Google’s Answer Boxes and Featured Snippets are the skinny jeans of SEO right now: they are soooooo in style. In today’s post we’re not going to focus on machine learning or the algorithmic impacts of Google search engine, but how Google’s Answer Boxes can help content marketers come up with new ideas and expand on stale content.

Answer Boxes will do more than make your calves look good in a pair of heels. They can yield some content ideas that can not only help your customers answer questions about what they are looking for, but they can appease Google’s need for structured content as well.

Answer boxes are also exceptionally good at yielding some essential keyword research options, which is the main topic of our post here today. More on that later.

Vying for position of the coveted featured snippet is an exhausting job. You can spend your time doing that, or you can go for the easier task of making an appearance on one of Google’s answer boxes. Google hands out Answer boxes a bit more liberally than they do featured snippets. Don’t know the difference between a featured snippet and an answer box?

Featured Snippets vs Answer Boxes

Doing a Google Search might return 1 of 2 special features: a featured snippet (singular) or one of more answer boxes (mostly plural.)

A featured snippet (you can also think of it as a “featured answer”) is just that: it is what Google considers the featured (or “official”) answer for that query. It is meant to be a quick answer for what you are looking for.

Answer boxes are kind of like “unofficial” answers. While Google has an official name for featured snippets, I don’t currently see a name for the “people also ask” section so I’ve been (lots of other people do also) call them “answer boxes.” Garry Illyes from Google at one point tried to coin the phrase “related questions” but I don’t see that sticking within industry talk.

Let’s look at this example for the Google search query: “What does a yellow light mean.” (if you are old like me you might get this joke)

Google’s official answer is listed at the very top. Below the “official” answer are answer boxes aka “People also ask.” These terms are algorithmically generated using suggestions and search history to display what Google thinks you might be looking for.

Now that we know what these are, lets look at how we can use them as SEO’s when writing new content or doing keyword research.

Using Answer Boxes for Content Ideas

So you want to outrank your competitors and you want a “surefire” way to produce content that Google loves? Look no further than Google search engine itself!

Example: Let’s say we were doing an article for a traffic school titled “Rules of the Road: Traffic Lights Explained” and we wanted some suggestions on the main headings of the article. We’ve done traditional research and have an outline of our article, but we really want some hard evidence that will guide us in the right way to not only help you rank (high) on Google, but find new keyword ideas as well. There are two ways to go about this:

  1. make an educated guess based on your own knowledge.
  2. use Google to do it for you

Start by making a query (Google search) that will surely produce an answer box, like the above ‘what does a yellow light mean?’

You’ll quickly find that if you keep dropping the selections down, Google will seemingly generate an “infinite” amount of answers to your question. To put our SEO tin foil hat on for a moment, we can see theorize this is Google’s way of keeping us on as long as possible.

These answers boxes not only provide knowledge for people that have questions, but they give SEO’s a glimpse into what users want and what they are searching for.

Google is alllllll about what users want. They want fast sites (verified ranking signal), they want secure sites (ranking signal), they want sites that work on their phones (ranking signal) and they want answers to their questions! But people don’t just want one answer to their questions, most people want a diverse set of answers to draw their own conclusions and that is why they use search engines. 

While creating a blog post outline, start by doing a search query for your topic. Use Google’s infinite answer boxes as suggestions for headings within your blog post. Find the top 5-10 suggestions and throw them into your content creation tool such as WordPress.

Answer Boxes for Difficult Niches

If you find yourself writing about stuff like retro carburetors, Brazilian straighteners, polyethylene playground equipment and everything in between, this might help you.  My first piece of advice is this: immerse yourself in your industry. Read, read and read. If you are blogging about hair straightening methods and you’ve never held a flat iron in your life, that’s going to reflect in your content.

Once you are a topical expert in your niche and just can’t seem to find new topics to blog about, considering using Google Answer Boxes.

Example – you are a blogger for a mobile phone company and are tasked with blogging about the new Snapdragon 835 processor. You know a ton about Android, USB-C, and the newest iOS update but don’t know jack about CPU’s. A very rudimentary search will quickly yield some really cool question and answers!

The first Q&A covers the basic question and answers, but as you start to scroll down you start to see how the mind of the average Google searcher works (or how Google’s algorithm thinks the average searcher works.)

Most of these topics are spread out across multiple websites and various topics from very basic to highly advanced. The real work is trying to figure out which topic will add the most value to your article. Remember, you can take the “main idea” of the Q&A and get content from a multitude of places:

  • embed conversations from Twitter
  • ask people from a quote
  • gasp – expert roundups
  • face to face interviews
  • videos
  • embed audio
  • images and infographics

In short: if you aren’t expert on a given topic, find one! We are blessed with being able to find the world’s experts with a click of an email.

Answer Boxes for Thin Content & Content Cruft

If you aren’t sure what content cruft is I highly recommend going back and reading our case study about content cruft.  Essentially what content cruft is is old content, unrelated content, incomplete content, or anything in between.

Google Answer boxes can help with the “incomplete content” aspect of a content cleanup or content cruft audit.

After you’ve gathered a list of “incomplete” posts or pages on your website, fire up Google and start searching for relevant question and answers using Google’s answer boxes.

For example: let’s say you have a 450 word article about “how to change a lightbulb.” Even for a non-lightbulb guy like me, that sounds pretty basic. One of the easiest ways to expand is to use Google’s Answer Boxes, like so:

Even for me, I can quickly hypothesize that 7/8 of the above question and answers might be appropriate or acceptable headings for my “thin content.” This can turn a piece of content that doesn’t rank and doesn’t get any traffic into one with many different micro-niches that ranks well, gets social shares and maybe even some love from Google.

Even experts have a hard time writing content for difficult niches sometimes. There are some niches that just never change. There are no new products, services, news releases, updates or anything. But that’s not to say people aren’t asking new questions. Use Google’s knowledge boxes to find questions people are asking about difficult niches and use it to your advantage.

WTF! Eliminate unrelated suggestions

As you generate more Google answer box suggestions, Google may attempt to display some answers to questions questions that aren’t related to your topic. Let’s take this somewhat vulgar search query “what does WTF stand for,” you’ll see that the next 5-10 answers are somewhat related. Then BLAM! “What does TF Stand for in medical terms?”

No good! Totally unrelated. If you are writing an article about “WTF”  this won’t help you one bit!

Each time you expand one of these boxes, Google will use its algorithmically-minded brain to yield new results based on what you’ve selected.  Please don’t just copy these answers, rewrite them sentence for sentence, or even use the questions as headlines verbatim.

And yea…I’m not saying “copy word for word” answer boxes.

Don’t ever copy content from Google, they are watching you! :) But you can definitely use these answer boxes as a framework for an evergreen piece of content or even a niche post.

Use this tactic for research, not plagiarism. Personally, I’m a huge fan of doing an outline before even thinking about writing a piece of content. Especially for evergreen stuff. I normally jot it up in Google Keep then transfer it to a WYSIWYG editor once the outline is done.

One of the worst possible things you can do is copy content or plagiarize it. It’s true Google doesn’t have a “duplicate content” penalty, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be rewarded for it either!

Extracting Keywords from Answer Boxes for Keyword Research

Say you already have a successful website that is making money and getting a lot of traffic. But your traffic is flat as a pancake. One of the easiest ways to break into a new market is by doing keyword research!

You can use some excellent keyword research tools (I’m still using Google AdWords Keyword Tool) OR you can try something new and checkout Google’s Answer Boxes. I use a number of different tools for keyword research. For eCommerce / product marketing I love to use Amazon auto-suggest. You can also try for Amazon queries.

For blog content type of research, I don’t really have a method for this type of research, its more of a “quick scan” type of deal. What I do is this: find the queries that generate answer boxes where my websites appear, and expand…expand…expand. Look at the top 5-10. What do they have in common? What do they NOT have in common? What is the common theme in the top 10 answers?

Look at this query:

While there are a lot of “how to” and “can you” type of questions, there are also a lot of “how much does it cost” type of questions. Within a few minutes you’ll have a nice handful of keywords to work with.

Example: you are writing about web hosting and need keywords related to WHM. Let’s see what Google says:

Some really interesting suggestions! Even as a network admin myself with lots of familiarity with this niche, there are a ton of keywords here that I’ve never even seen (zPanel, Ajenti, and Interworx). Even though these are product names, they can also be keywords.

Another example is if you have a blog post that focuses mostly on “how to” type of posts, it might behoove you to start adding posts that talk about how much” it costs to do something.

Essentially what this method does is help websites or posts that tend to be “narrow minded” and expand into some new ideas.

Think Like an Actual Human

One of the biggest pitfalls I see technical SEO’s getting into is thinking like a robot or an algorithm all the time. While its fun and rewarding to do this at times, it can really put your content into a box.

It’s fine to get keyword ideas from places like Google’s answer boxes or keyword tools, but don’t forget to actually use your brain. Other ways to do keyword research and get content ideas:

  • have a group chat about your niche
  • meditate for 10 minutes
  • interview 5 different people that don’t know anything about your niche
  • interview 5 experts about your niche
  • read actual books on your subject

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. If you have anything you’d like to add to the post you can tweet @pmkoom or @elitestweets or reach out to us on Facebook. Thanks!