As Halloween approaches this year, I’m gaining a better understanding of the phrase “Trick or Treat”. Over the past month, I’ve watched Google display a featured snippet for one of my blog posts (the “treat”), only to change that back to a standard snippet (“the trick”). And then back to a featured snippet (“treat”). And you guessed it, back to a standard snippet (“trick”). I really don’t know why that’s happening, but I think it’s an interesting case study.
If you are unfamiliar with featured snippets, then you should read my Search Engine Land column about gaining and losing a featured snippet. In a nutshell, Google can provide an answer at the top of the search results for a query (the featured snippet), along with a link to the third party site containing the content. A featured snippet can also contain visuals, like photos or graphs.
Here’s an example of a featured snippet (since we’ll see plenty of vampires this upcoming Saturday):
Based on analyzing featured snippets for clients, I know they can drive a massive amount of traffic based on the SERP treatment and the inferred credibility. For example, when Google highlights your content as an answer for a query, separates that content from the rest of the SERP, sometimes provides a visual from your post in the featured snippet, along with a link back to your content. As my case study on SEL documented, you can gain or lose a lot of traffic based on a featured snippet.
It Begins – Pre-processing of a Featured Snippet?
On September 24, 2015, I published my Search Engine Land column explaining how to find queries per url in Google Search Console (GSC). As soon as it was crawled and indexed, I noticed something interesting. It looked like Google was pre-processing a featured snippet.
For example, the description looked like a bulleted list of instructions versus the standard description used for a post. Sure, Google doesn’t always use your meta description, but it also doesn’t always provide a list of items explaining how to do something.
Here is what I saw just 28 minutes after the post was published:
Needless to say, I wanted to keep an eye on the situation to see if I would receive a featured snippet.
Less Than 2 Weeks Later – It Appears!
I set reminders to check the SERPs daily to see how it was looking. It was about two weeks later that I first saw the featured snippet for a targeted query! And it included a list of six steps from my post along with a visual. It was gorgeous. :)
So I might have been right! It seems Google was pre-processing the featured snippet by breaking down the steps involved. I remember thinking, “This is AWESOME. I must write about this now.” So I added the topic to my blog post idea bucket and moved on. I was going to try and write the post within a week or so, until…
1 Week Later – Mountain View, We Have a Problem
About a week after noticing the featured snippet, I went to check the SERPs again. I typed in the query, and boom, I saw a standard snippet. That can’t be right… So I opened anther incognito window and checked again. Nope. I opened my chromebook to check on another system. Gone.
So it seems Google had already removed the featured snippet! Sure, the SERPs are extremely dynamic, but what could have happened in that one week to remove the featured snippet? The post is a thorough tutorial, it clearly explains how to find queries per url in GSC, and it was published on an authority site (SEL). Come on Google!
So, I took the hit and moved on. But the story doesn’t end there.
2 Weeks Later – I’m Baacckk…
Two weeks later, I was doing some featured snippet detective work for a client and just happened to check the SERP again for my SEL column. And low and behold… the featured snippet was back! But this time it didn’t contain the bulleted list. The visual was still there, but the list was gone. Interesting… but still awesome.
Maybe Google realized that the post should yield a featured snippet, but just not in the form of a bulleted list. Or, maybe enough searches for that subject or question occurred to yield a featured snippet. Or maybe this was more testing by Google to see if it warranted a featured snippet at all. Regardless, my featured snippet was back.
3 Days Later – It’s Gone Again
Ugh. Just three days later, the featured snippet was gone again. To be honest, I had no idea what was going on with that featured snippet. I get that featured snippets are algorithmically triggered, so my guess is that the query and/or post is in the gray area for some reason. My post ranks #1 in the SERPs for targeted queries, but does not always yield a featured snippet.
Going Straight To The Source: Asking Google
So I decided to go to the source to try and find out what’s going on. I ended up asking both Gary Illyes and John Mueller on Twitter what they thought of the situation. I received an answer, but it was pretty vague.
Gary explained that it’s either ancient aliens (yes, I’m serious) or the fact that Google takes many signals into account when determining when to show a featured snippet. See the Twitter conversation below.
Gary Illyes Regarding Signals That Trigger Featured Snippets:
So here we are. Either Google is messing with me or the query/post is in the gray area of featured snippets. Or of course, ancient aliens are involved. :)
Regarding signals that Google takes into account, I started thinking about this more and more after the tweet. What are some of the signals that Google might consider when determining to show a featured snippet? And how could that list help webmasters that are trying to be featured in the SERPs for specific queries?
Based on a quick brainstorm, I have provided some possible signals below. I’m sure this isn’t all of them, but it’s a good start. If you are interesting in driving more featured snippets for your site, then you might want to review this list.
Possible Signals Google Uses When Determining To Show a Featured Snippet:
- Type of query (i.e. query formed as a question using what, where, who, why, when).
- Query volume for the question at hand.
- Content that matches up well with the query (i.e. an answer is clearly provided in an easy to break down format).
- Authority of the website that the content is published on.
- SERP engagement. Are users interacting with and clicking through the featured snippet? Or are they bypassing that snippet for listings below?
- Dwell time while on the destination website. If users bounce back to the SERPs quickly, maybe the content should not yield a featured snippet.
- Location of the user. Some featured snippets might be location-specific. i.e. Queries pertaining to a specific country or region.
- Device – Will some featured snippets trigger on desktop vs. mobile, or vice versa?
- Personalization: Featured snippets based on previous searches and behavior.
- Author Rank. Does the authority of the author in that given niche play a factor?
Again, I don’t think this is a final list. If you feel there are others signals to add, let me know in the comments below.
Summary – The Gray Area of Featured Snippets
There you have it. A curious case of a disappearing featured snippet in the Google SERPs. To quickly review, I saw what seemed to be Google pre-processing a featured snippet, followed by receiving the featured snippet with bullets, followed by the featured snippet reverting back to a standard snippet, only to jump back to a featured snippet without bullets, and as of now, it’s standard again.
As Gary Illyes said, there are many factors that determine when a featured snippet should be displayed. I understand that, but in this situation, it seems Google cannot make up its mind. I’ll keep monitoring the situation and update the post if anything changes (and if I learn something new).
Personally, I feel as if my post is in the gray area of featured snippets. It’s either that or some Halloween prank by Google. Maybe RankBrain can help. Muahahaha. :)