How Rich Answers Can Impact Your Higher Ed SEO Strategy


How Rich Answers Can Impact Your Higher Ed SEO Strategy

Mar 28, 2017By mStoner Staff

What happened the last time you took to Google for instructions on how to make the perfect hard-boiled egg? The average temperature for Florida in May? Or even, “How do I get ‘Hamilton’ tickets?”

Chances are, you were presented with a quick answer to your query on Google’s search engine results page (SERP) — such as the one below — and then you put down your phone or iPad, and threw some water on the stovetop.


That handy snippet of information you received on Google is called a rich answer, which allowed you to more easily find what you were looking for without ever clicking into a website. If you did click through, it was likely because you already evaluated the quality of the answer provided and chose to dig deeper.

Rich answers aren’t just a handy tool for when you need step-by-step directions. They offer new opportunities for search engine optimizers in higher education.

Let’s dive into rich answers and consider how higher education marketers can benefit.

What is a rich answer?

An answer to a search query in Google, often extracted from a webpage, that does not require the searcher to click through to a website.

Rich answers include:

  • Basic snippets longer than the standard 160 characters for meta descriptions.
  • Featured snippets from third-party websites, enhanced to draw the user’s attention, displayed at the top of the SERP (such as the egg example from above).
  • Google-generated answers for content in the public domain (think measurement conversions or the temperature outside).

Rich answer results are on the rise, as shown in research from Stone Temple. In 2015, the company measured more than an 8 percent increase in rich answers over a six-month time period. We can safely assume this number has continued to increase over time, even though an update to the research isn’t available.

Why do rich answers matter?

Rich answers are a game changer for colleges and universities. They don’t play by the same SEO rules (site authority isn’t a factor) and they offer an opportunity for your institution to be featured at the top of search results. If you’ve struggled to land your program pages in that coveted top position, rich answers provide a way to leapfrog organic search results.

Research shows the importance of the top position in SERPs, because it generally receives anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of clicks. However, rich answers are specifically designed to attract the user’s attention, according to Google, and they push down the regular search results. Therefore, rich answers are likely to attract an even higher percentage of clicks in “position zero.” Some estimate that featured snippets will command 40 to 50 percent of clicks.

We can thank voice search, the fastest-growing form of search, and mobile devices for the increased demand for immediate access to accurate content.

A deep dive into voice search and its effect on your SEO strategy is a topic for another blog post. Forbes predicts 2017 will be the year of voice search. With more than half of U.S. teens using voice search daily, higher ed can’t ignore its growing importance.

It’s important to understand where strategies for voice search and rich answers overlap:

  • Pay attention to long-tail keywords. Unlike written search, voice search queries usually include questions and complete sentences. This means queries on voice search are longer. Therefore, your web content must be constructed to answer questions versus simply targeting keywords.
  • Consider how people generally speak. Voice search is more informal and colloquial than written search. Consider the extra words that would be included in a voice search versus a written search.
  • Create content to answer these frequently searched questions. Content remains king for SEO. We’ll dive into this more in just a moment, but don’t forget: You should use a natural, conversational tone in writing your content.

How can rich answers impact higher education SEO strategy?

Think of all the questions a prospective student might have during his or her admissions journey, including:

  • Questions about the admissions process or financial aid: How do I make my essay stand out? Should I apply for early decision? Do I really need to interview with an admissions counselor? What type of merit aid does offer? Can I get a basketball scholarship?
  • Academic program or career-related questions: What can I do with a major in criminal justice? Do psychology majors go to graduate school? How do I become a lawyer? What is the average salary for someone with a degree in computer science?

Wouldn’t you like the displayed featured snippet on these queries to be from your institution?

Where do I start?

While there’s no surefire way to get your content featured as a rich answer, there are three steps you can take to increase your odds:

1. Research questions that people are asking.

  • Talk to your admissions team to learn the most popular questions they’re asked during each stage of the admissions journey. What do they hear during college fairs and high school visits? How about on-campus visit days or in interviews?
  • Check your Adwords Keyword Planner and on-site search queries to uncover what people are currently asking.
  • Take a look at results from Google’s autofill, the “people also ask” box, and the “related searches” box at the bottom of your SERP.


2. Optimize your content for the rich answer box.

  • Restate the question using an H1 tag.
  • Provide a specific and succinct answer to the question.
  • Provide only one answer per page.
  • Sprinkle in keywords relevant to the query in your answer.

3. Make your content eligible for rich answers with schema markup.

  • The Search Engine Journal says: “Schema markup will also allow Google to identify semantic entities within the source code of your site, and therefore extract data from within your content to be used in its Answer Box. Sites with a clear semantic markup may be looked at preferentially when Google is finding information for its results.”
  • If you need a primer in what schema markup is and how it affects SEO, check out this great blog post from Kissmetrics.

In summary, Google’s demonstrated commitment to rich answers is changing the SEO game, and higher education has a terrific opportunity to benefit.

If nothing else, start paying attention to your own voice searches and when rich answers are displayed for your search queries. Notice when the featured snippet is from a lower-ranking site. And as you start to plan content for the next admissions cycle, test a few of these strategies to see if your institution gets the newly coveted “position zero.”

Great SEO starts with great content. Great content is rooted in storytelling.

If you’re looking for ways to become a better storyteller and extend the reach and impact of communications that you already produce, don’t miss our upcoming (free!) webinar, Digital Storytelling 101.