The People Also Ask (PAA) feature has become an important facet of SEO and content strategies over the past few years. As our recent study demonstrates, the prominence of PAA boxes has increased radically since they were first tested in April 2015 (based on SEMrush Sensor data, the average percentage of SERPs with PAA has grown to about 40-42% for both desktop and mobile).
The SEMrush study examined 1,000,000 keywords of US desktop results (random subset from the SEMrush US database) to provide unique insights into the changing landscape of Google search features, as well as an action plan for how you can implement an effective PAA strategy for your own SEO.
The random dataset was chosen for this analysis to represent general trends in search results, so keywords were not filtered by volume, length or any other parameters.
The Key Findings of Our 2020 ‘People Also Ask’ SEO Study
PAA boxes are present in almost half of all searches within our 1,000,000 keyword dataset and are continuing to grow.
Google is using PAA at least in part for query refinement, giving websites the opportunity for first-page visibility on search terms that were previously too broad to target.
A PAA SEO strategy is applicable to almost all sectors (industry-specific breakdowns can give you a guide to how much of your overall effort should go into PAA optimization).
There are opportunities and risks for big brands to control answers where PAA questions are shown on branded search terms.
Unlike featured snippets, it is possible to both appear in a PAA box and hold a standard organic ranking on page 1 of Google.
75% of the time a PAA result appears, it is within the top 3 results in Google, providing a good chance of high visibility.
Question terms on average will generate PAA 86% of the time.
Google is mainly taking web text content for PAA results, with 48 % of all PAA boxes being exclusively from text in paragraphs.
There are still untapped opportunities for video content within PAA boxes, where Google cannot find any suitable results.
As with other types of rich results, brevity is key with paragraph results averaging only 41 words.
What is the ‘People Also Ask’ Box in Google?
The People Also Ask box is an interactive, universal search result from Google that will display a box of questions that other searchers have asked in relation to your original search.
Clicking on PAA results will slide open a snippet answer from a website, along with a link to the page providing the answer, whilst simultaneously triggering new questions to be dynamically added to the PAA box.
Usually, the initial PAA feature box will contain 4 questions, but sometimes there are only 3 at a time.
Since 2012, Google has been very clear about its mission to “move from becoming an information engine to becoming a knowledge engine”, which means answering users’ queries as quickly as possible within the search results pages, rather than forcing them to click on multiple results and wait for the relevant website to load.
This “Time To Result” is a key metric that Google uses to determine how they are performing. To reduce this time and remove friction from the user’s search, Google has deployed a number of in-SERP features to serve this function, primarily through its knowledge graph, but also through other features such as rich snippets, featured snippets, and, of course, People Also Ask results.
Our study highlights the importance of PAA results, showing that they are currently six times more likely to appear within a SERP than a featured snippet result.
As we can see from SEMrush Sensor (apart from the adjustment Google made in March 2020), the frequency of PAA results has been consistently rising on both mobile and desktop.
How Often Do PAA Results Appear in SERPs?
Within our keyword dataset, PAA results appeared in 49.37% of search results for desktop and in 52.27% for mobile.
Splitting these data across 25 industries, we can see that the appearance of PAA results varies from a minimum of 9.5% in the Real Estate category to a maximum of 64.2% in Computers & Electronics.
This represents the most common intent of searches within these categories and, therefore, which search features Google might be expected to use.
For instance, the “News” category demands that search results are as fresh as possible, so Google will often enrich these results with “Top Stories” and Twitter card features to reflect this.
A large proportion of searches within “real estate” will be along the lines of “apartments in [location]”, which have very clear intent and are one of the few types of search term that primarily return “ten blue links”. We examined 6,000 “apartments in [location]” phrases, and discovered that only 2.5% of them produced a PAA result.
Understanding the prominence of PAAs within your industry’s search space can help you determine how much you might need to leverage related tactics in your content and SEO strategies.
Brand Protection With People Also Ask
We took a list of brands from other studies and checked how often we can see them in keywords that trigger PAA. We got the following top-30:
Our data showed that most ‘big’ brands will trigger PAA, regardless of the industry they are in.
With these questions showing on almost all major brands, it is worth auditing who ‘owns’ these answers for both your brand and your competitors, from a brand protection standpoint.
Where do ‘People Also Ask’ Boxes Appear?
Over half (58%) of the time, the PAA block can be seen after the first organic result, whether it is a standard blue link or another type of result, such as a featured snippet.
In fact, over 75% of the time, a PAA result will feature in the top 3 results of Google, making it one of the most consistent and visible search features of all.
Can PAA Boxes Help You Rank Twice on Page 1?
Unlike featured snippets, which count as a standard top 10 ranking, it is possible to have a presence inside a PAA box and rank on the first page of results. Our data showed that 13% of sites that were present inside the PAA box also had a top 3 ranking.
However, the majority of sites (74%) that were present inside the PAA were not present on the first page, indicating that there may be opportunities for less authoritative sites to gain a presence on the first page with this feature (much like featured snippets).
How Does Search Query Length Affect PAA Boxes?
PAAs appear a bit more often for longer keywords and more complex search queries. More than 72% of keywords with 10 words trigger PAA, while only 47% of keywords with 3 words trigger such results.
Query Length with PAA and Featured Snippets
The featured snippet will take “position 0” within a search result in most cases, as it is Google’s attempt to immediately answer the searcher’s query. Our data showed a marked correlation between the length of the search query and the appearance of both a featured snippet and a PAA box.
As the number of words and specificity of the query increases, the complexity of Google’s job also increases, as it will be likely to have fewer sources to get the answer from and the question may be more nuanced.
In these situations where the query is more specific, the occurrence of People Also Ask boxes also increases, which is likely to be a query refinement exercise and an attempt from Google to answer clusters of questions within the SERP.
What Types of Queries can Trigger PAA?
The most common types of queries that trigger PAA boxes are those that start with question words, such as “what”, “why”, “when”, “where” and “who”.
Queries starting with these terms trigger PAA 86% of the time.
As with featured snippets, the PAA data suggest it is worth structuring content around the question it intends to answer, rather than relying on the reader to understand the context of the article.
This format makes questions digestible in a “standalone” format that can then be used both within featured snippets and People Also Ask boxes.
Query Refinement with People Also Ask
Google has tested and introduced multiple avenues for query refinement, such as “People also search for” links and Google Suggest within the search bar. The “People Also Ask” box is designed for precisely this purpose, too.
It is needed when a user conducts a search that either is not specific enough to identify their true intent, or perhaps has multiple meanings of which the searcher is unaware.
There are some instances (<1%) when Google chose to show the People Also Ask feature as the number 1 result for the query. This presents a unique opportunity for websites to get a visible presence within search results that were once too broad and would otherwise fall to “authority” sites by default as Google links these topics to more specific questions.
We collected our keyword data based on question searches we knew contained a featured snippet, and then tested which percentage of these terms also included a PAA box.
The opposite data were also collected by pulling question keyword results we knew contained a PAA box, and then checking which percentage of these results contained a featured snippet, too.
The data show that featured snippets are more targeted and generated less frequently than PAAs, which often appear alongside other features such as maps for “where” queries. This supports the idea that PAAs are, at least in part, being triggered as query refinements for the kinds of questions that Google might struggle to interpret.
What is Contained within PAA Boxes?
Our data show there are 4 types of blocks that can appear when you click on a PAA question.
As with featured snippets, the vast majority (79%) of PAA boxes are paragraphs taken from website content, followed by lists, with both videos and tables combined comprising 7.6% of PAA results.
A total of 97.3% of initial PAA results are either exclusively paragraph-driven (48.3%) or contain at least one paragraph result combined with other content (49%).
These data reflect the availability of such content, suggesting that paragraph text is far more readily available and optimized than unordered lists, tables, or video.
As we have seen with other types of search results, Google may favor video as an alternative to a text answer. This suggests that a mixed-format content strategy, working from “video-down”, could be beneficial.
PAA Text Length Analysis
PAA paragraph. The longest paragraph answer within a PAA block within our dataset was only 132 words and the shortest was a single word. Much like with featured snippet optimization, the average number of words in the paragraph (41) suggests that being able to succinctly answer a question is vital to being eligible to appear in a PAA box.
PAA list. There were no lists in our dataset that exceeded 8 items, with the minimum being 2. It is worth keeping in mind that a list size >8 is unlikely to appear.
PAA table. Our data showed that the table results within PAA boxes, while appearing less, did allow for more data to be shown. Up to 14 rows of content with 3 columns can be contained within PAA results.
PAA boxes showed tables with a minimum of 1 column and 2 rows, which makes them almost identical to lists and potentially allows more data.
Leveraging the ‘People Also Ask’ Feature
Turning a website into the go-to destination for users searching for solutions similar to yours or asking general questions related to the industry could help turn more of them into paying customers.
With the rise of PAA and ever-increasing competition for the spot in SERP features, you need to roll out a viable action plan for appearing within the PAA box.
Here are the key steps to follow to leverage the power of PAA:
Get an Overview of Existing SERP Features
Equipped with a tool like Position Tracking, begin with assessing whether your target keywords trigger any SERP features. Make sure to use filters and choose the PAA feature in particular.
If you compare several competitors’ websites, you'll be able to see an overview with a position of each site for your target keywords, and whether or not it occupies a specific SERP feature.
Find Missing PAA Opportunities
Check if your site is missing any PAA opportunities by using Organic Research to identify which of the keywords your domain already ranks for are not generating PAA results for you in Google.
The report features the SERP copy for each keyword, so you can see which related questions you can potentially target with your content to get into the given PAA table and improve your visibility.
Steal the Spotlight From Competitors
In cases when it’s challenging to beat competitors to organic positions, getting a PAA feature can solve the puzzle.
With the help of Organic Research, you can spot which of your competitors’ high-ranking keywords don’t make them appear in SERP features, and optimize for occupying the vacant space.
Get Content Ideas to Win PAA SERP Features
To gather ideas for creating content, you can use the AlsoAsked.com tool, which automatically presents Google’s PAA data, including the tree of subsequent results when questions get clicked.
Search for ideas for certain keywords: after copying and pasting a keyword you want to target into the Keyword Overview tool, you will see the option to get SERP copies with PAAs generated for this keyword.
Use the phrases you find within the PAA box as a source of ideas for content creation.
It’s not always a matter, though, of crafting content that precisely repeats the phrasing found within the PAA box.
Keyword Magic Tool is a goldmine for more headline or content ideas for phrases and questions that trigger a PAA table, as long as you are applying the right filters:
Pro tip: You can benefit from switching from "All" to the "Questions" tab to see which questions generate PAA to kill two birds with one stone, namely to optimize for both PAA and voice search (keeping in mind people usually formulate their requests as questions when using voice search).
Check If Your Content Meets SEO Requirements
Creating content for the sake of it will not cut it if you want to trigger a SERP feature.
To increase the likelihood of your content making it into PAA boxes, make sure your copy addresses a specific user query from an SEO standpoint.
SEMrush’s SEO Writing Assistant automatically analyzes the top 10 ranking pages for your given keywords in a specific location to offer suggestions for proper Search optimization.
Defining a Specific PAA Strategy
Satisfying user intent is a core theme in any SEO activity, but with almost 50% of all searches showing PAA results, it is clear that having a specific strategy for increasing your visibility within these features is vital.
Like featured snippets, PAA features can be won quickly, too, so it can be worth leading an SEO strategy with these tactics to earn placements ahead of traditional “blue link” rankings.
A clear part of Google’s strategy for satisfying user intent has been mapping entities and their relations to build knowledge graphs. In the case of answering questions, Google can build knowledge graphs from search results to meet users’ requirements.
Having your digital presence embedded, included and understood within this graph is a way of future-proofing your search strategy, as the search experience broadens into intelligent personal assistants that want to get the right answers at the first time of trying.