Google’s Direct Answers: How to Keep Visitors Coming to Your Site

Posted by Daniel_Morgan

As Google continues to expand its Knowledge Graph, one of the most significant developments has been that of the Direct Answers Box, which was also recently added as a new component to the 2015 edition of Search Engine Land’s much-loved Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors.

Instead of writing about how to get your content featured in the Direct Answers Box, I thought I would focus specifically on what can be done to ensure your content is displayed properly for a high click-through rate (CTR).

There has naturally been a mix of opinions among SEOs about the rights and wrongs of Google essentially scraping content and serving up the answers directly in the search engine results pages (SERPs). Personally, I think there are a few key points to bear in mind:

  • Google won’t be dropping Direct Answers anytime soon. Instead, they are expanding the pool of queries for which it appears and improving it.
  • People often need more than just a few bullet points or sentences to be satisfied with an answer. The Direct Answers Box gives people an introduction to your main article, and is why optimizing it to make it as enticing as possible is crucial.
  • As search becomes more semantic, “how to” queries and the like will only increase in volume
  • Your article does not need to rank #1 organically to be displayed in Direct Answers, which means you potentially can enjoy greater visibility than competitors who out-rank you!

Title tags and URLs

Like a regular search result, the Direct Answers Box displays the title tag and URL, with the title serving as anchor text for the all-important link to your site. Writing these semantically and concisely will give you the best chance of having a high CTR.

how-to-tie-a-tie-big.png?date=2015-06-15

Paragraph tags

Always make sure that the paragraphs of text within your articles are enclosed with opening <p> and closing </p> tags. I’ve known a number of content writers over the years who have incorrectly used line breaks <br> to create new paragraphs.

In the example below, the very first sentence of a Wikipedia article has been used for the Answer Box. Ensuring that every one of your articles has a strong, concise opening sentences enclosed within <p> tags is recommended. However, do bear in mind that if an opening sentence pulled for an Answer Box answers a search query too concisely, it could mean that the user will not feel the need to click through to your website to read the full article.

what-is-a-double-breasted-jacket.png?dat

Ordered and unordered lists

The proper use of HTML list tags is also important to remember when optimizing your content for Answer Boxes. The ordered list <ol> tag is best for articles that provide users with a series of sequential steps such as “how to change a tire” or “how to make a pancake.” Unordered lists (<ul>) are more appropriate for a series of bulleted points.

If you don’t use these tags, your content will look as if it’s been forced into place, rather than deliberately laid out in an orderly fashion. You can see here that (as you would expect) Martha Stewart is badly in need of an HTML refresher…

how-to-knit-2.png?date=2015-06-15%2021:1

…whereas the team at DIY.com clearly knows their stuff.

how-to-fit-shelves.png?date=2015-06-15%2

Compressed images

Images are also sometimes displayed in Direct Answers alongside a paragraph of text. I’m not sure exactly how Google determines which queries should show an image, but it’s particularly common for images of diagrams to be displayed. That said, other types of images can also be displayed in Direct Answers, as this example shows:

how-to-tie-shoelaces.png?date=2015-06-15

Google is all about quick loading times, and they’re not going to sacrifice this to display your high-resolution images in the Answer Box, no matter how beautiful they are. In fact, it seems that Google favors GIFs over other file formats. Yes, GIFs! At the expense of resolution and quality, GIFs are data-compressed, which results in a relatively tiny file size compared to a PNG, for instance. For diagrams and simple images, GIFs more than suffice.

earthquakes-prism.png?date=2015-06-15%20

Call-to-action links

add-negative-keywords.png?date=2015-06-1

The screenshot above was taken from a search result for ‘’adwords negative keywords”.

These blue links were first spotted in Google’s SERPs back in February 2015, but don’t seem to appear for a great deal of queries. It appears they are reserved for the most authoritative pages on the most authoritative domains. If, in the future, Google Webmaster Tools (recently rebranded as Google Search Console) allowed us to directly optimize these links, it would go a long way in making SEOs more comfortable with Direct Answers in general.

Videos

Disclaimer: I haven’t actually seen or heard of any videos being featured in Direct Answers. However, I am sure it is only a matter of time before they are featured, given that video is a format that works well for how-to guides.

Searches for how-to queries on YouTube (which, let’s not forget, has its own search engine that rivals all others in terms of usage) are up 70% year over year. Given that Google owns YouTube and is already giving YouTube videos preferential treatment in blended search results, adding video content to Direct Answers seems like a natural next step.

Even if videos don’t get added to Direct Answers, video can still be a great way to gain visibility for “how to” queries and similar searches. Just think about the impact of effectively owning Google’s search results for a given query—your content displayed in Direct Answers, ranking in first position underneath Direct Answers with your YouTube video, thanks to Universal Search.

Conclusion

Most of the recommendations covered in this post happen to be best practices for writing evergreen content, which means they are beneficial to implement regardless of whether you want your content to appear in the Direct Answers Box.

I also want to take this opportunity to say that the example queries used above in no way reflect my own personal searching habits. I do know how to tie my shoelaces, and have no interest in learning how to knit. 🙂

Finally, here are the key takeaways from this post:

  • Make sure you and your content writers are using the right HTML tags (e.g., list tags) within the articles you publish online. Head over to Codecademy for a free basic HTML course if needed.
  • If your article includes diagrams or other simple graphics, try converting them to GIF format to reduce file size
  • Ensure that each article has a concise opening sentence that include the article’s main keywords
  • If you have evergreen articles on your site, but no videos, change that

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