We wrote a few weeks ago about a Google algorithm update—Zero Search Results—that had the SEO community a bit…rattled. Time, calculation, and unit conversion queries began returning direct answers—without a full SERP beneath them—seemingly overnight. If you wanted to see the full SERP, a “Show all results” tab beneath the direct answer would, when clicked, reveal it.
After being inundated by feedback citing miscalculated user intent—people were getting direct answers that weren’t answering their queries—Google dropped the experiment. It lasted about a week. SEOs whose pages lost visibility as a result of Zero Search Results saw its demise as a victory.
This week, a new report shows that Google is hardly finished with direct answers. SEOs have a new SERP trend to occupy themselves with this week. And it has to do with the swapping out of Featured Snippets for direct answers.
Featured snippets…direct answers…what’s the big deal? What’s the difference? Well, superficially, it’s pretty small. Here’s a featured snippet, as you know it:
Google pulls data from the organic result it thinks best answers the query, then displays that answer at the top of SERP with a link to the content. Pretty standard stuff.
Here, by way of comparison, is an “answer box”:
Answer boxes were originally implemented as a part of the Knowledge Graph. Google offers direct answers in the form of answer boxes to a wide variety of queries: from ages (“How old is Matt Damon?”) to landmarks (“Who built Fenway Park?”) to populations (“How many people live in Boston?”)—really, to any query that necessitates a single answer, and nothing more.
The biggest difference between a featured snippet and a direct answer? When Google provides a direct answer, its algorithm is banking on providing you the answer, the whole answer, and nothing but the answer. In other words: no content link required. When Google provides a featured snippet, it’s recognizing that the user may very well want to peruse the answer’s source page to glean more information about their query.
To put it simply: Featured snippet—has a content link. Direct answer—doesn’t have a content link. Pretty basic, right? Well, when you start getting into the intent behind the queries that are returning these results, that seemingly small difference gets a lot more significant. We’ll get into that.
The data itself comes to us courtesy of Rank Ranger, who released a new report on mobile SERP features April 16. Perhaps because the superficial change to the SERP is so small, the report has generated significantly less buzz than, say, Zero Search Results and More Results generated in the past few weeks. But when you look at the data, the change is actually quite significant.
The percentage of featured snippets on all SERPs decreased by over 3% from April 9 to April 16; while over the past month, the percentage of direct answers on all SERPS increased by 1.4%, and is now up over 10%. Seem negligible? Well, as Search Engine Journal notes, that’s one of the greatest month-over-month increases of any search feature that appear at the top of the page.
Here are some other notable insights RankRanker offered in its report on mobile SERPs:
Any time you have links being taken out of the SERP, there’s always going to be some fear among SEOs that it’s their links that are being removed.
Of course, if your site’s featured snippets have been replaced by direct answers in the past month, there’s a very real chance you’ve lost some traffic.
There is also a growing concern—some of it merited, some of it not—that Google, like Facebook, is daily moving closer to creating some sort of insidious monopoly over the content we’re being served online. The biggest bone of contention, as I mentioned earlier, is intent. Users don’t want choice taken out of their hands. Direct answers, ostensibly, do just that—especially in this context. Featured snippets invite further explanation from a third party resource. Direct answers seem to come right from Google.
The question, it seems, is do we want to believe that Google is providing us a service—that changes like these are indeed an effort to better understand human search behavior and thus provide more accurate information. Or, do we want to believe that it’s doing itself a service—that by eliminating third-party resources, Google is making itself the sole proprietor of online information. At what point is it alright for Google to tell us what we want? At what point do we cease to know?
Woah, man. It’s just a featured snippet.
We’ll do our best to keep an eye on this trend going forward. If your site has been affected by the update, or if you have any other observations, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Gordon Donnelly is an SEO jedi who proudly honed his chops at WordStream for 5+ years. Today, you’ll find him at home in Boston, building Triple Whale’s world-class e-commerce analytics platform, or helping businesses of all sizes grow through SEO, advertising, and content marketing.
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