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Fact Checking Google’s Reintroduction to Featured Snippets

Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Liaison for Search, published an article titled, A Reintroduction to Google’s Featured Snippets. He shared the basics about what featured snippets are, when they show up and how they are currently still evolving. But he also left out some telling details. This article reviews what he said then fills in the gaps on what he left out.

What is a Featured Snippet?

Featured snippets are so called because they are the reverse of how a search engine result is displayed in the search engine. The “snippet” is a relevant quote from a website that is usually shown beneath the title of the web page. In a featured snippet the website content is shown first, i.e. it is featured.

Why Does Google Show Featured Snippets?

Google chooses to display featured snippets when it determines that it will help users find what they are searching for, especially for mobile and voice searches. Google Search by Voice: A case Study , a case study about local searches discovered these insights:

1. Voice searches tend to focus on food and drink categories

2. Voice searches tend to have a local business edge to them

3. Voice searches are less likely to be about sensitive/adult topics

4. Voice searches are less likely to be about social media

5. Voice searches typically do not require interaction

How Google Determines When to Show Featured Snippets

Danny Sullivan was fairly vague on the situations when Google shows featured snippets. Here is what he said:

“We display featured snippets in search when we believe this format will help people more easily discover what they’re seeking, both from the description and when they click on the link to read the page itself. It’s especially helpful for those on mobile or searching by voice.”

What Kinds of Queries Trigger Featured Snippets?

Here Danny Sullivan is being a little ambiguous about the kinds of queries that trigger featured snippets, by referring to those situations as those that “we believe” will help people. So I will share some recent research from Yahoo that discusses the specific kinds of queries users speak, which indicates what kinds of queries Danny Sullivan is alluding to that trigger featured snippets. While this is a Yahoo study, it’s fairly reasonable to assume that the conclusions will be similar if not the same as if the queries were made on Google.

In a very recent Yahoo study on voice queries, Searching by Talking: Analysis of Voice Queries on Mobile Web Search (PDF) it was determined that almost 10% of voice queries begin with “what” and “how.”

Those were among the largest amounts of queries made with voice search. Voice and text queries are significantly different, making it easier to determine what kinds of keywords are triggered by voice search. Yes/no type questions beginning with “does” “did” and “can” were also major kinds of keywords used with voice search. Read this study and you will understand a lot of information that Danny Sullivan left out about what kinds of queries trigger a featured snippet. Read that study, there is a lot of good information there.

Users Click on Featured Snippets?

This is controversial. Danny Sullivan claims that featured snippets drives traffic. But read what he wrote and you will see that he does not tell you what percentage of users click through. Here is what he said:

“When we introduced featured snippets in January 2014, there were some concerns that they might cause publishers to lose traffic. What if someone  learns all they need to know from the snippet and doesn’t visit the source site?

It quickly became clear that featured snippets do indeed drive traffic.”

Here’s a big problem with that statement. Research into CTR has determined that most users do not click through. Less voice search users click through for voice search because so many of them are satisfied with the featured snippets. In the study linked above titled, Searching by Talking: Analysis of Voice Queries on Mobile Web Search, it was determined that the click through rate was “substantially” lower.

Danny is truthful in saying that featured snippets drive traffic. But he is leaving something out by not indicating how much traffic it drives. The answer is that it drives significantly less. That is why Google has developed eye tracking studies to see how satisfactory Featured Snippets are, because MOST people on voice search do not click through.

In 2014 Google published a paper titled, Towards Better Measurement of Attention and Satisfaction in Mobile Search . This research study explored a way to measure satisfaction rates with featured snippets without relying on the click data because the click data did not exist. What they did was rely on a form of eye tracking that Yahoo refers to as Viewport Time.  Here is what Google’s own research study concluded:

“…answer-like results often do not receive clicks”

Google Takes Publishers into Account

Danny Sullivan indicated that Google takes publishers into account when creating featured snippets. But he didn’t elaborate on how Google did that. Here is what he said:

“We recognize that featured snippets have to work in a way that helps support the sources that ultimately makes them possible. That’s why we always take publishers into account when we make updates to this feature.”

Featured Snippets Will Change

This is perhaps the most interesting thing in Danny’s article. He indicated that research on what is useful to users is still ongoing and that what featured snippets will look like in the future will change.

“Because featured snippets are so useful, especially with mobile and voice-only searches, we’re working hard to smooth out bumps with them as they continue to grow and evolve.”

Displaying More than One Featured Snippets

This was an interesting feature, one you may not have seen yet. For certain queries (like “how to set up call forwarding”) there may be ambiguities relating to information not communicated. In those cases Google will choose to show multiple featured snippets. In the above case, he illustrated showing a featured snippet for Verizon and another for At&T.

Overall Danny did a great job in providing an overview. He may have been a little over-enthusiastic about implying how often users click through from featured snippets to websites. In light of the fact that those claims can be fact checked, I would urge Danny to be a little more realistic about those kinds of claims because the evidence is that most featured snippets do not result in clicks.


Featured image by Shutterstock, modified by Author

Category News SEO
SEJ STAFF Roger Montti Owner - at

I have 25 years hands-on experience in SEO and have kept on  top of the evolution of search every step ...

Fact Checking Google’s Reintroduction to Featured Snippets

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