A recent Ahrefs study of ~112 million keywords found that 12.3% of queries populate featured snippets. When I read the study results, I was surprised. I expected it to be higher. To me, it feels like nearly every query I optimize for has the dreaded definition featured snippet at the top of its results.
If a query populates a definition featured snippet, the only way to earn the top ranking for that keyword is to include a definition in your content. But a lot of times, that can make it feel more like your writing for machines, not humans.
For example, I recently updated a post about customer complaints. The top result: A definition featured snippet for “what are customer complaints?” I find it very hard to believe that there are people out there who are searching for “customer complaints” because they’ve heard that term but have no idea what it means.
Because of this, I’ve long felt that writing definitions for what feels like every single blog post was just one of those necessary evils of SEO, but recently, I’ve changed my opinion.
I think there is often value for the reader in defining the terms you’re using, and even when you feel that there isn’t, you can add value by approaching definition writing creatively.
What are featured snippets?
See what I did there? But this does kind of make my first point: It’s entirely possible that you’re reading this post and have no idea what I’m talking about when I say “featured snippet.” After all, this blog is geared to content marketers who want to learn more about SEO, so you may or may not be familiar with this terminology.
If you are familiar with it already, it’s super easy for you to just scroll past my definition. You’re probably already doing that anyway. Almost every study of how people read content online says that people skim far more often than they read every word. We’re all just scanning headers, looking for the information we’re most interested in.
But if you’re reading this and you’re not sure what I mean by “featured snippet,” writing anything else about the topic without first defining that term means I’ve completely lost you. How will anything else I write be helpful if you have no idea what a featured snippet is?
I think it’s better to default to the idea that your readers are absolute beginners because, let’s face it, they may very well be. And isn’t it better to make that assumption and write your content so that it’s accessible to anyone who runs across it than it is to assume they know things they may not and alienate a portion of your audience?
What are featured snippets? (for real this time)
Featured snippets are the larger, more visible results that appear at the top of Google’s search results — an expanded listing of sorts. There are three different types of featured snippets: paragraphs, lists, and tables.
Here’s a paragraph featured snippet. It provides a short, 1-2 sentence snippet of text, often with an accompanying image, along with a hyperlinked title to the website where the text was found. Paragraph featured snippets are frequently definitions or answers to common questions.
List featured snippets feature numbered or bulleted lists, commonly from list or how-to posts. Like definition featured snippets, they include a hyperlinked title to the post where the details were found and often also include an image.
Table featured snippets are the rarest featured snippet type you’ll see, but they pop up from time to time. Table featured snippets feature, you guessed it, a table, along with a hyperlinked title to the article where the table appears.
What isn’t a featured snippet?
It’s important to understand what a featured snippet is, but it’s also important to understand what isn’t a featured snippet. For example, answer boxes look a bit like featured snippets, but they’re not. Answer boxes are populated by APIs from Google’s partners, so you can’t optimize for them.
Here’s an example of an answer box. Note that it does not display a link to the website where the information came from.
There are also carousels that are kind of like featured snippets in that they do feature links to the pages where the information came from, but they feature content from multiple sites rather than just featuring one site’s result.
Let’s get back to those definition featured snippets
Now that we’re all clear on what featured snippets are and aren’t, let’s get back to talking about definition featured snippets.
Let’s say you’re writing a post about customer retention strategies. You could assume that someone who’s searching for “customer retention strategies” already knows what customer retention is. And you’re probably right.
But if you’re wrong and someone comes across your post who doesn’t know what customer retention is, wouldn’t it be better to define it for that person? Isn’t it better to let more knowledgeable readers scroll past a section they don’t need in order to make your post accessible to people at all knowledge levels?
But what if the thing you need to define is just asinine?
I get it. I really do. Sometimes, defining something feels so asinine that it’s almost impossible to feel like you’re writing for humans and not machines.
Let’s go back to my attempt to rank in the top spot for the keyword that populated a definition featured snippet for “customer complaints.” I find it extremely hard to believe that anyone who’s searching for this term doesn’t already know what a customer complaint is.
So instead of writing something just bad like “customer complaints are when customers take issue with your product/service and bring that issue to your attention via your customer support or a public forum,” I took a more creative approach:
I am technically defining customer complaints, so I’m doing what needs to be done for the machines to try and win the featured snippet. But I’m also writing for the reader; I’m explaining the philosophical approach to customer complaints that underpins the suggestions found through the remainder of the post.
Writing for humans vs. machines
There is no writing for humans vs. writing for machines if you’re doing SEO correctly. Doing it correctly means you’re willing to think deeply and creatively about what anyone who runs across your content really needs to take action on the suggestions you’re providing.
There will always be things you need to do for SEO that you wouldn’t do naturally if you were just writing a post without SEO in mind. And if you just do those things because you have to, then yes, you’re writing for machines, not humans.
But if you spend some time thinking about why the machines want you to do certain things — and if you remember that the machines are making their decisions based on how humans interact with search results — you can find creative and logical ways to approach writing content that helps people and ranks.