Key sections: What Has ChangedHow Optimisation ChangesRelation to Passage RankingKey Takeaways

Google has just rolled out a new way for presenting Featured Snippets from websites in their search results. In particular, how paragraph snippets are represented in Search.

While seemingly small, this is actually a noticeable improvement to how Featured Snippets operate for users. Google is now making the answer in the snippets clearer through bolding of text.

The standard bolding functionality in snippets has historically related to the search term and any variations. We saw this go a step further in October of 2020, where Google was then bolding answers (a hint for relevance).

Across many different SERPs, I’m now seeing the bolding ‘hints’ completely removed. This means that the article I linked to above, where bolding of specific words in a lot of cases, is no longer a function of Featured Snippets.

This post will explain what has changed with Google’s Featured Snippets, what this means for your optimisation strategies, its relation to passage ranking (or lack thereof), along with some key takeaways.

What has changed with Google’s Featured Snippets?

Google has now gone a step further and is bolding very specific sections of text that directly answer the search term, with the additional text in the Featured Snippet acting as supporting text for the answer.

In the example I’ve shared above for the query “what is a featured snippet”, Google is bolding a specific section of the snippet. This wasn’t previously the case for paragraph Featured Snippets.

Using the SEMrush SERP screenshots tool, I can see a screenshot of what this same Featured Snippet looked like before the bolding update took place. Here’s what this looks like for the query:

Note: SEMrush looks to have changed how their SERP screenshots tool operates. Not sure if this was intentional, but it’s now not possible to change the URL to see a specific date (how I used the tool), which was one of my favourite features. Please either fix this or bring it back 🙏

This is the case across many different queries that I’m seeing on Google. The bolding function is now primarily used for snippets of text within the paragraph format, which was not the case before.

For pages which were presented in an ordered or unordered list Featured Snippet format, I’m not seeing bolding of content in the snippet. One example I shared in the article I linked to earlier was for the query “free photoshop alternative”.

While there is now a different page ranking for this query compared to last year, a lot of the inclusions in the snippet are similar. But this time none of the results in the list have bolding. The same can be said for the search term “best google alternatives”, which no longer has results in bold.

How this changes your optimisation strategies

Not a great deal changes with how we approach ranking in Google Featured Snippets, with Google’s systems determining what content is most relevant to display within the SERP feature.

It is however helpful to have more of an understanding of what Google is looking for. With this update, we’re seeing a two tiered approach, where a snippet of text on the page is relevant, then there’s even more refinement by showing a section in bold.

It is interesting to note that with this update to the bolding function, it doesn’t look to be influencing standard web page listings. I wrote about this happening in January of 2019, which I don’t notice too often these days.

But in summary, there should be no changes to how you approach ranking for Featured Snippets on Google. You should still be aiming to rank in the top ~4 results on Google to become eligible, then ensuring you’re the best answer to the query, having your content structured in a way that’s better than the sites you’re competing with.

Does this relate to Google’s passage ranking?

I don’t believe so. Google has said in the past that passage ranking does not relate to how Featured Snippets are represented in Search, which apparently won’t look any different to searchers (this bolding change certainly looks different).

There was a lot of confusion surrounding Google passage ranking and Featured Snippets when the announcement was made. This was mainly because there was an illustration showing a standard listing transforming into a Featured Snippet.

This was then said to be a bad illustration of the changes, which certainly didn’t help. Google then clarified again that scroll-to-text (which can operate for Featured Snippets, plus various other features) also does not relate to passage ranking.

When searching for “google passage ranking”, this is even a great example of the Featured Snippet change with bolding. Would you say that Google is now bolding the most important part of the snippet?

If you’re wanting to learn more about passage ranking, I would suggest checking out this guide on the SEOSLY blog for a more in-depth read on the topic, which covers some FAQS on passage ranking.

Key takeaways from the Featured Snippets update

While this change isn’t an “official” update that Google has announced, there’s certainly been a change here to how content within Featured Snippets is being represented as it relates to bolding.

Some of the key takeaways from this post include:

  • Google is no longer bolding items for the ordered and unordered Featured Snippet format at all, which was previously a hint for what Google thought was the most relevant answer (for specific queries anyway).
  • A change has come about where for paragraph Featured Snippets, Google is now bolding specific sections of sentences which directly answer the question. Google is continuing to show the entire block of text in Search from the page for added context, but bringing more attention to the answer.
  • This update should not require SEO professionals to change how they approach ranking for Featured Snippets, it’s just a way for Google to present the answer more clearly within the snippet.
  • Based on what we know about passage ranking from Google’s Search Liaison, this change is not related.

If you currently have pages that rank on Google within the paragraph Featured Snippet format, try doing some searches on Google. You’re likely to see a component of your snippet on both mobile and desktop that is now showing in bold.

The bolding function of snippets (both Featured Snippets and standard web page listings) has been an interesting one to track in recent years. This change is probably the biggest from what I’ve seen, where searchers are likely to get the answer to their query even faster.