Video Deep Dive: Interview with Stephan Spencer – Featured Snippets

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Mike: Hi, welcome to Deep Dive with Mike Blumenthal and Mary Bowling. This week we're going to be interviewing Stephan Spencer, a longtime SEO, and as I refer to him, the last person standing, somebody who's been in the industry a very long time, seen a lot of changes. He has a wealth of information that we hope to leverage today for understanding both the history and some of the opportunities as his skills relate to local search. So Mary, why don't you kick it off?

Mary: Sure. Thanks for joining us, Stephan. I'm a huge fangirl of Stephan. He was doing a lot of technical SEO speaking when I first got into the business, and he's continued to be a well-respected technical SEO for decades now. He first started with Netconcepts. And did Chris Silver Smith work for you?

Stephan: He did. Yes.

Mary: Yes. A long time ago they were a web design/marketing firm, and then you got bought out by Covario, and Covario got bought out by somebody else. But as I understand it, your software platform, GravityStream ended up as Rio SEO. Is that correct?

Stephan: Yes, as part of their toolset.

Mary: Right. So Stephan knows a lot about technical SEO, automated technical SEO, and just a huge resource -- has written three or four books on the subject of SEO, "The Art of SEO." And today, I'd like to pick Stephan's brain about featured snippets, and especially featured snippets about local SEO. You've written a couple of articles on featured snippets lately, haven't you? That seems to be one of the things you're focusing on.

Stephan: Yep, yep, one of many. I think it's a great opportunity, so that's why I'm letting the world know how important it is and how to effectively steal your competitors' featured snippets.

Mary: So as far as local SEO, at first, I think in general we felt like maybe there wasn't much of an opportunity there except maybe for brands to get featured snippets in local, but since that time, over the past year, I've been starting to see some featured snippets that are coming from local business websites. What featured snippets do you think are available for local businesses out there?

Stephan: Yes, well, I think we need to think longer-term. Here's the problem with the short-term thinking that most SEOs engage in. It's like, "Well, this doesn't work currently." Like for example, the study from STAT Search Analytics that showed that there was zero overlap between the featured snippets appearing in the results and the local pack appearing in the results. It was one or the other. And they did a pretty significant study. So yes, that's disheartening if you're trying to go after ... let's say a featured snippet and there's a local pack there, there's not -- at least if you assume that what's been happening so far is what's going to continue to happen -- you don't have any chance of getting a featured snippet if there's a local pack already present. However, things are changing, and things are evolving at a faster and faster clip.

The problem, too, is that people think in terms of a linear progression. But instead, we need to think exponentially, because if you fit in the last 100 years of technological evolution into the next 100 years, well, it wouldn't actually be the next 100 years because we are at such a faster clip of technological evolution would fit into the next 20 years. So now you've got to think, "Well, at the...well, what happened over the last 100 years, very significant ... go back in time 100 years and you show people of that timeframe things like cell phones and, the Bluetooth headsets and stuff and they would think you're crazy. Like, this person walking down the street is talking to themselves. They must be needing an asylum or something.

So think about 20 years from now at today's rate of change, but actually, 20 years from now is going to be a lot farther than 100 years ago because of the continuing speed and acceleration of change. It would actually fit into the next 12 years. This is according to Ray Kurzweil who wrote, "The Singularity Is Near." So in 12 years, it'd be like going back 100 years or progressing 100 years of the last 100 years in the next 12. So, if we're thinking as long-term SEOs, we've got to think about basically the last 100 years is about to happen to us in 12 years.

Mike: So you're saying you shouldn't be thinking about this tactically, you need to think about it strategically in a way that's going to be sustainable, which is...so how would you position that?

Stephan: Yes, so let's think about that then. If you are mostly talking to your computer, and it could be a handheld computer, it could be a desktop computer, it doesn't matter, but you're talking to your computer more than you are typing on it because it's so much faster and efficient. Not today necessarily but in the future, in the near future, because of that speed of things evolving. So now, featured snippets aren't just a nice thing to have, they're not just position zero, they are essential to every business, local, multinational, everything in between, because that's the first answer that Google is going to give. When you're speaking to Google, asking it a question, it's going to give you a featured snippet answer. So if you are not masterful at featured snippets, you're dead in the water.

Mike: Although we saw last week, I think it was Dr. Pete tweeting just about how in many situations featured snippets were replaced by knowledge panel results. Or not many but ... maybe I overstated that ... but in some situations.

Stephan: Yes, so let's clarify this too in that Google is going to provide an answer. It's not going to provide essentially 10 blue links read off one after another. It needs to give an answer, and if that answer is coming from a featured snippet or it's coming from a knowledge panel, if you can influence the answer that is given, you have a leg up on all your competitors. So that's why I am preaching the importance of featured snippets because of...a great way to override...

Mike: So your featured snippets is a way to override.

Stephan: Yes. So featured snippets are a way to circumvent the...featured snippets are a way to override not just the position one listing or trump that position, but also in terms of being in the voice search results, it's an all-or-nothing. It's binary, whether you're going to be the answer or you're not going to be.

Mike: So it seems to me that we even have to look one level higher, which is the view that David Mihm has often espoused, and I think about a lot, where you have to be thinking in terms of great content. You have to be thinking in terms of structured content. You have to be thinking in terms of your own website feeding as a feed to the search engine that will produce the singular result, not so much as a place where you're going to get conversions itself. It might or might not happen on your website, but your website becomes this structured data feed as it were to a structured data search engine that's going to give a singular answer whether it's a knowledge panel or featured snippet, I mean, you don't care. Whatever is there is there, and good content is going to get you both places, I think.

Stephan: Right. Yes, good content in the form of good questions and good answers.

Mike: And structured in a way that's both easy for the reader to read if they get to your website as well as easy enough for a machine that's kind of stupid to read and provide as an answer,

Stephan: Yes, currently stupid, but yes, the...

Mike: Currently stupid.

Stephan: ...machine will be much smarter than us.

Mike: We hope, we hope....

Mary: So prominent.

Stephan: It's inevitable, but what we hope for is that it's going to be...

Mary: So from a tactical standpoint, from a tactical standpoint, we need to be thinking about featured snippets as a way to learn how to be the answer. Is that what I'm hearing from the two of you, that we should use featured...

Stephan: I think so but also to understand what people are asking of the search engines. So if you're querying Google with a question that you hadn't even thought of, you need to start thinking of these questions, use tools like Answer The Public and Moz Keyword Explorer and Rank Ranger Keyword Finder and turn on the setting where it says, "Give me question-based keywords." And then you think, "Oh, you know what? I never thought of answering that question. That's a really good question. I should incorporate that into my content." So it's not just about the answer. Ask a better question, get a better answer. So think of a better question to ask and you'll dominate much better in the Google search results. But if you're not thinking about questions, you're missing one of the biggest opportunities out there.

Mary; So our Q&As, Q&As that we're seeing now, do you think that's a learning opportunity for Google that's going to be translated into featured snippets possibly?

Mike: Mary is referring to the new Google Q&A feature that's on the knowledge panel, where the end-user can go to a business's knowledge panel and ask any question and could be answered by the business or by other consumers and it can be upvoted.

Stephan: It could be. And this is all conjecture where that's all heading. Yes, I mean, I don't know what's going on behind the Googleplex doors, so we can only guess.

Mary: And you can see how attributes would be feeding into this as well. That Google's learning more and more about your business from the attributes that you give it and that your users give it.

Stephan: Yes, Yes. So one of the first things I would recommend our listeners/viewers do is to think about what questions will help move their prospects through the funnel, through the buyer journey. For example, if you can identify 7 or so, 10, whatever primary objections that your prospects have, and those are the reasons why they don't buy from you, have a look at your site to see how many of those you've overcome with content on your site. And I would bet you that the majority you have not addressed on your website. And you can formulate these points as Q&As. In fact, you could do an FAQ page. If you haven't already done an FAQ page or an FAQ section, that's the first thing to do, is you need to start addressing the questions that people have.

If somebody asks you what your pricing is and you believe it's not to your benefit to address your pricing on your website -- like for me, I'm expensive, I admit it. Well worth it but expensive. So if somebody goes to my website, goes to stephanspencer.com and has a look around to see where's my pricing, they're not going to find it. But what I am working on is addressing their question so that I can at least say, "You're probably looking for my price list, but you're not going to find it here on the website, and here's why." If I don't address it then I'll leave the visitor frustrated. Don't do that. It's not good for conversion and of course, it's also not good for this future world of SEO where Google is going to be providing more and more of these answers without the 10 blue links, and just reading them off to you.

So yes, that's a really good exercise to identify some FAQs, to identify those top objections and address each one of those, and also to address problems that we solve. What are we creating as far as solutions? So if you can have a "problems we solve" page. And I have to give credit to these ideas to Marcus Sheridan, who's The Sales Lion, who I interviewed on my podcast, on Marketing Speak, because... ...so due credit to him. And actually, do listen to his episode on Marketing Speak. It is awesome. So now you've got a lot more content that helps with the conversion and is potential content for Google to use as featured snippets. You also fold into that your keyword research where you're identifying good questions that are related to your audience, your target market. And it's best if you can go all the way from the beginning of the buy cycle to the end, so research phase all the way to buying phase.

For example, if you sell baby furniture, you've got a local shop that sells bassinets and cribs, you want to think about, "Well, what are my prospects searching for before they're thinking about me? Before they're thinking about even those products?" So there's problem-aware, there's solution-aware, there's my-solution-aware. What's happening before they're even problem-aware, before they even think about, "Well, I need a crib or I need a bassinet? I need all this furniture for the baby's room." One of the early things they're thinking about, one of the first things once they know that they're pregnant.

Mike: Do I need to have children?

[Laughter]

Stephan: Okay, well, after that, after that, it's, "What's going to be my baby's name," So I just found out the sex of the baby, we just went to an ultrasound and now we know it's a boy or a girl. So now they're googling for baby names. And if you think in terms of, "Well, what can I do to provide valuable content and show up for baby name-related queries, like, what are some baby names that are popular these days? What are some overused baby names? What are some baby names that are for sure going to get my kid beat up on the playground?" These are important questions you need to answer before you even think about the crib that you're going to get. And so if you offer great content in that area and then you soft-sell your cribs and so forth through a maybe some essential nesting checklist for parents-to-be ... it's like over on the right-hand column, in what's called the saved column, where people look before they bail from your site, that's the last place they look, according to research. So in that saved column, if you put your irresistible offer, that lead magnet, that free download, such as the essential nesting checklist for parents-to-be, and now you've identified all these great question-based keywords to target that are in that early, early stage where you're going to influence the buying criteria through that early interaction, that's an amazing opportunity. But it all starts with identifying these keywords. If I don't know what my prospects are even thinking about, I've lost that opportunity.

Mary: So I'm always thinking tactically, and what I'm wondering is do you think right now that it's important the format that our Q&A is in, that we need to put it in that Q&A format that Google can recognize or we...and put all the Q&A together in one place and that sort of thing?

Stephan: Well, I don't know about that. I don't know about putting it all on one page. I don't know that having one big FAQ page is the right answer. I actually think that as you build out your FAQ library, you're better off having separate pages, at least topically, like each topic, if not each question and answer on a separate page.

So here's my short answer about the snippet...going after featured snippets as far as the format. Match the format that is either the winning featured snippet currently or even better, match the format that is the ideal answer, the ideal format of an answer. So for example, if it's a how-to query -- how to boil an egg, the best featured snippet answer there is a numbered list. It's an ordered list. If it's a paragraph snippet, that's not a high-quality answer because the format, it's harder for me to digest what are the steps in that how-to in order to go from A to Z. So if you see a paragraph snippet, it's actually not good for a how-to to mirror that format even though that might be the current winner. It's probably not going to be the winner for long because it's not an ideal format. So... ...informational, more useful, tighter, more concise, and it's in the ideal format, in this case for how-to an ordered list, I think you stand a good shot.

You also need to look at your click-through rate. If you have a lower than normal click-through rate for your position in the search results, that puts you at a disadvantage; if you have higher than normal click-through rate for your position, then you have a much better chance of taking that featured snippet. And another thing I do is I look at my competitors to see what they are currently getting featured snippets for. And I use SEMrush for that. I use other tools as well. STAT Search Analytics has capabilities for that, too. But, it's one of the easiest tools to use. To go to SEMrush, put in the domain of a competitor, and then over on the right-hand you'll see the SERP features that they have, and featured snippets if they have them will be listed there. You click on that link and it will jump you right to that specialized set of results. So those are the keywords that they have featured snippets for. Super, super helpful. And then you can go after stealing some of those featured snippets if you think that you can provide a better answer and a better format, or at least in a comparable format to what they have.

Mike: So, obviously solid HTML but ... do schema come to play, does page structure come into play? What are some of the technical aspects, is one question. The second is besides the list and the paragraph view, what are the other typical featured snippet-type responses besides those two?

Stephan: Okay. So let me answer the second question first and then we'll jump in.

Mike: I should have asked it first because I was thinking of it firstly, asked it second, sorry.

Stephan: Oh, there's Alexa chiming in. Okay, so there are four types of featured snippets. There is the paragraph snippet, which we already mentioned, there is the ordered list snippet, which is a numbered list, there's the unordered list snippet, which is just a bullet list, and then there's the table snippet. And let's say that you're asking for an answer from Google that is pretty data rich. Maybe it includes prices and years and product attributes and things like that. Like, you're asking for data about houses or something like that. A table snippet, even though those might not be that popular currently, would be a much better result visually for now, but you also, as I said, have to think about what's the user experience for somebody speaking to Google and getting an answer back,

You just heard in the background Alexa chiming in. So I had my Amazon Echo, everybody is going to be talking to their computers and technology in the cloud more than they are going to be typing because it's so much faster and efficient. So I forget the statistic on how fast we speak compared to how fast we type on average, but it's significantly faster if we speak it rather than type it. So that's the first...or the second...your second question. That's my first answer. And then the other question, remind me again. What was the...

Mike: Which is what are the technical attributes of the page? Does it use schema or some other layout to drive home these points to Google?

Stephan: Yes, you do not need to use schema, you do not even need to use ... let's say that you're going after an ordered list snippet, you don't even need to use an ordered list, OL tag and LI tags. Google can actually figure out from your page just looking at heading tags and things like that. That, "Okay, so here's the number one inside of a heading tag with some copy, and then here's number two." And you don't even need the numbers inside the heading tags. Google's very smart at assembling your snippet for you.

Now, I would say don't make Google do that because you limit the chances that Google is going to do a good job of interpreting your page copy, but I've seen countless examples where the snippet is built out of something, let's say it's a numbered list, an ordered list and it's not from OL and LI tags, it's from something else. So I think you need to focus more on making sure that you have...you formulated the question in the page, and then you formulated a concise answer that is super valuable and superior to everybody else's in the top 10 results.

Now, you may appear in the featured snippet position even if you're not on page one. So, statistically speaking, according to the STAT Search Analytics study, they found that you could even be on page eight and still take this featured snippet. It's less and less likely -- the majority of the time, it's within the first three positions. However, like I said, if you are getting a lot more click-through rate than everybody else, you could be on page two and still take that featured snippet. So try to be as high up in the rankings as possible. Try to provide that high value, concise answer with the question as well so that Google can figure... ...that the searcher is querying with and your answer.

So I've got a bunch more little tips and tricks for this in my Search Engine Land article. It's called "How to Rank for 'Position 0' in 3 Simple Steps: A Featured Snippets Primer." I also have a fun quiz on Search Engine Land, which is a featured snippets quiz. And like...there's a lot of fun questions that might be counterintuitive, that you'll find the correct answer after you take the quiz. So those are just some good resources to start, but there's also a great study, as I mentioned a couple times from STAT Search Analytics on featured snippets, that's free and you just need to update.

Mike: Well, that's great. That puts us at a time limit for this part of the conversation. I'm hoping that we can have a follow-up session on this, perhaps several weeks from now. That would be great. Hey, Mary, you have anything to add before we close?

Mary: Nope. I just want to thank you for talking with us.

Mike: Yes, thank you very much, Stephan. We really appreciate it. Take care.

Stephan: You bet.

Mike: We'll see you soon.

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