UPDATED on March 26
On March 20th, Danny Sullivan, a Google spokesman, noted via Twitter that the "zero results" experiment had collected enough data and was being halted for the immediate future. The door is left open for this to resume in a new fashion, at a different time, but for now, Google has stopped showing results in this fashion.
Search Engine Land has an excellent overview of this topic where all the original and current information is chronicled, as well.
It seems to have taken many people by surprise that Google made a recent change in how they serve a limited selection of results.
Instead of returning a traditional results page with an answer box at the top and a list of links below for select queries (such as time, weather, and requests for completing calculations and conversions), they now simply provide the answer, with an option to click if you want the deeper list of links.
This is another step toward better serving the user with instant knowledge when that's what their query requires. The notion that there should be multiple answers to, "what time is it?"is laughable. It's very easy for Google and Bing to see exactly what a searcher is interacting with on their pages. They track that at the pixel level.
Here's how this affects your business.
When Google claims people aren't engaging with links on the SERP, and that searchers just want the answer, I believe them. However, it causes some consternation for those who rank well and are no longer seen. That one extra click could pose a significant barrier as searchers bounce instead of digging deeper. But let's be honest — they weren't digging deeper in the first place, which is why we see this change. If you were one of the top results on a changed query, your users have you bookmarked for frequent use. And if not, they search by brand, which is not being displaced here. So that traffic will still reach you.
Voice search is changing behavior.
People are learning to just ask for the weather. To ask for math calculations. To ask for driving directions and have them shared to their phone for later use. This trend will continue to grow, and these answer-only results represent a definitive moment in time when The Bell, so to speak, has been rung.
To optimize your results for featured snippets, there are technical things you can implement, such as:
Being secure (HTTPS)
Using structured data
Having effective internal linking
You need to build your content in a manner consistent with how people ask for answers to questions. And now, more than ever, you need to understand your customers and engage with them. Not at a superficial level, but at a level deep enough to understand that when they ask for something, you can predict the other logical things they'll want to know as well. When they try to communicate with you, you answer them directly.
Those who embrace change embrace Digital Knowledge Management.
Here's the real bombshell, though. What if this change expands, as we saw with Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)?
That will bring deeper, more impactful change to search as we know it. And survivors in that version of search will have something in common. They'll have managed their digital knowledge well. All that technical work will be in place, their content will be truly useful in answering questions, and they will have exhibited a consistent ability to predict what a consumer will want next. They'll have involved themselves in the process through focused content and service.
In short, they'll be masters of Digital Knowledge Management (DKM). Their data will be identified, clean, organized, and discoverable. This breeds trust with a search engine — and it's that trust that helps keep you in the running to be "the answer." If consumers love you, so too will the engines. The bar continues to rise, however, as consumer behavior changes.
Evolution favors those who adapt to change. Revolution favors those quick and adept enough to adapt to change. Regardless of whether you see this as an evolution or a revolution — it's change. This has been on the horizon for a while. It's time to invest in managing your digital knowledge more effectively.