In case you aren’t familiar, rich snippets are the concise, direct answers prominently displayed when you perform a search that warrants them. The blanket term for these entries are “rich answers,” which take many forms, and these search engine entries have exploded in popularity over the past few years as Google’s Knowledge Graph and search algorithm become ever more complex. In some ways, rich answers exist as a threat to SEO in general—they monopolize SERP space and give users a reason not to click through to your site—but their existence can also be taken advantage of, or at least compensated for.
The question I pose is this: is it “necessary” for a modern SEO strategy to use rich snippets to plan and adapt for rich answers?
The Rising Prevalence of Rich Answers
First, let’s take a look at how popular rich answers have become. Every year has shown consistent, measurable growth in rich answer frequency, with 2015 showing a rise of 8.6 percent. This means each year, Google provides rich answers for a greater percentage of user queries, and there are no signs of that momentum slowing down. According to the latest data, Google is displaying rich answers for nearly a third of all user search queries.
It’s also important to keep in mind that a related feature, “Related Questions,” which recommends follow-up queries, is also rising dramatically. It stands to reason that Google is heavily invested in providing more of these direct-answer search results to improve user experience and potentially bypass the need for those users to click-through.
The bottom line here is that rich answers are highly prevalent, and will likely continue to grow in influence.
Because rich answers automatically get the top spot for a given query (usually), you have two potential strategic responses:
- Avoid targeting keyword queries that generate rich answers: There are some merits to this; for example, you can avoid writing about topics that are concisely answerable, or those that you know for sure currently generate a rich answer. Think of this as a new kind of competitive research—actively searching for the best opportunities for which to rank. The major downside is that rich answers will broaden in reach, eventually cannibalizing your new targets as well.
- Get yourself featured: This strategy falls neatly in line with my core question—by using rich snippets throughout your site, you can maximize your chances of being featured in a rich answer. All it takes is the proper microformatting and a handful of strategic changes to your content format, including answering your related user questions concisely near the beginning of your piece. You’ll get your brand name and a link to your individual page featured above, and more prominently than your leading competitors.
There’s also a third possible response, though I can’t technically count it as a strategic approach:
Ignoring Rich Answers and Rich Snippets Entirely
Under this approach, you basically pretend that rich answers don’t exist; you don’t use microformatting to mark up your site, and you don’t change your strategy at all. Is this strategy feasible? It all depends on what your goals are.
Rich answers don’t cannibalize all incoming web traffic. For most users, a few sentences isn’t enough to fully answer the question, and the few users who are satisfied with such an answer probably wouldn’t stick around on your site for long anyway. Still, rich answers showing up for a third of all queries is a frequency too large to avoid considering, especially as that percentage grows. Right now, there’s also no direct penalty for failing to use rich snippets—but that may change in the near future.
In short, you can get away with ignoring rich snippets entirely—at least for the present—but don’t expect to walk away unscathed.
The Bottom Line: Are Rich Snippets a Necessity?
This discussion could devolve to an argument of semantics, so let me be clear; by “necessity,” I mean it is an element that must be included for you to see progressive, meaningful increases in rank and visibility over time. That means, without a “necessity,” your SEO campaign will be unable to make progress, and may actually decline with time.
By this definition, rich snippets aren’t a “necessity” for SEO. Without them, you won’t get penalized, and you won’t completely sabotage the other efforts you’ve made. However, if you aren’t using rich snippets, or at least adjusting your strategy to compensate for their existence, you’re missing out on some major visibility potential. In effect, you’re throttling your own results—you just aren’t completely killing them.
It’s also important to bear in mind that even though rich snippets aren’t “necessary” today, they’re only going to grow in importance. Just because you can survive without them, doesn’t mean you should make the attempt; in my opinion, the sooner you get started using rich snippets, the better.
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