The Google Answer Box: How To Rank Better Than 1st

on under Search Engine Optimization, Tactic Tuesday.

The following instructions apply if you are trying to get included in a rich answer box for a "how to" style query. It's up to Google whether or not they choose to display an answer box, but if they do, the rules below seem to apply under most circumstances. See my evidence listed after the instructions.

Instructions: Getting Into Google's Rich Answer Box

  1. Rank yourself well for the query.
  2. Start your sentences with command words.
  3. Write a clear, unambiguous heading.
  4. Use <li> tags, and keep the section short.

The Evidence

"how to calculate gpa"

Let's start with the "how to calculate gpa," which is interesting not just because it returns a rich answer box, but also because the answer it gives is wrong. Here's the result:

rich answers 01

Now, it's possible that you won't see the same result as me, because of your location. I'm sure there are more authoritative sources than the University of Utah to answer this question, but this listing is the third result in my SERP, likely because of my location in South Idaho:

rich answers 02

So, why pull the answer from the third result, not the first or second? Well, the first and second results don't offer a list format for the answer. The first result is a calculator. The second is an in-depth answer. The third result wraps their "answer" in <li> tags.

Now, why does Google grab the wrong answer from the page? This is only speculation, but the heading of the h2 heading for the section with the right answer is "The Calculation." The heading for the section returned by Google is "Add or Subtract Grades."

My hypothesis? Since Google understands that "addition" and "subtraction" are subsets of "calculation,"since Google understands that "GPA" is about "Grades," and since this is the section that actually mentions performing some type of calculation on grades, Google concludes that this is the section containing the right answer.

Let's take a look at some other examples.

"how to boil eggs"

rich answers 03

This time, the snippet is pulled directly from the first search result. Again, we see that the result is lifted from a section of the site that is wrapped in <li> tags. It is the only section wrapped in <li> tags, so there's no cause for confusion, and it's also clearly labelled "directions," which may aid in identifying that these are instructions to be followed.

"how to unclog a toilet"

rich answers 04

This time, it pulls it from the second result, even though the first result has a clear list of instructions. Why not pull it from wikiHow? Again, the first result doesn't put the list in <li> tags. I also suspect that the answers are simply too long to show up in the rich answer box.

And now for something completely different.

"how to get rid of acne"

rich answers 05

Why doesn't this result return a list? On top of that, it's pulling its answer from the 9th result? Why?

As for why it returns the 9th result:

  • The second result uses <li> tags, but they are all under subheadings named "ice," "toothpaste," "steam," and "garlic." Either these headings don't seem relevant enough, or it's apparent that there are too many conflicting remedies to choose one for a snippet.
  • The 5th result uses <li> tags, but they are again scattered, the first list is a table of contents, the second list goes under a heading for "Fast facts on acne," "The types of pimples," "How to look after your skin if you have acne," and "How to prevent making acne worse."
  • None of the other results use <li> tags

So, why show the 9th result? My guess is it's because it's listed under a heading called "Prevention," which is at least somewhat on topic, and it is the only section with a <li> list. No scattered lists with difficult to differentiate subheadings.

Why isn't the snippet shown as a list? I believe it's because the list is too long to fit in a snippet.

So why this particular snippet of text? I believe it's the fact that every sentence starts with a "command" word or phrase. "Do not," "Don't," and "Remove." This is the longest sequence of sentences in this section that starts with command words like these. I could be way off base, but this seems like a likely explanation.

Exception: "how to cook quinoa" result has no <li> list

While most of the quick answer box results seem to be based on text pulled from a <li> list, it's not always the case. Here's an exception:

rich answers 06

Here, it pulls its answer from the second result, which contains no <li> list, and ignores the first result, even though it does have a <li> list. Why? A look at that list offers a hint at an answer:

rich answers 07

This answer is simply too long to fit in a quick answer. On top of that, it can't be parsed down to a sequence of sentences that start with command words. Every sentence in the main body of these instructions starts with a command word: "Measure," "rinse," "rub," "drain," "heat," "cook," "stir," "bring," "turn," "cover," "remove," "don't."

In contrast, the second result is short enough to fit after parsing. It grabs the information that contains quantities needed, then lists a series of sentences that start with command words.

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