How We Landed a Featured Snippet in Spite of Bad SEO

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February 18, 2019

SEO worst practices - how we landed a featured snippet in spite of bad SEO

Optimizing web pages for organic search is a key component of any SEO strategy. We are taught to use targeted keywords in page titles, headings, and meta descriptions; to also include keywords in the page copy and the alt tags of our images. We adhere to sound SEO principles, doing everything we can to increase our chances of landing on the first page of Google SERP.

What if I told you that sometimes none of this SEO stuff is really necessary? That you don’t have to worry about optimizing your pages for search. Would you believe me? In this post, I’ll explain how Google used one of our site’s pages as a featured snippet, even though we totally ignored SEO best practices.

meme - we don't need SEO, we're in the yellow pages

Our Most Popular Pages

During the 2018 calendar year, some of the most popular pages accessed by external audiences on our website were (and still are) help pages created by our Information Technology department–pages that explain how to accomplish specific tasks in Microsoft Word and Excel. I selected one page in particular to discuss in this post: Excel: Repeat Spreadsheet Column Headings at Top of Page.

This page briefly explains the steps necessary to repeat column headings at the top of the page of an Excel spreadsheet. (Full disclosure – our main website has been redesigned since this page was created, and none of the help pages were included in the redesign. They are slated for removal because they are being moved to a different platform.)

Here is a screenshot of a Google search done Feb. 5, 2019, for the phrase “repeat excel column headings.” 

screenshot of Google search results

You can see that our page has in fact been used by Google as the featured snippet, taking the coveted position zero. You’re probably thinking, “He has to be exaggerating. The SEO can’t be that bad if the page was selected for a featured snippet.” Well, let’s take a look.

Where We Went Wrong

There are many examples of bad SEO on this page, which was created long before we were aware of what SEO was or the best practices surrounding it. Let’s look at the page title, meta description, and header tags. 

Title Tag

The title tag is the most important part of a page to optimize because it’s the first thing a search visitor sees about your web page in the SERP. The optimal length of the title tag should be between 50-60 characters (Moz). Any more than that and you have a good chance of it being truncated in search results. Our help page title comes in at a whopping 118 characters, almost twice the recommended length:

Excel: Repeat Spreadsheet Column Headings at Top of Page – Help Pages – Information Technology – Cedarville University

In the screenshot shown above, Google displayed the first 64 characters of our title. Although long, the title does describe the page. A better title, based on current SEO principles, might be:

How to repeat column headings at top of Excel spreadsheet

This new title:

  • places keywords near the beginning (repeat column headings)
  • clearly describes the content on the page
  • is only 57 characters long
  • reads like a natural sentence

H1 Tag

The H1 tag is the most important of the header tags. Its main purpose is to give the reader a strong sense of what the page is about. Here is the H1 tag from our help page:

Excel: Repeat Spreadsheet Column Headings at Top of Page – Help Pages – Information Technology – Cedarville University

This should look familiar because it’s exactly the same as the page title. Having the H1 tag match the page title is not a problem for SEO, but to me it’s a missed opportunity. A slight difference between the two tags gives you a chance to include another of your targeted keywords (or a semantically related keyword). While there is no ideal length for the page header, try to make it only as long as it needs to be to accurately describe the page. 

Did I say H1 tag? I meant to say H1 tags. This page has three. While multiple H1 tags are permitted, no one really thinks it’s a good idea to have more than one. But that’s not the worst of it. Not only are there three H1 tags, there are 3 identical H1 tags!

To see the H1 tags, you can right-click your mouse and select View page source, then search for “<H1>”. Or, if you’re a Chrome user, you can install the very useful SEO META in 1 CLICK extension. It takes the data from the “View page source” page and displays it in a nice tabbed format that is really easy to read. (I really like this extension!)

image showing 3 H1 tags in page metadata

Meta Description

The meta description is the text that appears below your title tag in Google SERPs. It doesn’t directly influence page rank, but a good one will generate more clicks – which will affect page rank.

So what makes a good meta description? A meta description should:

  • be as compelling and relevant as possible
  • have targeted keywords at or near the beginning
  • be between 145-165 characters
  • include a CTA (if appropriate)
  • be unique for every page

Our meta description is 319 characters long (bad), contains no keywords (really bad), and has nothing to do with the content of the page (dreadful). This description was copied from an earlier version of our home page – and is repeated as the meta description on all of our help pages. (Yikes!)

H2 Tags

H2 tags (sub-headers) should accurately describe each section of the web page. Think of H2 tags as chapter titles in a book.

The first H2 tag of our help page is also identical to the H1 tags. Repeating the same phrase over and over (and over) kind of feels like keyword stuffing to me. (bad)

Summary of the Bad SEO

To recap the SEO worst practices that we used:

  1. The title tag is too long. (truncation)
  2. The title tag is the same as the H1 tag (missed opportunity)
  3. The meta description is way too long and has nothing to do with what’s on the page. (misleading)
  4. There are three identical H1 tags (wow!)
  5. The title tag is the same as the H1 tags and an H2 tag. (hard to find the words to describe how bad this is)

part of main post image showing title tag equals H1 tag equals H2 tag

How Did We Obtain Position Zero on Google SERP?

Given that we broke, ignored, or abused so many SEO rules, how did we end up with the featured snippet? Believe it or not, we actually did a few things that Google deemed important:

  • The content on the page definitively answers the query.
  • The steps necessary to “repeat the column headings at the top of the page” are in a numbered list. Pages that include lists are often used as featured snippets.
  • The title and header tags accurately describe the page and include targeted keywords.
  • Many other help pages on our site that also deal with Word and Excel are linked to this page.
  • During 2018, this help page had 237,000+ unique pageviews, and the average time spent on the page was over 8 minutes. A quote I read recently sums this up pretty well:

    “Google only loves you when everyone else loves you first.”

Google concluded that our help page answered the query better than any other page. If you go back and look at the screenshot of the search results, you will see that the first result after the featured snippet and the “People also ask” section is a page from Microsoft support. Apparently our page answered the query better than the company that created the product. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Conclusion

When I first saw how popular our help pages were, I had no idea I would be writing a blog post about them. But after I reviewed the metadata and saw how bad the SEO really was, I thought it was something worth sharing. This post illustrates that if the content of the page is valuable enough to Google, it has a chance to appear as a featured snippet, even when utilizing SEO worst practices.

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