There’s a huge new thing evolving in the search results. I’m sure you’ve already seen them. Maybe you’ve noticed more of them recently, too. I’m talking about rich answers.
Rich answers are not like other search results. They play by different rules, affect other rankings, and offer a major new opportunity for SEOs who know how to use them.
What’s a “rich answer”?
A “rich answer” is any attempt by Google to answer the searcher’s query in search results in a way not requiring a click through to a website.
– Eric Enge, CEO of Stone Temple Consulting
What do rich answers look like?
Rich answers come in many forms. They can be recipes, sports scores, stock graphs, calculators, sliders, text-based answers, numbered step-by-step directions, maps, and much more. Most of them fall into one of three broad categories:
- Answers provided by Google: These are shown at the top of web search results, and are often public domain information.
2. Basic Snippets: These are often shown within the regular web search results. Note that this one is 226 characters and spaces, well beyond the 155 recommended for a meta description.
3. Featured Snippets: These are results extracted by Google from third-party websites and shown at the top of the web search results.
Rich answers are taking over the search engine results pages (SERPs)
Google is adding more rich answers to the search results every month. Here’s how the percentage of rich answers has risen between two studies Stone Temple did last year:
Should site owners worry about rich answers?
No. Rich answers are a threat only if you’ve built your website with public domain information. That’s because Google seems to prefer indexing and formatting public domain content into rich answers, and they don’t have to include a link to any site if they use public domain data.
This form-style rich answer is an example of public domain data:
If you’re a company that Google has chosen for rich answers, it might seem like Google is trying to “steal” content from your site and show it to their searchers without sending any traffic to your site, but that’s not true. You do sometimes get a link; searchers just don’t need to click your link to get the answer they want.
But the real pay-off is that being picked out this way says your information has been chosen as the best. And the positioning on the page helps your brand look authoritative and trustworthy. It’s publicity you can’t buy, which is why it’s so valuable.
Part of Stone Temple’s research on rich answers included two case studies about how rich answers affected different sites. The two sites they studied saw an increase in traffic after their content was included in a rich answer.
Does your site need high authority to get its content used for a rich answer?
No. As Enge says, “54% of the domains we found Google using had a [Moz] domain authority of 60 or less. And we even found some domains with a domain authority of less than 20 that Google used for rich answers. We don’t believe that there’s any connection between authority and getting the rich answer. We believe it’s all about an information quality analysis that Google does. And that’s the key to this.”
This is possibility the biggest story around rich answers. It means sites that would probably never make the top of the search results can now rank … if they can get their content used as a rich answer.
Rich answers make SEO even more of a winner-take-all game (on a single page).
You’ve probably seen this chart or one like it before:
It shows how pages in the first position of search results get twice as many clicks as the second position. And the second position gets a higher click-through rate than the page ranked third, and so on.
This pattern applies to rich answers, too – only more so. Because rich answers are set apart, and because they push other search results lower on the page, rich answers typically get an even larger percentage of overall clicks than the page in first position gets in regular results. So instead of the page in first position getting 30% of clicks, a rich answer might get 40-50% or more of clicks.
User engagement matters – a lot
Google often tests rich answers from different sites. It appears they rotate different content to see how well searchers like it. This is, of course, exactly what they do with regular search results all the time.
What does this mean for marketers? That the content/landing pages on your site (the page the rich answer links to) need to have high engagement metrics. So format your content well, add images and videos and other content formats. Consider a quiz. Once you get your content into a prized rich answer slot, do everything you can to keep those visitors happy.
How to get your content indexed as a rich answer
There’s no guaranteed way – right now – to get your content featured in a rich answer. That said, there are things you can do to improve your odds:
1. Create a list of the most common questions people ask in your industry or niche.
This might be a good time to check the Google AdWords Keyword Planner to see how many search phrases are also questions in your niche. If you’ve got Google Site Search set up on your site, that’s another source of information about what people are asking about. Q&A sites like Quora and Yahoo Answers also might be helpful for finding common questions.
Be sure to use the words searchers use, not industry jargon… unless industry jargon is included in the typical question being searched.
2. Pay particular attention to questions that show up in autofill.
Here’s an example of autofill in action:
When I checked those search options, six out of eight of them had a rich answer. So if there are any questions that apply to your business, industry or niche that appear in autofill, you might want to try making a rich answer page for them. Especially if there isn’t a rich answer for them yet.
3. Create content that specifically – and succinctly – answers those questions.
One question per page. Where you can, use step-by step-answer formats, like these step-by-step instructions for boiling an egg.
Above all: keep it short and sweet. I checked ten different “how to” style rich answers for word counts and character counts. The average word count was 54. The average character count was 288.
Of course that’s just for one type of rich answer – if you want to get listed for a rich answer that’s a figure or number, those word and character averages won’t apply.
4. Use keywords in those short answers.
This is not too surprising… but I noticed many of the rich answers had a hearty dose of keywords sprinkled in. In typical Google search results style, the keywords were in bold. That makes them even more likely to attract people’s attention.
I copied a bunch of text-based rich answers into a Word doc. A few of them are below. You can see how often the keywords appear. I think most of us would have automatically sprinkled relevant keywords into the answers, but here’s confirmation it is indeed a good idea.
5. Mark up the question you want to answer with <h1> tags.
Here’s another example of a simple rich answer:
Here’s the HTML code that creates the page that rich answer drew its content from. Notice the <H1> tag.
I did a “view source” on over 20 pages that had generated rich answers. In almost every case, the question was within <H1> tags. And the answer was within <p> paragraph tags (except for rich answers with step by step instructions).
The interesting thing here is that no schema markup appears to be required. That’s according to the research done by Stone Temple. It also mirrors what I found when I looked at the code of pages used for rich answers.
For step by step instructions, use <li> tags. I didn’t come across one step-by-step instruction that wasn’t coded with <li> tags.
6. Add supplemental information to each page with the rich answer content.
Here’s your opportunity to go into more detail. People almost always have follow-up questions or related questions. Answer those lower down on the page. For my (extremely small) sample group of content pages that generated rich answers, the average word count was 1,658.
There’s an app for that
If all these changes and new opportunities weren’t enough, Google has another new angle on this for you. An app. An entire app of rich answers.
This may reveal Google’s vision for rich answers. They’re not just mobile friendly – they’re mobile native. Mobile is in their DNA.
Rich answers are just the kind of short definitive answers mobile users want. And, as you know (because I am a broken record about this) mobile usage now exceeds desktop usage.
Rich answers may just be Google’s way of moving desktop-based information to a mobile platform. That’s where the users are.
Rich answers appear to be something Google is committed to. At the rate they are adding them to search query results, we could see half of our question-based queries returning a rich answer by summer of this year.
If you can get your rich answer to show up, you’re likely to see a significant spike in traffic. But because these rich answer boxes do so well, if you’ve been ranking well in the organic listings – in position 1, 2 or 3 – but you don’t get your page into a rich answer, you’ll probably see a drop off in traffic. Even if your page holds its place in the SERPS. We’ve seen this with other search widgets Google adds, like local carousels, ads, and news.
According to Eric Enge, it looks like Google is testing out a new algorithm with rich answers. An algorithm that is independent of links and other site or page-based ranking signals. Rich answers appear to show only according to content value. So we’ve got a potential new algorithm here. It’s solely focused on content quality, to the exclusion of other ranking signals. If that’s true, it’s a big deal.
Finally, rich answers present a terrific opportunity for smaller, newer, less authoritative sites. Google will show a rich answer from a page with relatively low authority – a page that often would not appear in the regular SERPs. That’s another very big change. But it’s just one of many.
Back to you
Is any of your content appearing in rich answers? Are you reformatting your content or creating new content in hopes of getting it into a rich answer? Tell us about it in the comments.