What are we supposed to do when the adjudicators of all wrong-doing on the world wide web gets caught cheating?
Earlier this week, it was reported that Google was caught “red handed” stealing from… Genius. That’s right. The biggest search engine in the world is accused of stealing intellectual property from a site that you use to look up the lyrics to Sicko Mode.
I’ve been an SEO consultant for a long time. Which is to say, I’ve spent a good deal of my life trying to show Google that I’m always doing the right things and following all the guidelines.
So, the accusation that they were straight-up lifting song lyrics from another site came as a bit… jarring. Google has always stressed how important original content is. As link builders, we’re always trying to be original, creative, and never, ever steal content from anyone else!
While this news story is certainly grabbing headlines, it also brings up a bigger conversation about whether or not Google’s featured snippets are a good thing.
Let’s take a deeper dive.
Google vs Genius: A Timeline
The Wall Street Journal broke the story last week and exposed the entire ordeal to the world. But, that’s not where the story begins. Genius first approached Google with accusations of stealing their content back in 2017, citing instances that dated back to 2016.
Genius said they first spotted an issue when Google’s version of “Panda” by Desiigner was a dead letter perfect match to Genius’s version. Most sites had trouble understanding the true lyrics and Desiigner personally penned Genius’ version. This threw up red flags that something was afoot.
But, how can you tell if one site is using another’s lyrics? The correct lyrics to a song don’t change and it’s hard to prove one site stole the lyrics from another as long, as both sites have published the correct lyrics, right?
That would be like saying ESPN stole a baseball score from Sports Illustrated, right? Wrong.
In 2016, Genius set a booby trap and watermark for would-be thefts. They, rather brilliantly, started alternating the use of the standardly used “curly” apostrophe (which looks like this ‘) with the less used “straight” apostrophe (which looks like this ’).
I literally had to look up how to do the former on a Mac keyboard for the purposes of this article, which is Option + Shift + ] for the record.
Genius diabolically took it a step further by arranging this pattern in a way where the alternating apostrophe pattern would actually spell out “Red Handed” when converted to morse code. That’s just so nasty.
Guess who was caught red handed by Genius? Google. Genius approached Google with 100 clear cut examples of their watermark showing up in Google’s snippet results.
“Over the last two years, we’ve shown Google irrefutable evidence again and again that they are displaying lyrics copied from Genius,” wrote Ben Gross, Genius’s chief strategy officer.
Despite the pretty-damning-evidence, Google said they were looking into the issue, but not personally guilty of anything, saying, “We take data quality and creator rights very seriously and hold our licensing partners accountable to the terms of our agreement.”
The partners that Google appears to be throwing under the bus there would most likely be LyricFind. They are a Canadian company that signed a partnership with Google to handle their song lyric inquires in 2016, which is the same year that the first infraction was reported with Panda.
When the story first broke on June 16th, LyricFind’s Chief Executive, Darryl Ballantyne vehemently denied any wrongdoing and outright said, “We do not source lyrics from Genius,” he said.
However, he pivoted a few days later on the 18th when he basically said, “Ok, we do, but only a little.” Ballantyne admitted that the site did, indeed, contain Genius lyrics, but called the amount “minuscule” when you compare the 1.5 million songs in their database to the 100 “red handed” songs from Genius.
That same day, Google released a blog titled “How we help you find lyrics in Google Search,” in which they attempted to clear the air and explain their process. They said that, in the wake of recent accusations, they have asked their third-party provider (not naming LyricFind by name) to investigate, while announcing they will soon introduce, “attribution to the third party providing the digital lyrics text.”
At this time, they have not announced plans to drop LyricFind as a partner. And of course, by the time the news story had garnered mainstream attention, Google made sure someone scrubbed all 100 red handed songs from their database. If you check them right now, you will see all of the cheeky apostrophes have been caught and removed.
WIRED Magazine examined the HTML of a random selection of cached red handed pages, and they do appear to show the watermark present until June 12, and then completely gone by June 13th, 3 days before the WSJ story dropped. All signs point to Google scrubbing the 100 songs knowing that the story was about to become news and did some cleaning up before speaking to the media.
The Legal Implications
From a legal standpoint, of course, Genius doesn’t own the intellectual property of these lyrics, the artists and studios who own the actual rights to the songs do. However, that’s not what this court battle is about.
As a matter of fact, Google isn’t even the only one who was hosting the watermarked lyrics. LyricFind also provided these lyrics to other major sites such as Microsoft Bing and Amazon Music. However, Genius focused on Google with their complaint in an attempt to go after the biggest fish. Going after Bing doesn’t really make for sexy headlines.
The legal side is more about Google using its sheer scale and influence to take traffic and revenue away from Genius, albeit passively or tacitly. It’s also about Google and their partners using Genius’ own work curating song lyrics against them.
This is the basis for a potential antitrust lawsuit, which Google is clearly no stranger to. Since 2010, the European Union has launched three separate antitrust investigations and levied formal charges against Google. The search-giant has been found guilty of antitrust behavior and fined over €8 billion so far, in cases against Google Shopping and Android.
The biggest fine of €4.3 billion was in response to Google unfairly keeping Android users (which make up about 80% of the total smartphone market) confined within the Android ecosystem and limited to Google products such as Google Docs, Google Play or Google Maps.
Another Attribution Red Flag Turns Out to Be a Bug, Not a Test
Google also made headlines for the wrong reasons elsewhere that week. It was reported that they were “testing” a new attribution-less snippet, after one was reported by Barry Schwartz of SEO Roundtable.
However, Google responded immediately and called Schwartz out by name on Twitter, insisting that this was a bug and not something they were testing.
Google’s Danny Sullivan went deep on Twitter and responded to the article by saying:
“I know we run a lot of tests. And we don’t get around to confirmed [sic] all of them. But this would be a pretty serious change for us to be testing (which we’re not). And if we’d been asked, I think we’d have taken the time to check and make clear, especially to avoid concerns.”
Schwartz later clarified by saying, “I covered it and some people misinterpreted. I am sorry for any confusion.” We’re not sure how the words “Google is testing” could be misinterpreted… but whatever.
It’s easy to see why Google may be hypersensitive to the claims that they’re testing snippets with no attribution whatsoever, given the PR nightmare they were already embroiled in from the Genius controversy. It may come across as Google is now attempting to claim all information in the known universe as their own.
However, this was not the case, and this was merely a very poorly timed bug.
The Ethics of Google Snippets
How did Google become the biggest thing in the history of looking for things? Did they do it by (almost) flawlessly pointing you to the websites that can answer your questions? Yes.
Did they do it by answering your questions without you ever having to leave Google? Also yes. And that is really the bigger ethical question that this Genius controversy brings up.
How often do you Google something, find the answer, and move on without clicking a link? You see the answer in a snippet, so you’re satisfied and you move on. It actually happens more than you think.
In fact, web-analytics firm Jumpshot Inc reported that in March of this year, a whopping 62% of Google mobile searches didn’t result in a user clicking through to another website. At the same time, 35% of desktop searches ended without leaving Google. This is something that Google is now being heavily criticized for.
Take the music lyrics industry, for example. Genius reported earnings of over $10 million in 2017, so there is big business in settling people’s arguments and bets on proper song lyrics, clearly. Googling serving up the answer without having to visit Genius’ site is very disruptive to their business.
Google has long been accused of stamping out the competition by doing everything in their power to keep users within the Google ecosystem without ever having to leave. This practice has been criticized for taking traffic away from online travel and shopping sites.
Yelp has been fighting this fight against Google for years, claiming that their Google Reviews unfairly stack the deck to keep people on Google sites and away from other review sites. In fact, in 2017 Yelp accused Google of breaking a promise they made as part of a 2012 regulatory settlement to not scrape content from certain third-party sites. Yelp alleged that Google was using Yelp images in their business listings, which was basically stealing their traffic and their photos.
Do Snippets Hurt Small Businesses?
What if you don’t have millions of dollars to fight Google in an antitrust suit? What if you’re a small business owner and you feel like Google is stealing your business?
First of all, Google featuring a snippet from your site can either help or hurt your business, depending on your situation.
Say you’re an injury lawyer and you write a great piece of content about whether or not you can sue a business for slipping on the ice. It’s so great that it is featured as the snippet answer when you Google, “Can I sue the business owner if I slip on the ice?”
That’s actually a big SEO win and a hard-earned win.
People call this getting the Google #0 position because you’re actually above the #1 position. Your brand is now the de facto answer to that question, which positions you as a legitimate expert in your space. Bravo.
Getting this snippet is also not an accident and is actually incredibly hard. It’s an involved process of tapping into the longtail keywords that your target audience is looking for, while optimizing your content to be the answer.
Hubspot has reported that you can actually expect 2x as many click-thrus if you land in this position, which is why small businesses in every space are constantly jockeying for this coveted #0 position above everyone else.
In this example, those click-thru rates are proving that people are definitely leaving Google to view your content. However, that is not always the case.
The Dark Side of Snippets
However, snippets are not always a win. We could look at a business like CelebrityNetWorth.com. They launched in 2008 and quickly became the go-to search result you would click on when you wanted to know how much Taylor Swift or Shaquille O’Neal was worth. At its peak, the site had a 12 person staff and things were looking great.
However, the site’s owner was asked in 2014 if he would be interested in giving Google access to his data in order to scrape it for Knowledge Graph. He said “no,” knowing full well what that could do to the site’s traffic. Fast forward to 2016. Google starts running snippets from CelebrityNetWorth.com and the site’s traffic absolutely plummets, causing them to lay off their staff.
In this case, it’s a very basic question with a numeric answer. There is probably no reason for you to click any further, the simple answer is right there. But, if your business is built on these simple answers, you may be in a lot of trouble.
Does Your Business Want to Show Up For Featured Snippets?
In most cases, yes. As we said, this represents a very big SEO win, which can also lead to more sales and conversions for your company. If you have one now, you should high-five your SEO team.
However, data from ahrefs points to the featured snippet getting 8.6% of the average clicks in SERPs, whereas the first organic result below the snip gets 19.6%. This is compared to SERPs with no featured snippet, where the top result gets an average of 26% of the clicks.
To be blunt, if you’re ranking in either of these spots, you’re doing very, very well. You have considerably better odds than any other position on the front page. This is prime real estate either way.
Do These Featured Snippets Kill the User’s Journey at the SERP?
Sort of, but not really.
About 29.8% of SERPs end without the user clicking any further. That seems like a big number, until you realize that 25.8% SERPs without a feature snippet end with no click from the user. That’s not a massive difference.
Can a Snippet Hurt My Business?
Maybe, but likely not. It is far, far, far more likely to help.
We can look at the cautionary tale of CelebrityNetWorth.com as an example of how it can hurt. In their case, their business did one thing, and that one thing could be revealed in a featured snippet window. Many would argue that isn’t a very strong business model to begin with.
If your business does more than one thing, and a featured snippet isn’t going to give away your company’s secret sauce for free, you will probably be OK.
Can I Own the Featured Snippet AND the #1 Ranking Simultaneously
Yes, you can. If you do, you will basically get a third of all the clicks, while every other position will share the remaining clicks.
Is Getting/ Going After the Snippet When I Already Have the #1 Spot Overkill?
You may see this cannibalizing your previous SEO work.
But, think of it this way. As we said, the Snippet gets about 9% of the clicks and the #1 spot gets about 20%. These are, by far, the highest percentages up for grabs and the most coveted positions.
So, if you don’t grab one of/ both of those spots, your competition will.
How Do I Rank For Google’s Featured Snippets?
H’oh boy. That’s a big question. As we said, this doesn’t happen by accident. If you’ve ever been featured by accident, we sort of hate you.
The simple answer: Tap into the questions your clients are asking and create really amazing content that answers these questions. However, clearly, doing that is very complex.
The good news is that if you’re already doing all of the right things for SEO, you’re already well on your way. In fact, in 99.58% of all cases, the snippet features pages that already rank in the top 10 of SERPs.
Here are some steps you can follow to turn a good ranking into a snippet;
Note: These steps will describe how to take over a current snippet with your content, or hold onto your current snippets. There is no known way that we’ve discovered to force Google to create a new snippet and make your brand the answer.
You can only do all of the right SEO things today and hope Google awards you that snippet in the future. Remember, only about 13% of search queries result in a featured snippet.
Step 1: Choose Your Research Weapon
We highly recommend ahrefs as a keyword research tool. There are other ones, but we truly feel it stands alone.
This is no different than the first step of chasing any sort of SEO success. You need to find the keywords that make the most sense for your business and your expertise, and then you need to go out and own them. It always starts here.
In this case, you’re really going to focus on longtail keywords. These are the complete questions that people are asking Google, so you want to be that complete answer. We have found ahrefs to be the best tool to use to do that.
Step 2: Audit the Snippet Wins You Already Have
You may already hold some valuable real estate on the SERPs. You want to hold onto it!
Audit the snippets you already own by using ahrefs’ Site Explorer tool and using the “Features” filter to the list of keywords.
To ensure you hold these coveted boxes, you will want to do everything you can to set yourself up for future success. This means you want to ensure:
1. These answers are as up to date as possible. If new research or new data comes out, be sure to update your post
2. Both your question and your answer on your page are both are short enough to fit the “box” space.
3. Your content is in the format of the snippet, which could be, short paragraphs, lists, tables, images or videos.
Stay on top of this and audit it as often as possible.
Step 3: Look for New Opportunities For Wins
Yes, you can knock the other guys out of the feature snippet space with some help from your SEO consulting firm. These listings aren’t permanent.
To find new areas to attack, use ahrefs to lock in on the keywords with featured snippets where your website is ranking in the top 10. As we said earlier, almost all snippets come from the top 10. If you’re already ranking here, much of your work is already done and it’s prime space to attack.
Once you find your opportunities, it’s time to write a better snippet than the other guys.
Step 4: Make a Better Snippet
You can’t buy this space, but you certainly can earn it.
How do you write a better snippet than the current winner? There are lots of ways you can one-up them and steal the spot:
– Simplify your HTML
– Make your headers more descriptive and concise than what’s there. For example, go with “How to make a pound cake” instead of “How to make the best pound cake ever.”
– If you’re answering a question that requires numbered steps, add a header called “Directions.”
If a snippet is currently outranking your answer, there may be a few reasons why. Read the competing entry and ask yourself:
Is it Simply a Better Answer?
Can you see why a reader may prefer it to yours? Perhaps it’s more in-depth or more concise? Does it bring better visuals to the table? Or perhaps readers are responding to it because it’s in simple terms with less industry jargon or tech-speak.
Did the competition use a bit of humor in their reply? Readers may respond to that.
Is Their HTML Structure Better?
Your answer may be better, funnier, and more complete. But, maybe Google can’t quite understand your layout or structure.
You need to make it dead simple for Google to read what you’ve done, with clearly defined and laid out lists and tables. A good schema markup is also likely to boost your performance and your ranking.
Your snippets should also be formatted in one of a few different ways:
A straight-up text answer to a question like:
– How to do/get…
– Who is…
– Why is…
– What is…
A sequential series of stats or steps in bullet points or bullet numbers that may be used for:
– How do I…
– The top 10…
– The 5 most popular
3. Table snippets:
If you provide your information in a succinct way in a table format, Google may reformat it for you in their own table.
These may be useful for:
– Nutritional info for…
– Comparing different products
– Survey and study data
4. Video/YouTube Snippets:
These are self-explanatory, but the key to crafting them is keyword rich titles, tags, and explanations.
They are most popular for:
– How to…
– Walkthrough videos
– Song or movie trailers
Is Their Answer More Easily Digestible?
Maybe the competition has broken a complex answer into steps or a numbered list of some sort, while your answer is in paragraph form.
This sends you the message that Google thinks this is what most searchers will want, and you should make your content more digestible and scannable. And you need to do this without losing the important information or creating an HTML Frankenstein monster.
What Do I Do When I Lose a Featured Snippet?
We just explored how to steal a snippet space from someone else? But, what happens when the tables are turned? It can happen to anyone, at any time, sometimes from out of nowhere.
When this happens, this is a massive learning opportunity for you, and try to see it that way. The cold-hearted truth is that the new snippet earned its place because Google determined that it is better in some way. The other company didn’t outbid you or outspend you, they out SEO-ed you.
I recently ran across a great case study from Search Engine Land that takes a deep dive into how a certain client lost their snippet and explores the fallout that ensued. Even though the article is from a few years (and ten trillion Google algo updates) ago, the lessons learned here are invaluable in the world of SEO.
Here are the key takeaways:
1) Losing This Position Sucks and WILL Cost You Traffic
We’ve already explored exactly how many potential clicks are at stake in the war for snippets. However, the author’s client in this case study took a massive hit.
They lost over 39,000 clicks in a 2-week span. Explaining that is not a conversation you look forward to having with your client.
2) Google Updates Can Play a Role
It’s not clear on exactly what role it played, but the author did note that this loss did take place after Google’s Phantom Update 2.
Any sort of big algorithm update can cause a ripple effect that touches every aspect of your digital marketing, including your featured snippets.
For example, The Penguin update may have devalued a number of the links that were pointing to your content, which causes Google to now see it as less authoritative, which costs you the snippet.
Speaking of links…
3) Links Almost Certainly Play a Role
As link-building nerds, we can tell you the quality of your links is one of the pillars of proving to Google that your content is credible, respected, and widely viewed. That’s indisputable and universal.
So, of course, Google is going to factor in the quality and quantity of the links pointing back to your content.
In this case study, the client and the new snippet had a pretty comparable number of links. However, the new snippet did have notably more trusted links. It’s not hard to see how that could turn the tide.
4) User-Generated Content Could Be in Play
One big thing that the author pointed out is that the competitor’s link had over 600 comments from readers and users. On the other hand, their client had disabled comments on their piece.
There is no strict empirical evidence to prove that this should be a factor, but it’s hard to ignore.
5) Social Media is Very Likely in Play
The relationship between social media success and SEO success is always murky and hotly debated.
However, you can’t ignore the fact that the competition in this case study soundly outperformed the client across every single social media, in terms of Likes, Shares, and interactions.
6) Structure Matters
We’ve already explored this above. However, in the case study, the author conceded that the new snippet was actually structured better than the client’s piece.
Taking an objective and honest look at losses like this is invaluable in ensuring this doesn’t happen again, while arming you with hard-earned knowledge on how to steal other snippets.
If you don’t respond, you will likely lose more snippets. But, if you respond the right way other people will be analyzing how you stole their snippets.
We’ve given you a lot to unpack today. But we hope you will find it valuable.
We hope you have a better understanding of why the battle between Genius and Google is about more than song lyrics; it’s about the entire SEO landscape.
I also hope we’ve helped you see how these snippets can literally make or break a business, while giving you some tips on how to win some of your own.
If you have any questions about featured snippets or just want to borrow the ear of an SEO expert, please don’t hesitate to ask me.