s predicated on two tactics coming together:

  1. Creating newsworthy content that’s of interest to major online publishers (newspapers, major blogs or large niche publishers).
  2. Pitching publishers in a way that breaks through the noise of their inbox so that they see your content.

How can you use new techniques to generate consistent and predictable content marketing wins?

The key is data.

Techniques for generating press with data-focused stories

It’s my strong opinion that there’s no shortcut to earning press mentions and that only truly new, newsworthy and interesting content can be successful. Hands down, the simplest way to predictably achieve this is through a data journalism approach.

One of the best ways you can create press-earning, data-focused content is by using existing data sets to tell a story.

There are tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of existing public datasets that anyone can leverage for telling new and impactful data-focused stories that can easily garner massive press and high levels of authoritative links.

The last five years or so have seen huge transparency initiatives from the government, NGOs and public companies making their data more available and accessible.

Additionally, FOIA requests are very commonplace, freeing even more data and making it publicly available for journalistic investigation and storytelling.

Because this data usually comes from the government or another authoritative source, pitching these stories to publishers is often easier because you don’t face the same hurdles regarding proving accuracy and authoritativeness.

Potential roadblocks

The accessibility of data provided by the government especially can vary. There are little to no data standards in place, and each federal and local government office has varying amounts of resources in making the data they do have easy to consume for outside parties.

The result is that each dataset often has its own issues and complexities. Some are very straightforward and available in clean and well-documented CSVs or other standard formats.

Unfortunately, others are often difficult to decode, clean, validate or even download, sometimes being trapped inside of difficult to parse PDFs, fragmented reports or within antiquated querying search tools that spit out awkward tables.

Deeper knowledge of web scraping and programmatic data cleaning and reformatting are often required to be able to accurately acquire and utilize many datasets.

Tools to use

Earn the best backlinks with high-quality content and digital PR

A lot is debated in the SEO world, but nearly everyone can agree that links are and will continue to be vitally important to the health and rankability of a website.

Luckily, link building and brand awareness goals can be built into your content marketing strategy, which can be vastly elevated by combining your efforts with digital PR.

I’ll walk through how creating high-quality content and pitching it correctly to top publishers can earn you the valuable backlinks you’ve always wanted (and if you employ this strategy on an ongoing basis, the increase in organic traffic you’ve always wanted, too).

Choosing the right content idea

I have to start by saying that the most important thing about being cited in news sources is that you have to be newsworthy. Now that might go without saying, but what we as marketers might consider newsworthy about our brands isn’t necessarily newsworthy to a writer or to the greater public.

Content ideation tip #1: The best way to ensure your newsworthiness is to gather and analyze data. Even if the data set already exists, if it hasn’t been analyzed and presented in a straightforward, applicable, easy-to-understand way, your illustration of the data could be considered new and valuable.

I’ll touch on this again in a moment. But first, let’s dive into the content example I’ll be using throughout this piece.

When you need content to build links, use social proof of concept