Google Search is transforming into an app that gives users direct answers instead of sending them to websites where they have to look for answers. It’s a delicate act for Google. On one side, a single answer could cannibalize the ad business by giving an answer too fast. On the other side, if the search journey is too long it could lead to user frustration.
Two SERP Features play an important role in Google’s attempt to find the right balance between quick answers and ad impressions: Featured Snippets and People Also Asked boxes (PAAs). Both might show just enough information to users to make a click through to the site redundant.
In reality, Featured Snippets tend to bring a lot more traffic to sites than any other position, which is not the case for PAAs - at least as far as we know. That reality gets at the hard of a lot of SERP Feature conversations: we simply can’t measure it with the tools and data we have.
What’s the incremental CTR of Featured Snippets? It’s hard to say! To measure, you would need to rank consistently on #1 for a while and Google needed to turn the Featured Snippet on and off. On top of that, the incrementality might vary from keyword to keyword since user intent differs. For some keywords, users want to dive much deeper. For others, “quick information” is enough. We haven’t even spoken about the difference between desktop and mobile, yet.
To bring a little more light into the darkness, RankRanger was so kind as to provide me with a robust data set.
Featured Snippets VS PAAs
The RankRanger data spans 3 years from June 2018 to June 2021. It shows how many % of SERPs display a certain SERP Feature based on a representative sample of over 100,000 keywords for desktop and mobile. The data shows four key trends.
First, while the number of Featured Snippets has declined, the number of PAAs has increased. March 2020 seems like a turning point with a large drop in PAAs and a consistent recovery from there right after. At the same, Featured Snippets started to accelerate their decline. It almost seems like a reset of SERP Features. A change in direction. However Google measures the success of the two SERP Features, it seems to favor PAAs over Featured Snippets.
Second, there are way more PAAs in the search results than Featured Snippets. Anecdotally, it appears as if almost every SERP has a PAA. The numbers show that in June 2021, 65% of SERPs had a PAA whereas only 6% has a Featured Snippet. That’s 10x more!
Third, the same trends that occur on desktop also occur on mobile, which is rare for SERP Features (see my analysis from last year). Even the March 2020 reset is clearly visible on mobile. I would assume that Google makes some decisions about PAAs and Featured Snippets systemically, maybe with manual influence, whereas in other cases they’re made automatically and on the query-level.
Fourth, the relative number of Featured Snippets and PAA seem to be almost the same on desktop vs mobile. At the end of June 2020, 55% of SERPs had a PAA on desktop compared to 50% on mobile. 6% of SERPs had a Featured Snippet on Desktop and 5% on mobile.
Even though not a perfect relationship, the correlation between Featured Snippets and PAAs in my data set is -0.3 for mobile and only 0.04 on desktop. It’s more likely to find a PAA on mobile than a featured snippet.
The implications of more PAAs for SEOs
So, what does all of this mean for SEOs? Fewer Featured Snippets mean fewer “win-it-all SERPs.” As I mentioned in the intro, even though Featured Snippets provide a lot of information, often key information, users still click through to get more context. The trend leans toward fewer Featured Snippets and therefore, more competition from other sites.
When PAAs are present, clicks to sites seem to go down (observation), especially if they appear higher up the SERP. The situation gets even trickier when search results have FAQ snippets that show expandable Q&As. In theory, FAQs and PAAs compete with each other. Most of the time, they don’t display the same questions, but how many SEOs know the incremental impact of PAAs when FAQ rich snippets are present? It’s very difficult to measure reliably.
What happens when Google starts to compete in PAAs? That actually already started happening, even if just at small scale for now. Google pulls answers from its knowledge graph to answer very specific questions. The benefit is that users might stay in the search results and keep seeing ads. This is the type of app environment I mentioned in the beginning. No need to leave the search results.