Google Provides Rich Answer Results to 19% of Queries Used in Our Test

UPDATE: For the latest on how Rich Answers such as Featured Snippets have grown in Google search over the years, see Featured Snippets: New Insights, New Opportunities
In a test of over 850,000 search queries, we found that Google offered some form of rich answer (AKA a knowledge box) 19+% of the time. If you are not familiar with what a “rich answer” is, the following is an example:
Example of a Rich Answer in Search
In short, Google provides a direct answer to your question, rather than requiring you to click through to another web page to get that answer. In some cases, Google may provide only part of the answer as well.
While our queries were selected to be more likely to show a rich answer result, this still shows just how far they have come. In this article, I will share the details of our findings, and I will also discuss how well Google is doing in attributing results to their original sources.
Google Provided Rich Answers to 19% of our Test Queries

The query set was assembled using a mix of Google Autocomplete (AKA Google Suggest), Bing Suggest, and a query set manually assembled here at Perficient Digital. The counts of each query type were as follows:
Query Volumes Used in the Study
The manually assembled set of queries covered a variety of categories, including:
Categories of Queries Used in the Study
If you prefer to get the data via a quick video, here is a video that has Caitlin O’Connell of Perficient Digital interviewing me about the study:

And here is a shareable slide deck presentation of the major findings of this study:

Queries Extracted From “Suggested” Searches

This data focuses on queries extracted from Google Autocomplete and Bing Suggest. These queries were mined equally from Bing and Google – we took 250,000 from each for a total of 500,000 queries. We did it this way to avoid biasing the results towards one search engine or the other. Here is what we saw:

In case you are not familiar with what I mean by a suggested query, here is an example from Google Autocomplete:
Example of Google Autocomplete

Other Types of Search Queries

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The suggested search queries are a valuable source, but by no means the only source we use, because we felt it was limiting in nature. To that end, we generated over 355,000 additional queries to test as we detailed above.

Information Extracted From Third Party Domains

Google clearly has invested a lot in extracting information from third-party domains. Over 73% (more than 122K) of the rich answer boxes provided by Google include a link to a 3rd party URL cited as a source. Google uses a wide variety of sources for information. Authority appears to matter, as nearly 48% of the results that cite a 3rd party source come from sites with a Moz Domain Authority of 100, and Google leverages 30 domains with that DA.
Authority of Domains Cited by Google
Bing also relies heavily on 3rd party sources, with more than 87% (4,273) of the results including a link. 74% of the results from 3rd party sources provided by Bing come from Wikipedia, which has a Moz Domain Authority of 100.

Is Google Providing Credit Where Credit is Due?

In total we found 166,366 rich answers in our testing. Of these, 42,160 of them did not include an attribution link:
Google's Use of Attribution Links in Rich Answers
We took a deep dive into the queries that included no link. We broke them down into 51 categories to speed the review, and found that the overwhelming majority of the queries with no attribution contained public domain information.
This included queries such as: “How many quarts in a gallon,” “what is the capital of Washington state”, “how tall is the empire state building”, and “when is Barack O’Bama’s birthday.”
The most notable exception was in the case of song lyrics, where Google sometimes shows the lyrics to a song as shown here:
Example of Lyrics Shown in Google Results
I did ask Google about this, and a Google spokesperson said the following: “We only show the lyrics for songs for which we have the appropriate rights”. From this statement, it seems quite likely that Google is licensing the rights to the lyrics that they do show.

Do Rich Answer Boxes Cost Sites Traffic?

For about 75% of the rich answers we saw, Google does provide attribution, and these do appear to follow best practices for Fair Use (though I am not a lawyer, so that’s not really my call to make).
There are many sites that have received traffic for many years by publishing public domain information. Clearly, these sites will lose traffic when Google publishes the answer directly in the search results.
There is little to be done about this, as Google has just as much right to publish such information as anyone else.
There is also the case of Google licensing information, such as they appear to have done with song lyrics. You can read an excellent case study by Glenn Gabe about this here. Once again, Google has every right to do this as well.
Last, but not least, there were 1,871 (1.1%) rich answer results in our testing that presented results in list format (these are sometimes called step by step results). These extract detailed information from 3rd party web sites. Google started showing these results back in June of 2014.
Of these, 1,366 (73%) of them include incomplete steps, as marked by a “…”. Here is an example of such a result:
Step by Step Results With Incomplete Items
In addition, 799 (42.7%) of the list items include a More Items indicator at the bottom of a partial list, as shown here:
Step by Step Result With Incomplete List
This would seem to me to be a huge win for the publisher, as it would strongly entice the user to click through to the site to get the complete list.
The bottom line is that, from a traffic perspective, some of the rich answer results will end up taking traffic away from sites that were previously getting that traffic. However, all our examinations suggest that Google is playing it by the book.
From a publisher’s perspective, the risk of traffic loss is greatest if you rely heavily on public domain info, or if you rely on info that Google can easily (and cheaply) license.

Different Query Types Included in the Study

There are a number of different features and sub-features that are evident in the rich answers provided by Google. The following table will show what these are, and how often they showed up in our 855K+ tested queries:
Special Features in Google's Rich Answers
What do these features look like? It would be a bit lengthy to show what they all look like, but here is an example image that shows 3 of them:
I recently wrote a post on LinkedIn that shows many different types of rich answers here. This post includes screenshots of a dozen very different types of rich answer results.


Google has already made a huge investment in developing rich answers in search, and changes keep happening all the time. In my annual industry predictions article on Forbes, I predicted major additional advances in this area by Google in 2015. This is viewed as a critical initiative within Google.
So let me take that prediction one step further. My guess is that by end of year Google will be in the 40% range in responding to our 855K test query set with rich answers. To check that, we are going to rerun our tests of this on a regular basis.
For your purposes, the importance of preparing for this should be clear. This change is coming, and it would be wise to prepare for it. At a minimum, it means not relying on public domain information or info that Google can easily and cheaply license or derive, for your organic search traffic.
As a result, focusing on very high-value content that is specific to the core value of your business is not only a good idea, it’s the only way to thrive in this new world.
See all of our big data SEO and social media studies on one page!

About the Author

Eric Enge leads the Digital Marketing practice for Perficient. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO.

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