Posted by randfish

Many SEOs are frustrated by the ever-expanding repertoire of answer boxes and results from the Knowledge Graph on Google’s SERPs. One thing we can be sure of is that they’re not going away anytime soon, so in today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand offers some strategic advice (as well as several tactics) for getting SEO value from those SERPs, and even from those boxes.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high-resolution image in a new tab!

SERPS in Knowledge Graph Whiteboard

Howdy, Moz Fans!

…and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re talking about the rich answers, instant answers, direct answers, whatever you want to call them, that Google and Bing are providing in search results, that are taking away a lot of clicks from those search results that people look for.

4 Types of challenging results

I think the big four that SEOs are concerned about are what I’m going to walk through first, and then we’ll talk about some tactical ways that marketers can actually work around them or even take advantage of them.

#1 – Customized instant answer (a.k.a. answer boxes)

So the first one here is what I’m calling the “customized instant answer.” This is where Google has essentially said, “Hey, we’re going to custom-build something for this type of a query that shows this kind of an answer box.” You can see these for math equations, for weather kinds of searches.

The one I’m showing here is specifically around sports and schedules. So I search for Seattle Mariners, the local baseball team here in Seattle, who today, as of filming, it is their opening day, April 7. So Seattle Mariners’ schedule is actually showing. Well, it’s actually showing the score in real time, since the game’s going on as I’m filming, but below that it shows scores and schedules. It says, “4-6 versus the Angels, live at the bottom of the 6th, 4-7 versus the Angels 7:10 p.m.” etc., etc.

Then, it actually goes all the way down here, and if you click on any of these, you’ll get more detail about where the game’s being hosted and where you can watch it on television. Google’s essentially said, “Hey, you know what? No one should ever have to click on any results to get all of the key information about the schedule.” If you’re looking for far-out scheduling stuff or very specific kinds of things, maybe you might go to there, but they even have links in here directly to buy tickets online. So really, they’re taking away a lot of the clicks here.

#2 – Knowledge Graph answer

Second, the Knowledge Graph answer. This is where Google essentially is using their Knowledge Graph to provide a specific answer. You can think of this as connecting up with entities or concepts, brands, those kinds of things. I search for “Mariners mascot,” Google will give me this little box from their Knowledge Graph that says, “Mariner Moose, the Seattle Mariners, mascot,” and they have a little logo there. They don’t actually show a picture. I have to scroll down if I want to get images. But the next link there, of course, is the Mariner Moose webpage on Seattle.Mariners.mlb.com, that’s a lot of sub-domains, Major League Baseball, but we’ll deal with that later.

#3 – Knowledge Graph sidebar

Then the third one, Knowledge Graph sidebar, this is probably what we’re most accustomed to when it comes to the Knowledge Graph, where I search, I get a list of results, but then there’s also a Knowledge Graph piece on the right-hand side. This one is showing Seattle Mariners baseball team. There’s the logo, arena, location, our manager, some details about the team, where some of this data is extracted from, etc. Typical Knowledge Graph kind of result off to the side.

#4 – Extracted instant answers

Then fourth, and potentially most perturbing, I think for many SEOs, many marketers, is the extracted instant answer. This is an answer that Google has pulled from a website, potentially your website, and they’re showing right in the results that full answer, without a searcher needing to visit the page. Most of the time they will cite the page. Some of the time they don’t even cite where the page, where the answer came from, which means you don’t even have an opportunity to earn that click. Even more insanely frustrating.

But in this case I’ve searched for baseball, how many players on a baseball team. You can phrase this query in a bunch of different ways, and you will get Major League Baseball rosters, a roster of players able to play, blah, blah, blah, blah, the 25-man roster, and the 40-man roster. Do there are two different kinds of rosters in baseball, and Google is building a big, long answer to try and explain this and then sending you to the Wikipedia page if you need more detail.

So these four kinds of things are causing a ton of consternation in our field. There was a study from Stone Temple Consulting, out in Boston, that Eric Enge and Mark Traphagen put together, where they looked and saw that over a large quantity of search results, I believe it was 800,000 search results set, almost 20%, 19% of those had rich answers in some format, direct answers in the SERPS, like one of these, and I think that even excluded number three here, the Knowledge Graph. So that’s a lot of queries where Google is taking away, potentially, a ton of traffic.

You might say “Hey, well, in the long tail and in the chunky middle, it’s probably not as bad as it is in the fat head of query demand.” But this is still very significant for a lot of folks. So there are two ways to think about this. One is strategically, and one is tactically.

Strategic plans to consider

My first advice is on the strategy side of SEO. So when you’re thinking about Knowledge Graph and instant answers and these kinds of things, how they affect your results, I’d ask;

#1 – Decide whether branding is worth it

“Is the branding of extracted answers a worthwhile SEO investment?” If you get this, like Wikipedia has here, is that actually worthwhile for you? Or is that something where you say, “You know what? We’re not going to concentrate on it?” Therefore from saying, “Hey, that’s not an investment for us, any time we start to see these types of results, we’re no longer going to make a considerable SEO investment there. We don’t really care if our competition gets it. We’d rather focus our energy, attention, dollars, people, time on the organic results, where we think we can earn a higher click-through rate and actual traffic, rather than just the brand association.” Or you might say, “Brand association matters hugely. We want very much to be associated with baseball. We’re trying to build this up. It would be great if we could replace Wikipedia here. We’d be thrilled even if we didn’t get the traffic.”

Then, you need to go through the step of actually building some analytics. We need to say, “Hey, how are we going to measure, when we get these kinds of results, the potential volume that’s going on there, and then how are we going to record that as a success?” You won’t be able to see it in your visitor analytics or in any metric that is directly associated with your website.

#2 – Evaluate the likelihood of Google replacing your content

What kinds of content investments could Google replace with instant answers? Content investments that we are making or that we are planning to make. If they could replace them, how likely do we think that is, and does that change our strategy around what we want to invest in from a content perspective, from an SEO perspective, for the future?

If we say “Hey, you know what? We are in the online printing business, and we think that Google will soon have a price comparison, in-search, direct answer kind of a thing, like they have for flight search, in our field. You know what? Maybe we want to shy away from that, and we want to go down a different avenue for the content that we’re going to create.” That could be something that goes into your calculus around decision-making. I would urge you to at least consider the possibility and know where your threat vectors are from a “Google taking us over in the SERPS” perspective.

#3 – Decide if customized answers will help or hinder your plans

Do we want more customized answers? If you’re Major League Baseball or the Seattle Mariners, this is actually probably a godsend. This is a wonderful thing, reason being it helps folks directly find, so fast, where they can watch it on television, where to buy tickets online. This is actually probably wonderful for the Seattle Mariners. They don’t actually care that much, at least from a strategic perspective and overall perspective, whether this is costing them a lot of traffic to their website, because it’s bringing great value to the brand. Google is sending folks directly to the authoritative site. So this means, from an SEO perspective, you don’t get spammers or manipulators or ticket resellers, who are taking over this search space for them.

So depending on the kind of brand you are, the kind of organization you are, instant answers might be a great thing, in which case you might want to think about, “How can we partner more deeply with Google? What can we provide in a structured format? How do we get that information to them in that kind of way, where they will, hopefully, replace a lot of these fat-head queries with exactly what we’re hoping they do in a fast, efficient manner for searchers?”

Tactical plans to consider

Next up is tactical plans to consider, and I think the first one’s most important here.

#1 – Evaluate SERP opportunity

When you are doing your keyword research and your keyword evaluation, I think one of the things that many, many folks are still missing from this is a column that looks at keyword opportunity. So historically, we’ve had a bunch of things when we do keyword research. Here’s our keyword column. We look at difficulty. We might look at volume. We might look at potential value to the business. Maybe we’re looking at how successful it was when we purchased that keyword and what the conversion rates were like, all those kinds of things, path to conversion, etc., etc.

But one of the things we have not historically focused on is keyword opportunity, meaning the click-through rate opportunity. You could do something like a bucket — high, medium and low. I put HML here. You could say something like, “Hey, we think that this alters the click-through rate curve, random guess 30%, 40%, whatever it is,” and use some numbers to classify those so that when you’re actually doing keyword research and choosing which keywords to consider, you make the right kinds of decisions, because a lot of the time you might see, hey, this has high volume, the difficulty’s not that bad, oh shoot, but Google has an instant extracted answer that is taking up 30% of the above-the-fold space or 40% of the above-the-fold space. SERP number one is probably getting 20% of the click-through rate that it would ordinarily get if that instant answer weren’t there. So that needs to be a part of our calculations going forward.

#2 – Identify content and intent gaps in Knowledge Graph and answer boxes

What kinds of content and kinds of event are searchers who are not satisfied by the Knowledge Graph or instant answer listing, what are they searching for and how? That is an opportunity for us to get around this problem. If I search for “Seattle Mariners schedule,” but what I’m actually looking for is I only want to see away games that are in three states that I’m going to be visiting, well, you know what? Actually, this isn’t enough. I need to go directly to the page, and so that might be an intent that I’m going to try and serve very easily from a user experience perspective on the page that ranks first that’s on seattle.mariners.mlb.com.

That question, if you can answer that effectively and find a bunch of those, you may, in fact, over time be able to get rid of those instant answers. You’ve probably seen, there have been examples, where Google had an instant answer, had a Knowledge Graph, got rid of it, and my perception is that a big reason for that is that searchers weren’t clicking those. They weren’t taking advantage of them and instead they were choosing results below the fold, below the instant answer, and so Google got rid of it. So nice thing there.

#3 – Decide if structuring data for Google helps or hurts your cause

Should we be creating or avoiding structured data for Google to use, and will our competition do that? So you need to make a decision. Hey, should we create structured data that Google can easily pull into Knowledge Graph, easily pull into instant answers? If we don’t do it, will our competition do it? Do we care if they do it, if we don’t do it? It’s a little bit of prisoner’s dilemma sometimes, but you’ve got to make the call there, and I think that’s something SEOs should do in their tactical plan around keywords.

#4 – Create control data (where possible) for search traffic analytics

Next, do we need to control for search traffic changes with Knowledge Graph and instant answers in our analytics or our forward-looking estimates? So if you say to yourself, “Hey, we started seeing some tests here. We expect Google’s going to roll this out in our space, around our site. How is that going to impact us, and what does that mean for our year-over-year search estimates for SEO, traffic estimates for SEO? Or what does it mean for how much we think we can grow this year or in the future, that kind of thing?” Looking backwards, if this has been introduced, how much did that change our results sets and our traffic, and do we think that could happen more or less? Have we put that into our analytics so that we recognize, hey, our SEOs did great work. Google just took a lot of the traffic away from us, from an opportunity perspective?”

#5 – Focus on longer-tail searcher intent

Then the last one I think we need to think about is very deep in the tactical trenches, but that is: Did the titles, descriptions, and even the keyword targets that were focused on, those need to focus on longer-tail or more specific types of questions and searcher intent. So we might say, “Hey, you know what? I’m willing to sacrifice ranking for ‘Mariners mascot’, but I really want to rank for ‘Mariner Moose videos.’ Or I really want to rank for ‘Mariner Moose costumes.’ I really want to rank for whatever those extra intents, those things deeper down the funnel, and those long-tail parts of the query might be.” That could change the types of content and keywords that you invest in.

All right everyone, I know Knowledge Graph and instant answers can sometimes be very frustrating for us. But I hope you’ll apply these tactics and recommend some more in the comments and that we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!