Call them position zero.
Call them answer boxes.
Call them traffic stealing menaces to modern SEO, but featured snippets are here to stay.
According to a few recent posts on Moz, about 14-15% of Google’s searches show a featured snippet.
While most questions around the topic focus on how to obtain what some are calling the new first position, there are still many website owners and SEO professionals alike that claim this feature is pilfering the traffic they deserve from their content.
“The ‘zero-click results’ (i.e., featured snippets) are very likely preventing clicks because, as the name implies, it doesn’t require the user to click on anything to view the information,” according to Holly Miller Anderson, an SEO and digital strategist.
“The results for a search like ‘Airbnb in Colorado’ are visible within the SERP,” Miller, who has worked with brands from startups to enterprise-level, continued, “When people get their question answered, there is often no further need for them to click away and onto a webpage.”
But other marketers disagree.
“If it’s an immediate answer to a searcher’s query, then yes, a click may be lost, but not stolen,” according to Edward Lewis, a business marketing consultant with XSymmetry.
“In these zero-click instances, I view them as branding opportunities. You have images, description and URL visuals. Plus, you’re taking up a significant amount of SERP real estate, twice the norm in many instances.”
While it’s fun to hear marketers and website owners argue over this point, I decided I would break with tradition and ask some actual lawyers about copyright and intellectual property law.
Are Google’s Featured Snippets Really ‘Stealing’ Traffic?
Depending on who you ask, what most people in the search industry now call a featured snippet appeared in late 2013 or early 2014, and while they were welcomed by Google’s users, some website owners noticed a drop in their traffic.
These specialized search results provided fast answers to simple queries, such as the date of a specific holiday in a given year or state capitals and are pulled from Google’s Knowledge Base, pushing down the “blue links” that historically owned the top results.
While many websites cried foul and claimed that Google had stolen their content, according to Beth Fulkerson, an intellectual property attorney, “You can’t copyright facts.”
However, there were instances where Google was pulling more than simple facts and providing a somewhat ham-fisted attempt at attribution, if at all.
Fulkerson, who has written Terms and Conditions agreements for large media and tech companies and worked with Google on data licensing and content syndication, added, “What is protected is the originality of the expression of an idea.”
Since the introduction of this instant answer to their search results, Google has had more than a few misfires that included instances getting caught red-handed lifting information such as song lyrics or celebrities’ net worth without providing the proper attribution.
“The balance between keeping Google users searching for content happy and also publishers of original works happy is to make sure there is ‘attribution’ of the source in any rich snippets that appear in Google search results,” said David Reischer, Esq., an Intellectual Property lawyer at LegalAdvice.com.
“In copyright law, there is a long tradition that authors require ‘attribution’ when there is a direct quote in whole or in part of a work created by an author,” Reischer continued.
“This acknowledgment by another source in the form of an attribution serves as a credit to the copyright holder or author of a work and Google will need to be careful to attribute the source properly if they do not want to run afoul of copyright law.”
As damaging as these cases are, they are often more the exception than the rule and written off as Google’s engineers trying to run before they learned how to crawl copyrighted content.
In 2018, Google reintroduced a new, more copyright-friendly featured snippet to the world and this time they made sure to cover their bases in their terms and conditions:
“When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”
But Is That Enough? This Is Where It Gets Complicated
According to John Conway, an attorney specializing in copyright and intellectual property law, “[T]hey are granting Google a license to use any and all of your materials that Google touches, as well as all of their partners a global royalty-free license to use your intellectual property.”
“There is a technical need for the license,” Conway, who is also the CEO of the strategic media firm, Astonish Media Group, continues.
“[Google] needs some license to be able to store and retransmit your information, since storage on a server constitutes a reproduction or ‘copy,’ thus creating a derivative work.”
I have to admit, when I first started working on this article, my opinion was, “Suck it up! If you don’t want Google using your stuff, feel free to keep it out of their index, there are hundreds of sites lined up behind you, ready to take your place.”
I mean, it’s right there!
Google is telling you they’re not stealing clicks because you permitted them to use your content on this search result by the very fact that your content appears on Google.
“The permissions let Google go so far as to not even provide a sourcing option at all. Google currently includes a source link in the snippets . . . but legally. . . they don’t have to,” Tom Dunlap, an intellectual property lawyer and partner at Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig, agrees with me.
“The terms of service clearly allow Google to create snippets. In other words, you use Google – you give Google permission to do whatever they want with content, even to modify that content.”
However, if SEO and the law have anything in common, it’s that issues like this are rarely that simple.
Websites that answered these questions to make a few cents from an ad impression lost their revenue streams faster than when Apple added the flashlight button to their phones’ Control Center and killed hundreds of mobile apps that did the same.
“The problems arrive when Google’s answers start costing the [intellectual property] holder traffic and potential revenue, they have a situation that is typically the grounds for a copyright lawsuit,” Conway said. “That sort of use is allowed by the wide-ranging license Google requires but is not really in line with the spirit of the agreement that Google is supposed to be using it for.”
I checked back in with David Reischer on this, “The ‘Terms of Service’ provided by Google are very open and ambiguous. This is probably purposeful to allow Google to do whatever they want. [U]ntil challenged in an actual lawsuit, we are left merely to speculate as to Google’s construction of the meaning of their terms and conditions.
“[I]t strains credulity to believe that Google owns all content that appears in their search results. Google surely cannot claim ownership on all webpages that it locates and displays without even the owner’s consent to have such webpages indexed. Furthermore, Google would be hard-pressed to claim that they can re-publish an author’s content without the owner’s permission merely because the webpage exists on the Internet. I do not believe that the interpretation of Google’s ‘Terms & Conditions’ would be successful in any lawsuit.”
“There is a tension between content producers and users,” Tom Dunlap added, “Google is an ecosystem where both parties participate. Content providers want their content noticed on Google and sourced back to them so they can derive clicks and authority. Google, on the other hand, is looking to serve both content providers and users at the same time.”
I also reached out to Google. Here’s what a Google spokesperson told me:
“We have long sent large amounts of traffic to websites, including from links in featured snippets, and we strongly believe that by creating the best search experience for people around the world, we will overall be able to deliver more traffic to sites. We give site owners tools to opt-out of snippets or indexing altogether if they wish, and we respect those instructions when site owners implement them.”
What Do We Do Now?
For the past few years when SEO elite, Rand Fishkin, delivers his famously animated keynote presentations at various international conferences, he tends to open with some depressing data about the current state of Google’s organic search results.
Working with data from the now-defunct Jumpshot, he puts the fear of the gods of SEO into his audiences by announcing that, “Over 50% of Google SERPS get zero clicks.”
While this number is based on mobile searches and includes content that would have usually never seen clicks in the first place, what remains is still a more than significant percentage of what most SEO professionals claim they deserve for all their efforts.
However, as Beth Fulkerson would say, “Hard work doesn’t matter under copyright law.”
No matter if you believe Google is stealing traffic from other websites or creating a new walled garden where only they can play, the fact is that featured snippets aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Forever ago, when I was running search marketing for Napster, Google introduced a specialized search result for music that provided a variety of options for buying or listening to songs and albums.
The feature provided a flood of organic traffic for months; then, one day, it was gone.
I found out later the feature was a Googler’s “20% Project” and discontinued when they moved on to other things, but that didn’t provide a solution to the well of organic search traffic running dry.
When something like this happens, it’s decision time for any marketer worth their salt.
As the old misattributed adage goes, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
“I think the biggest thing is framing,” said Doug Thomas, a search specialist at Trailblaze Marketing. “Should marketers and business owners take the same path as they do with Yelp, saying that the ecosystem isn’t fair, and we ‘deserve’ clicks and traffic? Or do we work within the changing channel by developing a brand voice that works in microcopy?”
Instead of complaining that Google stole something from us that we had been taking for free, the Napster team and I pivoted.
Within a month, the engineers created a search-friendly version of the previously subscriber-only directory of every artist, album, and song in our catalog that, in the end, drove more organic traffic than the original Google feature ever did.
In these times of featured snippets and “shrinking opportunities,” instead of battling over the legalities of each and every Google move, our challenge as marketers is to discover new opportunities “inside the box” to make sure our target audience gets our message.
Get to work.
Featured & In-Post Image #1: Screenshot taken by author, March 2020
In-Post Image #2: Ann Smarty/Search Engine People
In-Post Image #3: The Outline