For years, content marketers treated the top of the first page of Google search results as the Holy Grail. “If only our content would rank at the top of Google SERPs,” we cried, “our marketing woes would be solved.”
That might be a dramatization, but we certainly put the premium position on a pedestal.
But today, earning the top spot on a Google SERP does not achieve the same content marketing goals.
With the advent of featured snippets, answer boxes, knowledge graphs, and other SERP elements, less than half of Google searches now result in a click. In June 2019, 50% of searches ended with zero-click results, according to SparkToro research. In 2020, that number jumped to 65%.
About 15% of search results return a zero-click feature, according to Moz’s recent analysis. And that percent is likely to grow.
What does the surge in the popularity and use of zero-click search results mean for your content marketing strategy? In a nutshell, it means your SEO strategy may require bifurcation: one plan to optimize content to rank as the zero-click answer on a search engine results page and one to get clicks from search results.
If your objective is to increase brand awareness or promote your company’s subject matter expertise, a zero-click strategy makes sense. It also helps when your audience primarily uses mobile devices or voice assistants to search.
If your goal is to drive traffic to your site, you need a strategy to get clicks from search. Searchers are more likely to click to learn more when looking for detailed information on a topic – more than a zero-click feature would tell them.
Start with basic SEO optimization
Keep in mind that this counsel is for content that already ranks well (or when new content is optimized for SEO). If the content isn’t in the top 10 results, focus on the basics of SEO and quality content instead of pursuing a zero-click feature.
Note: For this article, I use the term zero-click feature to refer collectively to featured snippets, answer boxes, knowledge graphs, and so on.
Set up a zero-click search tracker
To create a bifurcated strategy, I recommend setting up a tracker in a spreadsheet with the following columns:
- Search term (your priority keywords for brand awareness, subject matter expertise, and mobile/voice audiences)
- Zero-click result shown (yes/no)
- URL in the zero-click feature
- Text in the zero-click feature (including SEO title)
- Content format (blog, e-book, dedicated page, general site)
- Publisher (company or media name)
- Newly discovered keywords (likely found in the people-also-ask box)
With your tracker set up, it’s time to fill it out. First, add your existing priority search terms. Then, start your research using one of these options:
- Do it manually. Input each of your priority keywords into the search bar. Note if it has a zero-click result or not. If it does, finish completing the tracker categories.
- Use a tech tool. Type a keyword, domain, or link into the box on Serpstat’s homepage, for example, and you can see which have featured snippets. You can do something similar on Semrush: Run a domain search, click on “organic research,” and click on “featured snippets” in the lower right.
Now, your tracker reflects the zero-click feature opportunities for your content (and which ones you already own.)
But don’t stop there. Expand your keyword list to further improve the chances your content will get that coveted zero-click position. Here are two ways to do that:
- Look at the “people also ask” box. in your original keyword searches. Click to see which ones return a zero-click feature. If they do, fill out all the details on the tracker. (If they don’t, add them to the tracker anyway – that way you’ll know what keywords or phrases you don’t need to target.)
- Study real questions. Answer the Public is especially helpful for zero-click research because it lists people’s real questions (not just keywords). Put those questions into the search bar and add the results to your tracker.
With your tracker complete (for now), you can identify the most relevant zero-click opportunities for your existing or future content.
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Optimize to be THE answer (zero-click feature)
Once you know which of your target keywords return a zero-click feature, it’s time to increase your content’s chances to take over one of those slots.
Your zero-click attraction content can take on several formats:
- Numbered lists and bulleted items
- Succinct paragraphs (usually a sentence or two)
Ann Smarty writes notes about the content formats to include in each article as she’s planning her content topics with the intent to attract zero-click features. Her notes might include reminders to add:
- Takeaways with clear steps (+use HowTo schema)
- Bullet points listing related tools
- Graph (flow chart) explaining the process
Numbered and bulleted lists are helpful for queries using “best of” or “how-to” phrases. Complex content can be translated into easier-to-understand (HTML-coded) tables. Paragraphs work well for simple descriptions or definitions.
Even if you can’t give a specific answer to a zero-click question, you may still be able to create helpful content. Ann offers the example of someone looking for a number or figure, such as “How much does it cost?” Giving a pricing range is more helpful – and more attractive to Google – than forgoing any answer.
As for visual formats, Chatmeter suggests placing images near the top of the page, using a relevant image title and file name, and incorporating relevant details in the alt-text feature. (Google sometimes pulls images for zero-click results unconnected to the text-based results.)
For videos, make sure they’re on YouTube – most of the video or featured clip results come from that Google-owned platform. And 80% of those video results feature the searched keyword in their title, according to HubSpot.
TIP: You don’t need to create all-new content to achieve these results. Analyze your existing content to identify restructuring or revisions that can elevate the ranking without doing as much work.
TIP: Your zero-click feature answer doesn’t have to be at the top of your content. Google’s relatively new passage ranking delivers relevant results extracted from any part of the content.
Optimize for clicks
Now, go back to your tracker and pick out your targeted keywords that didn’t result in a zero-click feature. That’s a good starting point to discover better opportunities for click-worthy content.
While the topic itself may lend to more detailed content, the key is to structure your content in a way that compels a click and keeps the searcher reading. That requires considering all the SEO elements of page content:
- SEO title
- Meta description
- Table of contents
- Content length
Don’t write an SEO title to capture a single point. Encapsulate as much of what the page contains as possible. In this SERP for the query “how did the United States create its government,” the first result (a zero-click feature) yields a title that indicates its comprehensiveness: U.S. Constitution: Articles, Ratifying & Summary. That certainly will get a click from a searcher who wants to know more than the sentence returned in the zero-click feature.
A succinctly detailed meta description can also entice searchers to click. Google generally truncates the description to 155 to 160 characters. Make sure every character counts. Write the description with click-interested search audiences in mind. Use words like “comprehensive” and “in-depth” to indicate the content goes beyond the surface.
If you have a strong, relevant meta description, Google might be more likely to use it instead of publishing its own description culled from excerpts of the page’s content.
Content structure and length
For your headline and meta description to deliver, your content must deliver. Long-form content can support searchers who are interested in delving into the topic. But longer content alone won’t cut it. Use an easy-to-skim or easy-to-follow structure. Use subheads (H2, H3, etc.) to highlight key subtopic areas. Include bulleted information. Highlight helpful phrases or important points.
For longer, multi-topic pieces, think about adding a table of contents at the top with bookmarks to each section. Then, readers can click and go directly to the “chapter” they want to read.
TIP: Structuring long-form content to make it an easy read for searchers also can lead to some zero-click results because the format can be easily crawled – and understood – by Google.
To click or not to click
Bifurcating your SEO strategy doesn’t mean you have to pick one or the other. It does require you to set intentions for the content you hope will rank on search engine results pages. When you set specific SEO goals – and understand what searchers read – you’ll be better positioned to achieve the optimization you want.
All tools mentioned in this piece were suggested by the author. If you’d like to suggest a tool, please add it in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute