Everything to know about Featured Snippets and SameSite Cookie Update on Google

Google's changed the playing field (again). This week we've distilled the abundant dialogue around Featured Snippets and the Chrome Cookie Update to bring you a clear perspective on what you need to know and do in response.

Major Google Change #1 - The Chrome SameSite Cookie update explained

Google has plans to phase out support for third-party cookies within two years for it's Chrome browser. But there's something more immediate for you to factor into your digital planning.

The Chrome browser update released in February limits cross-site cookie sharing.

So what does this actually mean?

Cookies are set by a website on user's browsers and they are typically classified as same-site or cross-site. If the URL entered by the user matches the domain associated with the cookie, then it is known as same-site. If a cookie is set by a different domain that doesn't match the URL in the browser's address bar then it is a cross-site cookie.

There are three options for how your SameSite attributes could be set.

  • None - enables the site to share cookies via third-party requests.
  • Strict - cookies won't be shared with any third-parties and requests are nullified.
  • Lax - all sites belonging to the same domain can set and access cookies, regardless of whether the user is from a different site or landed directly on your site.

Before the update, Chrome set the default value of SameSite cookies to None. This allowed the first-party as well as third-party websites to set and access cookies in the user's browser and to track them as they visit different sites.

Now, Chrome will enforce Lax as the default value for SameSite cookies. If your web team doesn't manually set the value for the SameSite cookies, it will automatically be set to Lax.

And if your web team has defined a SameSite cookie with a None measure, then the cookie must also have 'secure' added to ensure that the browser requests are sent by a secure HTTPS connection.

What impact will the Google Chrome update have on institutions?

Chrome is the most popular web browser, and the changes will affect 64% of the world's internet users in 2020.

Firstly, there's some digital housekeeping required for your web team who should check how many cookies your website has and if the cookies are labeled correctly.

Secondly, you should discuss the changes with the team responsible for your digital advertising output as they will likely cookie-drop users and have pixels on the university website. They will need to update the SameSite attribute to None in order to send cookies via first-party as well as third-party requests from your institution's website.

Some university websites use third-party cookies for logins and to remember user preferences when they should really be using first-party cookies. This tends to happen when an institution coordinates a number of different websites and domains, and uses cookies to, for example, maintain a single sign-on spanning multiple domains. In this scenario, it's also important to check and ensure the cookie configuration is compatible with the changes in the latest version of Chrome.

In the short term institutions need to be on top of this change both in terms of the digital sites associated with the university and your teams may need to challenge any third-party agencies or contractors you use on their readiness.

In the longer term, institutions should perhaps ready themselves and orientate their digital activity for a time when cookies become obsolete.

Major Google Change #2 - The Featured Snippet Update

Back in 2018 a 'People Also Ask' featured snippet appeared in Google's search listings. Now, featured snippets appear in over 12 percent of the search engine's results pages (SERPs). That's around 7,560 searches every second featuring a snippet response!

You will no doubt already be familiar with featured snippets without knowing what they are officially called.

They are the short selections of text appearing at the top of Google's search results that are designed to answer a searcher's query. The content appearing inside these featured snippets is automatically drawn from web pages in Google's index.

Common examples relating to higher education include advice on applying, required qualifications, scholarships and fees questions and answers.

Why are featured snippets important?

Featured snippets are growing in prevalence in Google. And they impact your SEO and PPC strategies in three ways.

Firstly, they provide an opportunity to get more visibility in organic search results without necessarily having the highest ranking position in Google.

Secondly, if your page is ranking anywhere in the top 10 Google search results, it has a chance to also get the #0 spot — a featured snippet spot.

Supposing you rank sixth for an important keyphrase. Working your way up to position one would usually be incredibly challenging in the context of the HE market. But if there's a featured snippet opportunity, you have the potential to get there quickly with a relatively minor number of adjustments to your site if you optimize for featured snippets.

And thirdly, featured snippets increase the number of 'no-click searches' i.e. when a Google visitor doesn't click on any of the search results. That's mainly due to the featured snippet area often answering the specific query being asked. So going forward you should factor this into your keyword targeting.

But is it actually worth 'dominating' the Google Snippet position?

Earlier this year Google made a subtle but important announcement and rolled out an update globally. Now, the URL occupying the featured snippet will no longer get an additional standard listing on the same search engine results page.

So what does this mean?

Essentially, earning the featured snippet position no longer gives you double exposure on the first page of Google.

On the other hand, on results pages where you don't own the featured snippet, you now actually have one less link to compete with.

Commanding the features snippet spot will give you prominent exposure on the search engine results pages - they take up a serious amount of real estate and their styling is different from the other results.

However, a study by Ahrefs found that the featured snippet only attracts 8.6% of clicks, whereas the standard listing below it typically receives around 19.6% of clicks. And remember, the Google update in January means your page can no longer occupy both positions.

This important change poses a serious strategic and technical challenge from a website optimization perspective.

The ideal scenario for your institution might be to optimize some of your website content specifically to gain the featured snippet spot. In other cases where your institution really only benefits from a click through to your actual website which can then lead to further useful information passing to the visitor and a higher chance of conversion in whatever form that takes, then you might want to use a nosnippet tag.

We'll be covering more SEO industry updates affecting institutions so look out for more insights over the coming months.