People Also Ask (PAA) was rolled out by Google in 2015 and appears in upwards of half of searches, three quarters of these being within the top three positions.
What is PAA and how is it helpful for reputation management?
Unlike featured snippets, which always appear in position zero, the position of PAA varies on page one and the number of questions can also differ from search to search.
It’s usually, but not always, triggered by a ‘why, how, what’ question search and it’s fairly standard for four questions to be present initially (as in the example below). However, the number of questions increases, sometimes infinitely, as the user expands an answer.
Are PAAs helpful for SEO?
While PAAs certainly give users some related content options, because the answers are displayed within the SERP, the user won’t always click through.
Google doesn’t give any data but some predict that between 3% and 13% expand an answer with around 40% of these clicking through. So the numbers aren’t huge but for a site that’s already well-optimised, they could represent a useful marginal gains SEO tactic.
It’s worth noting that the same questions often show up in PAA boxes across multiple search queries and Google appears to use the same source for the answer every time, so an organisation that successfully appears as an answer, is quite likely to appear multiple times.
But PAAs can also help in other ways too…
PAA as a reputation management tool
Brand searches are interesting from an SEO point of view as they require the user to already be familiar with the company name itself and they are generally undertaken when the user is fairly near the bottom of the marketing funnel and close to conversion. Therefore making sure they aren’t deterred by a reputational issue is crucial.
By undertaking a brand search, it’s possible to identify what topics Google thinks are current and relevant to an organisation by collating the questions that are being commonly asked.
So for example, a search on ‘Topshop’ initially reveals these PAA questions…
By interacting with these questions, Google then expands the list further. In most cases, the relevancy decreases as the list expands.
How is this useful for reputation management?
A list of current issues
PAA is helpful in reputation management; the list of questions itself gives a quick glimpse of some of the reputational issues that a brand currently faces – data that may take a month or so to show in keyword research tools.
Monitoring ‘interested parties’
Secondly, in the Topshop example, the first PAA question, ‘Why is Topshop closing down?’ is answered by Google via a BBC article. It is worth noting that at the time of writing, this article was not indexed on page one of SERPS itself – either in the All tab or News. Therefore prior to PAA it wouldn’t have been seen at all by someone just searching for ‘Topshop’.
Even without clicking through, a user can see the company’s former boss weighing in on the situation. While neither Topshop itself or its new owner ASOS may be able to control this spokesperson, it may allow them to create content or issue materials to counteract this coverage or point of view, if required. It might not always be a former boss piggybacking a brand’s news but it is a tried and tested PR tactic for others looking for the limelight.
Questions further down the list highlight some other more general, and perhaps less time-sensitive issues, such as ‘Is Topshop unethical?’.
This question is answered by social impact business ‘Good On You’, so it’s going to be a tough call to impress this bunch. But at least the PR or SEO team can pinpoint this as an organisation to target at some point in the future and perhaps one that may not ordinarily have been on their radar.
In comparison, further down the list of PAA questions is the following: ‘Why is Primark so cheap?’. Primark has already nipped this one in the bud and answered the question on its own site – therefore being fully able to control the message and positioning.
There are no guarantees over which content will be selected but if a brand doesn’t tackle these issues on its own site, it sure as hell won’t in the PAA answer.
Journalists, the media, and reputable third parties will usually try to provide an independent and accurate representation of the facts, so if they are selected as a PAA answer, it would be hoped that their content would be fair. However, there have been examples in the past where a competitor has hijacked an answer.
This example is courtesy of Ahrefs and shows how a competitor can hijack PAA answers by providing false or misleading information too.
Here a QuickBooks competitor provides dishonest information about how to get the software for free:
Just the very presence of these negative-sounding questions in PAA can sometimes create an undesired action or inaction.
By way of example, had a consumer been about to research an item of clothing from Topshop, and then seen the ‘Is Topshop unethical’ question in PAA, they may have thought twice about whether to continue with their purchase.
So how should brands respond?
Only Google can control the PAA questions and answers but PAA can provide a great deal of insight about potential reputational issues that can be tackled via a mix of PR and SEO elsewhere.
Creating on-page content that tackles these topics is a good way to start. An FAQs page can be used to counteract any negative content in the public domain and is relatively easy to update.
It’s worth noting that on-page content doesn’t need to stick to the exact wording used in the PAA question itself as Google’s semantic search is getting better all the time. So for example, the PAA question ‘Is Topshop a failure’ is answered by Cityam and that specific phrase isn’t used at all. ASOS may like to consider an FAQ to address this topic but it certainly wouldn’t need to use this specific phrase.
When PAA does throw up a few ‘interesting’ or potentially harmful questions, it’s really important to ensure that the surrounding SERP content is as good as possible. This can’t be achieved quickly but create positive content elsewhere over time may keep the user’s eye away from the occasional tricky PAA question.
More traditional PR tactics can also benefit from knowing what lurks in PAA. It may be that the issues form the basis of a new campaign or conversely, represent a subject matter on which a brand prefers to keep a low profile. Either way, forewarned is forearmed.
Of course, just focusing on PAA won’t solve every major reputational problem that a brand has but it may help nip some issues in the bud and give the opportunity to communicate an alternative point of view.