Google Featured Snippet and Core Updates in January 2020: Expert Roundup

Melissa Fach

Jan 24, 202016 min read
Google Featured Snippet and Core Updates in January 2020: Expert Roundup

Google is at it again — making announcements that are stressing people out. Here is the tweet that started what Lily Ray called the "Featured Snippet-apocalypse": 

If a web page listing is elevated into the featured snippet position, we no longer repeat the listing in the search results. This declutters the results & helps users locate relevant information more easily. Featured snippets count as one of the ten web page listings we show.

This tweet caused a lot of conversation, panic, and spurred a lot of questions that haven't stopped over the last 24 hours. So many questions meant Google had to keep responding, and every response brought more questions, irritation, and worry.

With so much concern out there, we thought we would ask a variety of experts what they thought about the Google 2020 core update announced in January and this latest announcement regarding featured snippets. How these folks are looking at these two changes and how they are handling them should be a guide for the rest of us. So, check out what they had to say, and let us know how these changes have impacted you. 

Marie Haynes

Marie Haynes

Owner, Marie Haynes Consulting Inc.

This will be an interesting time for those who monitor and report on client rankings. The January core update went live on January 13, and according to Google, will take up to two weeks to fully roll out. Then, on January 22, we found out that Google made these featured snippet changes.

There are anecdotal reports that those changes went live a day or two before we found out. As such, if your traffic has changed significantly in January, it is going to take some deep investigation to figure out what happened. What we don’t know, as well, is whether it is a good thing now to own a featured snippet.

In some cases, it could result in more clicks to have that cherished top ranking spot. In others, though, the featured snippet could give users their answer and could result in people not clicking through. And even worse, some searchers may be trained now to skip past the “Google stuff” - ads, PAA, Featured snippets, etc. and go to the organic results. If this is the case, losing a top page organic ranking so that you are now placed in the featured snippet could have a detrimental effect on CTR. 

"I would recommend that we all do testing on our own data rather than relying on what other people say when it comes to determining whether we should be trying to win featured snippets now."

If you own the snippet, can you tell whether clicks to your site increased since this update started? If they decreased, you can experiment with rewriting content, using the max-snippet feature, etc. to see if you can lose the featured snippet. In many cases, if you do, you can regain the snippet once again by reversing the changes made. If you lose the featured snippet, you can then determine whether you have more clicks with a regular organic result rather than holding the featured snippet spot.

The answer to whether or not you should try to win a featured snippet is going to vary widely depending on the query, user intent, whether the snippet fully answers the question, and much more. A lot of testing is going to be needed here!

Lily Ray

Lily Ray

Director of SEO at Path Interactive

The January 2020 core update was a big one, particularly affecting YMYL websites, such as health and wellness, drugs and rehab, financial topics, news and politics, and more. One interesting observation from the initial volatility is that several of the major natural medicine doctors, who had been hit hard by prior updates, are seeing some initial improvements.

Several of these sites have been making drastic changes to their content, such as by improving E-A-T, incorporating expert reviewers, or addressing reputation issues with their brands. While the initial increases in organic traffic performance are nowhere near a full recovery to pre-2019 traffic levels, the initial results of this update are promising.

Featured Snippet Update:

So far, the Featured Snippet update appears to largely be negative for the SEO industry. Indeed, one of our clients is already seeing a 30% decline to one of their most important service pages. This is due to the fact that this page ranks in the right sidebar Featured Snippet, and as of yesterday, the regular organic link to the same URL, which previously ranked #1, has been removed from the first page.

While Google’s intentions of eliminating “clutter” within the results are a good thing, in theory, this update won’t result in more brands being able to compete for page 1 (as I originally thought). It simply removes the second instance of the URL for the website that owns the Featured Snippet, without replacing it with another page.

"The only potential benefit to this update is that some SEO professionals are reporting seeing a second URL on their website ranking in the top 10 for queries where they own the Featured Snippet."

So there may be some potential to capture additional SERP real estate via two URLs instead of one.

It is important to keep close tabs on the performance of your keywords and pages generating Featured Snippets right now. In some cases, if the traffic declines are significant enough, it may be worth implementing a nosnippet tag to restrict Google from displaying your content as a Featured Snippet. But even then, there is no guarantee this will cause your page to rank well in the regular organic results.

AJ Kohn

AJ Kohn

Owner, Blind Five Year Old.

January 2020 Core Algorithm Update

The January 2020 Core Algorithm Update follows a continuing pattern of Google preferring content that more specifically matches query intent. Advances in natural language understanding mean that Google is more confident in matching 5 to 9+ word queries to relevant documents. Not only that, but they increasingly prefer documents that are precisely about that topic rather than a high-authority category page that contains that content.

Long-tail sites are winning, and the massive 17 scroll 'guide page' strategy is going to leak traffic. Understanding how users are searching (aka, query syntax) and matching it with concise and well-formatted content that satisfies intent is my best advice. Think small, forget Panda, and honor your user's time. Search success increasingly relies on a multi-session approach.

Featured Snippet Gate

The SERP configuration change in featured snippets could have a large impact on the click-yield a site expects from that SERP. At this point, it's a bit early to tell just how much it will change things. And the impact of removing the organic result will depend on where you were ranking.

Rank first? The haircut you get might be material. "Wow, that's a new look for you!" Rank fourth? The haircut you get might be minimal. No one will notice. However, I would not recommend optimizing out of the featured snippet. The traffic gains from that first position are usually quite large.

So, the net of having a featured snippet might be less, but it's still better than your competition having the featured snippet. Of course, the usual caveats around edge cases for specific verticals and queries apply. But I'd certainly be a very happy camper if a competitor decided they wanted to give up their featured snippet strategy.

Aleyda Solis

Aleyda Solis

International SEO Consultant & Founder at Orainti

Regarding the Featured Snippets update, I would recommend people with featured snippets to: 

  • Assess the before (with the featured snippet + page in "regular" organic search result) vs. after (only in featured snippet) behavior in clicks and organic search traffic before making any decision. 
  • If the results coming from these pages + queries/SERPs rankings are worse now, then you might think it's better to "lose" the featured snippet result. It would then be advisable, before taking this step, to also check which is the "regular" organic search position that the page would move to if removed from the featured snippet. You can use SEMrush to check the ranking these pages previously had for those queries before the update. Or, you can use this cool trick from Kevin Richards to see if it would really be beneficial and if the CTR behavior you can expect from a result in this position would be better than the one from the featured snippet or not. 
  • If after doing this you think that the performance will improve by removing the page from the featured snippet, and leaving it in the regular organic search result (or are unsure and would like to test), I would recommend starting with just a small set of pages to validate the change by setting the max-snippet tag to lower lengths as specified by Google here. So, you can keep snippets in regular search results but avoid appearing in featured snippets). If the results are positive, then you can continue with the change with a bigger list of pages, and if not, you can reverse. 
Michelle Robbins

Michelle Robbins

VP of Product Innovation at Aimclear

For each of the updates announced by Google this month, our client portfolio overall remained stable with respect to each site's SERP visibility. A number of cases have seen organic impressions increase since the core update. We have clients across verticals, including medical and ecommerce, and have noted none of the significant volatility others have reported. 

However, I'm loathed to draw too many conclusions this soon out from an update and find time better spent in continuing to focus on core customer goals - converting valuable traffic.

I would suggest that the best way to update-proof a site is to maintain a distributed traffic profile (not relying on Google/organic search exclusively). It sounds trite, and I know folks get tired of hearing this, but having a multi-channel, integrated marketing plan, focusing on your content, and serving your customer's needs when they arrive at your site is the path to winning the long game.

Google aims to improve search results relevance with each update (especially the core updates). If your heart skips a beat every time an update is announced, you are spending too much time chasing an algo instead of customers.

On the featured snippets/de-dupe change - we have noted no volatility here with clients either, and I am not surprised to see this move on Google's part. Google first announced SERP diversity efforts back in June 2019, and in general, have demonstrated they will be actively mixing up the results sets returned. I expect we will continue to see the SERP feature sets change, become even more context-dependent, and themselves be volatile based on user interaction with them. Evergreen note: don't put all of your eggs into any one of Google's baskets. :)

Ann Smarty

Ann Smarty

Brand & Community Manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas

Featured Snippets are descriptive (as Google puts it), and often it is not what the search user may be necessarily looking for. Featured Snippets were introduced to give immediate answers, and often these answers are too exhaustive, so there is no need to click.

For either or both of the reasons, this means featured snippets may have lower click-through than organic search results, which is what many people are reporting to be seeing after the update.

Now, this is not to say you need to de-optimize for featured snippets, because this may hurt your organic results. And I am still dubious about their "opting out" method, as that means opting out for each particular case, which is neither doable nor scalable.

Besides, it is still a win if you get featured when actually ranking #3 or lower (which is quite doable if you do a good job optimizing for answers)

At this point, it is too early to say what we should be doing, so my initial plan of action is:

  • Review your pages that are currently featured (tools can help). 
  • See if your Google organic is declining for any of those.
  • If so, your first move should be not opting out or de-optimizing, but trying to tweak your title first to see if you can get more clicks. Add some sort of CTA ("click here!" "download!"). Then wait and see if it changes anything. You may tweak your featured paragraph the same way.

I feel like featured snippets do provide value to both publishers and users, so it is too early to reject them.

Check out Ann's latest article: Google’s Featured Snippet Deduplication: What Does It Mean for Web Publishers?

Bill Slawski

Bill Slawski

Director of SEO Research at Go Fish Digital

The most recent patent about featured snippets that I saw was behind the post that I wrote called, Does Google Use Schema to Write Answer Passages for Featured Snippets?. That told us that Google might look for textual passages to answer questions with, or to further describe and define something being searched for. And, Google might look to text that had structured data associated with it, which seemed to possibly include schema or data from tables.

Many people commented when they saw featured snippets that didn't provide attribution to a source that a textual passage was taken from, and the answer was more than public domain type information — and Google had been providing attribution to sources, in the form of links.

Google has been selecting authoritative pages from the first page of SERPS as a source of featured snippets, and those had been showing at the tops of organic search results, much like the Google Q&A results were, and Google Definitions were (so there is a long history of treating additional information at the top of organic results as if they were in a position 0. 

The Announcement

An announcement from Danny Sullivan yesterday told us of a change about how Google would treat featured snippets, with the source of the snippet (apparently still selected from the first page of search results.) being moved up (promoted) to the top of organic results with a textual passage, and a link.

The second listing that used to be available on the first page of search results would no longer be available. It appears that because of what is being called a bug, the snippet being moved up to the top of the results for a set of SERPs was also being displayed as a snippet at the top of the second page of the search results., We have been warned that those would stop being shown there. A number of questions and responses to Danny Sullivan's announcement were made.

Some have noted that a deduplicated URL may appear on the second page of results. This is not a guaranteed position, nor by design, nor might it stay that way. Deduplication does not purposefully move the deduplicated URL to the second page....

What People Discussed

Some people questioned whether they might lose traffic, believing that featured snippets might get less clicks than normal looking search snippets.

Some people asked about images that sometimes accompanied featured snippets but were taken from other pages than the text and link show. They were concerned about the source of the image being removed from being shown as a search snippet on the first page of search results and were told that those wouldn't be if they were only the source of the image.

Some people noticed that some results were continuing to be displayed on the first page of SERPs for a query if they were special results, such as those labeled "top results."

I mentioned that if you had two pages ranking on the first page of a set of search results for a query term, and one of those had been selected as a featured snippet, the second search snippet for the second result would continue to show in search results, even if the search snippet from your first page listed may have been removed.

One of the responses from Google about this change was that while a link was being removed from somewhere on the front page of a set of SERPS, it was being moved to the top of organic listings, which is where most people doing SEO want to be. A concern that I have, and I have seen a few others question this on Twitter, a loss of clicks on search results.

The announcement about this change was that it was being done in an effort to "declutter" search results, as best selling author Marie Kondo, wrote about organizing things you own and keeping things that spark joy. 

This is a change from language that Google has used in the past to describe changes like this in which they told us that they were trying to provide more diverse search results.

Like when Google was merging high ranking local and organic results by boosting the local ranking and removing the organic ranking, which I wrote about in, How Google May Create Diverse Search Results by Merging Local and Web Search Results. I did see merging like that take place at least once, but it is possible that kind of merging didn't last very long.

Google may not roll back the removal of some search snippets from the first pages in SERPs after those have been chosen as featured snippets and moved to the tops of organic results.

Dawn Anderson

Dawn Anderson

Managing Director at BeBertey

I would be lying if I said I knew what was going on with all the changes. However, I can say that I don’t focus on algorithmic updates and changes in my strategies since we have always taken a broad net approach rather than focusing on just a handful or two of keywords.

The featured snippet update will no doubt have been a result of an attempt to improve the user experience of search engine users, and will also undoubtedly be based on feedback from real users.

While it is disappointing for those brands which have ‘owned’ the ‘above the fold’ SERPs by holding position zero in the featured snippet and position 1 in the ten blue links organic search, it is not necessarily a good experience for those seeking answers. Furthermore, diversity in search is important, particularly on the more generic browsing queries. No brand is entitled to ‘own’ the SERPs.

My advice would be to identify the information needs of your audience, think about the many forms of media which can meet those information needs, delight users, focus on improving your projects overall as well as focusing on individual pages. Meet different intent nuances with more than one page (because it seems that there are still opportunities to get a listing on a featured snippet and a different URL on page 1).

Don’t obsess on algorithmic updates unless it’s clearly your strategy to win more business for SEO.

With regards to the big core update, there definitely seems to be a topical focus with a heavy emphasis on YMYL queries, and dare I say some aspects of ’are you qualified to talk about this subject?’, plus some aspects of local organic search buffeting about.

The New Favicons

With regards to the new favicon pages in both desktop and mobile; Yes, the listings which are ads now do look like organic search results. A client emailed me a few days ago to say that they had dropped to position 4 in organic search for their brand. On checking, they hadn’t dropped at all. They were merely now beneath three other competitors that were brand bidding on their name above. The client hadn’t realized the ads were actual ads (and that’s an ecommerce manager).

The average person, I suspect, is currently unlikely to differentiate between ads now and organic listings, but over time they may realize and begin to skip over ads as they probably did previously.

A Big Thank You to Everyone That Contributed

All the insights above are extremely helpful to the SEO community as a whole. To our readers, these folks are the ones you need to be following to keep up with the latest on Google updates and SEO. I included Twitter and LinkedIn links so you can keep up with what they have to say. I know how busy all of the contributors are; I am incredibly thankful for their time and well thought out answers.

And how about one more tweet to keep you fully informed? Check out this full thread for more information. 

Author Photo
US Personality of the Year 2017 Winner and die-hard Star Wars fan. Herder of cats. Non-cook. Find me on Twitter @SEOaware.