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Unwrapping the Secrets of SEO: Getting Ranked Into An Answer Box

Google increasingly responds to search queries with enhanced organic listings in the form of so-called answer boxes. The trick for modern marketers is understanding which of your keywords are most likely to find the sweet spot for this coveted Direct Answer box. In the battle to increase online visibility, marketers must identify the keywords they wish to rank for this type of Extended Search element so that it’s clear which URL to optimize. In our latest Unwrapping the Secrets of SEO, I’ll show you how to do this using the Keyword Rankings feature and filters found in the Searchmetrics platform. 

What Is A Google ‘Answer Box’?

An answer box is Google’s attempt at providing quick-reference answers to questions in the form of a box (or card) format without leaving the search engine results page, or SERP.  In a previous Unwrapping the Secrets of SEO,  I offered a few tips and tricks about ranking for a Direct Answer. This post expands on that with additional insights and information for beginner and moderate-level SEO outfits.

Answer boxes are positioned above the organic listings and appear in three common formats:

  • Lists
  • Paragraph
  • Chart

Below is an example of the paragraph format:

By Any Other Name

Simple and straightforward, answer boxes have garnered a few other names: Featured Snippet, Fact Box, Google answers or Google box. Among the SEO community, they’re part of the family of Extended Search elements most commonly referred to as a Direct Answer.

Searchmetrics Universal & Extended Search

Quick aside: The difference between a Direct Answer box and Related Questions (People Also Ask box) are their respective positions in the SERP.  The Direct Answer box sits directly under the search bar and is above all of the organic listings on the page. Trust me, it’s hard to miss. The “People Also Ask” box is embedded within the listings as a series of expandable answer boxes containing questions related to the main search.

On a given day, Google processes over 40,000 queries every second, which translates into over roughly 3.5 billion searches per day. That’s a lot of questions!   

A Work in Progress – Quick Answers

Google has been experimenting with providing users with different forms of quick answers since 2011. These became what is known as Extended Search elements – various box elements within the SERP, including the Knowledge Graph, Twitter Cards and – the one this article is designed to focus on – Direct Answers. Since 2012, these types of elements have become more frequently integrated into the Google search engine results page.

Google introduced Direct Answers to their SERP in 2015. In the years following, the company has continued to improve the way in which it provides answers to users’ questions featuring these boxes in Position 0; the most  prominent location above the list of organic search results.

Want to Increase Organic Traffic? Answer Questions People are Asking 

The fact that Google is highlighting content from organic listings in this manner is a huge opportunity for marketers and content writers alike in terms of additional methods for increasing organic traffic. So what’s the number one way to get your content ranking as an answer box? Proper formatting.

SEO Insight: The three most common formats for earning ranking as a Direct Answer box are:

  • Lists in the form of bullets, ordered or unordered (common for recipes or “how to” queries)
  • Chart format (common for information that is best displayed in a chart — think the periodic table of elements)
  • A short paragraph that directly answers a question (best for succinct, definitive answers)

Furthermore, the search terms that trigger this type if integration indicate the user’s intent to gain more information about a topic.  It’s also important to note device preference; Direct Answers are more prevalent on desktop searches than mobile.

Google responds to around 11% of desktop searches with Direct Answers; the percentage for mobile searches is just over 4%. If we look at the question words that Google normally responds to with Direct Answers, “How” and “What” are at the top of that list. – Searchmetrics Universal & Extended Search Study

Identifying Keywords That Return An Answer Box

To see which of your project keywords are ranking as a Direct Answer, navigate to the Organic Rankings tab within your selected project, and click on Keyword Rankings. Your set of Searchmetrics project keywords can contain all sorts of brand or non-brand terms. This feature of the Searchmetrics Search Experience will highlight the project terms that result in a Direct Answer response.

Select the filter for Direct Answer, and you’ll see the terms below.

Searchmetrics Direct Answer feature


From here, it’s worth sorting the data in three ways to begin prioritizing your on-page optimizations. The direction you take from this data is entirely dictated by your business strategy and SEO initiatives.

Approach #1 – Optimize Keywords Already Ranking on Page 1

Here’s a simple optimization that often hides in plain sight. You might ask, ‘Why would I want to further optimize the terms that are already ranking on page 1? I’ve already achieved page 1 status so my job is done, right?’

Not quite.

The SERP is becoming increasingly cluttered—there is so much to click on! That’s why it’s worth the extra effort to give your top ranking pages the greatest chance of appearing in a highly visible format and location. Organic results featured as a Direct Answer earn that spot.

Reading the results below, we can see which of our project keywords are yielding Direct Answer box integration. The keyword and associated URL show you which page and term to focus your on-page optimizations.

Approach #2 – Sort by URLs in Striking Distance

This approach is more business-focused because you can prioritize the ranking URLs based on where they sit in the SERP. Positions between 11-20 are considered page 2 of the Google SERP. These keywords are known as being within “striking distance” of coveted page 1 territory.  In our test example, most of these striking-distance keywords have a search volume below 1,000, which can make them less attractive to spend time and optimization efforts on. Alternatively, a smaller search volume may be exactly what you want to focus on if your goal is a more targeted audience and converting keyword.

Approach #3 – Sort by Search Volume

By sorting the results by Search Volume, you can prioritize the terms that correlate to a high level of customer interest.  In this case, we see in the test project for Searchmetrics, the data shows three terms “seo optimization,”“Google updates” and “meta tag” have the highest search volumes. If we were to improve the ranking position for these terms, we would have a greater amount of organic traffic (Traffic Index) coming to that page. In this way, your SEO efforts are based on what’s interesting to your customers.

Increase Your Web Traffic – General Tips

Many of the instant answers in the Extended Search elements are designed to highlight content that succinctly answers questions users type into the search bar by way of three basic formats.  The three most common formats for earning rankings as a Direct Answer or box are:

  • Bulleted, itemized list
  • Chart format
  • A short paragraph

Structuring your content into one of these three formats will give your page the best chance at earning a spot in a Google Answer box when someone asks “what is a meta description?”

The best part about Extended Search elements is that you can actively make optimizations to your web pages, which can result in your content being featured in an answer box. Unlike Universal Search elements (maps, images, news, videos), which are inherently static SERP elements; it’s either a map or it isn’t. There’s no fooling Google on that one.

If you want further tips on optimizing your content for all kinds of answer boxes, download the Searchmetrics Universal & Extended search study.  The study also contains tips and how-to’s for optimizing for Universal Search elements (hint: use Schema markup).

Applying Column Filters To See Universal Search Elements

Want to see which of your keywords are ranking as Universal Search Elements? It’s easy.  Still within this module on the Searchmetrics platform, you can update the table widget to show which of the same project keywords also rank for Universal Search elements by selecting “Universal Search Integrations” from the drop down filter.

In our example, the two terms below do not rank as Universal integrations (rightfully so, since they’re not one of the following – map, image, news, video). But if they did, this is where you would see that information.

Who Answers Google Questions?

At the moment, you do! As the author of your website content you have the ability to use Searchmetrics project data to see which of the keywords you are tracking yield Direct Answers. Now you have insight into to how to format your content to increase the number of pages ranking in this way.

In the battle to gain more visibility, understanding which of your project keywords are or are not ranking as a Direct Answer allows you to use data to capitalize on the opportunity to increase your organic traffic.

Each module can be easily added to a dashboard (using the “+” icon that’s always located at the top right). It’s one of the easiest ways to share this information with your team.

Now you’re off to the races!


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Holly Miller

Holly Miller

Holly Miller was a Senior Manager of Digital Marketing at Searchmetrics. In this role, she lead digital marketing efforts and the strategy behind blending earned and paid media channels with content marketing, social media and events in partnership with the Global Marketing and Content Marketing teams. Prior to this, Holly delivered SEO insights to some of the world’s largest brands as a member of the Searchmetrics Professional Services team. A true SEO lover, Holly draws her enthusiasm for search from a diverse set of professional experiences in online marketing from communications to creative agency work. She's passionate about sharing her unique professional insight to help marketers improve their customer experience through the use of data.

7 thoughts on “Unwrapping the Secrets of SEO: Getting Ranked Into An Answer Box

  • Jhasketan Garud 2017/05/16 at 7:20 pm

    Hi Holly,

    I had been neglecting “answer box” for quite some time. However, quite recently I have seen that one of my competitors is getting placed at position “o” (the answer box).

    My article occupies position “1” . Interestingly, the image shown on the answer box belongs to my article. I was thinking how to tackle this problem. But after reading your post, I am well equipped to deal with the situation.
    Thanks a lot.

  • Hi:

    Great article. Very well written and laid out in straightforward logical manner.

    Understanding what the Answer box is and how to make use of it is currently important.

    Thanks for explaining it so well.

    PS -> tweeted it out to our followers on Twitter.

  • Great article. I used your tactics to get a answer box in French for my client for this page :

    Interesting to note that getting answer boxes in non-English results remains relatively easy

  • Hi Holly, thank you for such an important update. Descriptive, easily understandable.

    Interesting read!

  • Hi, Holly,

    Though I’m not an Answer Box expert by any stretch of the imagination, I have found that keywords that ask a question are pretty good candidates for AB opportunities,

  • Hey hi,
    I always used to think about how this answer box is displayed and on what criteria does it happen. I got my answers now!
    Thank you 🙂

  • Awesome article, Holly. The Answer Box can be tricky to navigate if your content isn’t built around strong keywords that answer the specific question(s). Thanks for posting.

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