Last year Google announced the addition of FAQ and Q&A formats to the structured data it collects from websites to generate “search snippets,” or “knowledge panels”. Websites with a question and answer function can now be featured in the carousel or right-hand panel views that the search engine creates in response to user queries.
As a reasonably new feature, it may not be clear exactly how the Q&A format can be leveraged or what benefits it offers for SEO. Many businesses don’t understand the point of search snippets at all – this is a significant mistake. Businesses in 2019 can get a leg up in search rankings by paying attention to search snippets and formatting their pages with structured data.
Google’s AI Strategy
For the past decade, Google has been working overtime to revolutionize human-machine interaction with products like Google Assistant for Android and Google Home. Using artificial intelligence (AI), these services can accept commands, “understand” ambiguous or imprecise language and respond in human-like ways to casual voice queries.
Last year we saw the full extent of Google’s AI wizardry with the release of Duplex, which is now active on its Pixel line of phones. In a tech demo at Google I/O 2018, the company shared a demo of the Duplex service calling a hair salon to schedule an upcoming appointment, which it negotiated with a real receptionist.
This astounding level of human-like language abilities is a core feature to Google’s range of services from search to translation and advertising. But to understand how all of this works, we have to go back to 2012 when Google released the “Hummingbird” update to its search engine.
Knowledge Graph and Semantic Search
Google has changed and evolved over the years, leaving search engine marketers (SMEs) maneuvering to keep their websites at the top of search results. In the beginning, ranking was straightforward: Google matched the content of a website with “search strings,” giving rise to SEO practices like keyword stuffing.
Over time, this approach developed to make abusive practices more difficult. For instance, the search engine cracked down on low-quality “content farm” links in 2011 with its Panda Update. But the most significant change to date came a year later with Hummingbird.
The first major component introduced in the Hummingbird update was Knowledge Graph, a database relating connected “entities” or “objects”. The second major component was RankBrain, a machine learning algorithm which translated user search results into “intent based” queries which could be broadened by finding related objects in the knowledge graph.
Together, Knowledge Graph and RankBrain fundamentally changed Google from a search engine for “strings” to a search engine for “things”. Rather than interpreting every user query literally, searches are now “semantic,” returning pages based on their overall usefulness to a user. The algorithm can also use contextual cues like past user behavior and click-through-rate (CTR) to determine which interpretation of a given query is most relevant.
After seven years, it might be difficult to appreciate what the Hummingbird update means in concrete terms. Here’s an example of the technology in action, coupled with Google’s knowledge panels. In response to a search for “kobe beef” in Leesburg, the algorithm uses several sources to generate a result:
- Based on the user’s history and location data, it infers that the user means Leesburg, VA rather than Leesburg, FL or Leesburg, AL
- Via the knowledge graph, it recognizes that “kobe beef” is a kind of “wagyu beef,” that “steak” is a kind of “beef,” and returns results for both
- By connecting the name of a restaurant with an inexact keyword match in a user review, the algorithm returns a promising result that does not explicitly offer “kobe beef”
Although Google is not the first search engine to attempt semantic searches aided by machine learning (Bing tried it in 2005), it is the first to gain widespread success by users. Every day, the engine processes about 3.5 billion searches, learning from results and becoming more accurate every second.
How it Benefits Users
The changes in Google’s algorithm have permanently changed best practices for website design and content development. Keywords still matter, and RankBrain only accounts for one third of the signals that Google uses to rank a website.
However, an increased emphasis on semantic search and natural queries have dramatically reduced the amount of spam, and forces businesses to focus on generating authentic content that provides value to their visitors.
Moving forward, SEO is about user intent it’s not about backlinks or magic strings of words meant to sponge up traffic. The best way to attract visitors is to optimize for user experience (UX).
How it Helps Businesses
One major advantage of Knowledge Graph is that Google can dynamically generate content for users based on information distributed throughout its enormous database. These are the familiar “panels” and “snippets” that immediately share information about businesses, movies, events and people on search pages.
For business owners, this is great news for at least three reasons:
- Improved discovery: prospects can quickly find the information they need about local businesses even without a website.
- Great UX: knowledge panels are convenient and visually appealing; they give users a chance to interact with businesses by leaving reviews and feedback.
- Increased web traffic: knowledge cards encourage users to visit a business’s website through positive feedback, information and direct links.
All in all, Knowledge Graph gives businesses one more way of building value for prospects as part of an overall content strategy.
Q&A Cards and Schema Types
So how can businesses deliberately leverage Google’s knowledge cards to their advantage? The answer is simple: feed the database.
Knowledge Graph has to get its information from somewhere, and although it uses sources like Wikipedia, Wikidata, and the CIA World Factbook, it also looks at information specifically marked as data in the websites it archives.
When it comes to getting featured in a search panel, there is no magic formula. A business must include structured data on its website using markup formats like schema.org to ensure that information will be sent to Knowledge Graph. But from that point on, generating cards is at Google’s discretion.
Besides the new Q&A and FAQ schemes, there are also formats for:
A great introduction to schema types is available here.
Google has also released a guide to using its new Q&A cards including formatting details and use cases. It’s important to remember that Q&A cards are for websites that allow users to submit answers. To offer a list of site-generated answers to common questions, consider the FAQ format instead
Improving Your Chances
While there’s no way to guarantee that formatted data will end up in a search snippet, there are a few simple ways to improve the odds:
- Use schema – if you don’t use it now, adding structured data to your homepage is the first step to making sure that Google’s knowledge graph picks up on your content.
- Get listed on Wikipedia and WikiData – since Google references both of these sources often, these sources can improve your chances of getting picked up by the algorithm.
- Claim Your Google My Business (GMB) listing – GMB pages were formerly part of Google+, and they are one of the first sources Google uses to generate search snippets. An astonishingly low number of businesses ever claim their listings, so having one will provide an instant competitive advantage.
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