A few years ago, Google started integrating answer boxes (like the one below) into its search results. The aim was to provide users with more information, more quickly, in what could be considered a major shake-up for search results.
No longer can the top ranked page in a search result rely on a plethora of traffic as, in some cases, they have been usurped by Google’s answer box.
Google’s answers boxes can even help the rhythmically awkward to attract a mate.
While top ranked sites may be reeling from potentially lost traffic, lower ranked sites may be rubbing their hands in glee at a new opportunity to jump ahead of the competition by ranking themselves in the answer box.
The question on many people’s lips may well be “is there a way to get my website featured in these new-fangled answer boxes?”
Fortunately for you, I did some research on this very topic. I pulled apart several different aspects of 62 pages featured in the answer boxes to see if there was any kind of recurring theme that would help me find out what criteria Google uses to determine if a site should be featured in the answer box.
Which pages made it onto the answer box?
- 31% of pages occupying the answer box are first on the results page
- 69% of answer box pages occupy a top three result on the results page
- All the search queries I investigated had answer boxes where the featured page also ranked on the first page
So is the answer box a short-cut to that coveted top spot on search results? Possibly.
In recent years, Google has become very adept at determining quality within a website. Those pages that rank highly are the pages that Google wants to show its users, so, naturally, these are also the kinds of pages that Google wants in its answer boxes.
It would seem that the further down on the rankings that a page is found, the less likely it is to feature in an answer box, with the top ranked page the most likely to make it there.
But don’t lose hope. 69% of answer box pages were not the top ranked page for that query, and I even found a couple of ninth placed pages sneaking their way into the answer box.
What criteria does Google use to feature a page in an answer box?
- 91% of “how to” queries had text on the page that was organised into bullet points or numbered steps
- 67% of all “what is” queries had answer boxes that weren’t populated by an actual page but by Google’s own answers. Conversely, none of the “how to” queries were answered by Google itself
- If you exclude Google’s own answers, 85% of “what is” queries had text on the page that was organised into subtitled paragraphs
- Pages that were mainly images, videos or had very little written content never made it into the answer box (for the types of queries I used), no matter how trustworthy or highly ranked the site was
Interestingly, Google almost exclusively adheres to a single format for each type of query I used. Clearly, Google recognises that certain forms of content are more likely to answer certain queries satisfactorily.
For example, a “how to” query like “how to bake a cake,” is likely to require a set of instructions that are best presented as a set of steps or bullet points. A “what is” query likely requires more detail, so the use of paragraphs is better suited to this type of query. Other types of queries might feature pages with other formats.
What else does a page need to do to make it into an answer box?
My next observation was that sometimes a page ranked first and used the correct format (bullet points/numbered steps or subtitled sections depending on the query type) but still didn’t feature in the answer box.
Why was this?
A little bit of digging revealed that 67% of these pages had a lower trust value (according to Ahrefs) than the website that was featured in the answer box. This means that trust is a big factor in achieving answer box status.
But what about the remaining 33% of sites that ranked first, used the correct format and were more trusted than the featured website? What were these pages missing?
Unsurprisingly, it was all about content. The table below details the reasons why the top-ranked page seems to have missed out on being featured in the answer box.
For the query “What is Instagram”, the top-ranked page contained just one short paragraph about the question whereas the featured page contained lots of useful information that continued far beyond the screenshot.
In essence, getting featured in the answer box is all about these 3 things:
- Useful, relevant, quality content
The final two points are nothing new (SEO has been doing this since Panda first rolled onto the scene). But using an appropriate format has not typically been considered to be a main factor of importance, yet it appears vital to getting a page featured in an answer box.
So does this mean that companies can manipulate their pages to ensure they feature in an answer box? If you can alter your pages to ensure that they follow the guidelines detailed above, then you may have a shot. But, like many things in SEO, there’s no guarantee.
Google may not easily allow new pages to usurp the current occupants of the coveted answer box. There are also many factors that require adhering to and certainly, if you attempt to compete with Google’s own answers, you’re likely to be doing this…
I will be looking forward to seeing whether pages truly can be manipulated to feature in answer boxes.