SEO. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy – but perhaps when we entered this game we never fully appreciated how it would evolve to become so hard. Over the years, search engine optimisation has transformed from a rather menial task of keyword stuffing, into a finely-tuned art. With each new algorithm update to Google’s search that gets released, another short-cut is closed off for the content marketer. Indeed – content in 2016 is more kingly now than it has ever been.
Google’s emphasis always has been – and probably always will be – on good content. In fact, when you look around the web, it’s almost as if “SEO” and “content marketing” have become synonymous with one another. Google wants high quality content to appear in its SERPs – that’s the parameter that every single algorithm update strives to refine.
There have been hundreds if not thousands of updates since when the first was ever documented way back in September of 2002 – and you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be thousands upon thousands more to come. No – no longer can the digital marketer rely on the old keyword-stuffing and link-building black hat hacks of yesteryear. Today, the SEO game is thorough, complex, and increasingly nuanced – especially in the era of the smartphone and, increasingly, voice search.
Voice Search In 2016
As you will be aware, voice search is now available on Apple Siri, Google Now and Windows Cortana phones. And, when you think about it, this is delivering a subtle yet significant difference in the way that search engines perform – and the difference lies in the manner in which we enter the search query.
When we’re on Google, we type in something like “email marketing”, and trust that the SEO algorithms will deliver a list of the best email marketing providers in the SERP – or at least some blog posts that categorise the best email marketing tools and services.
But, when we use voice search, we literally ask the search engine a question – “Who’s the best email marketing provider?” – and the SERPs display what we hope contain the answer to this question.
What this means is that there is an increase in question keywords – i.e. “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why” and “how” – that are being used to find content on the web. Indeed, Search Engine Watch recently conducted a study which found that these words grew in use by a whopping 61% year-over-year, with the biggest increase being “Who” phrases (134%) and “How” phrases (81%).
Direct Answers To Direct Questions
Let’s put this another way. The rise of voice search means that there is a rise in direct questions as search queries. As Google is constantly striving to deliver exactly what the user wants, then it’s no surprise that we are slowly seeing a change in what Google is returning in response to direct questions – not links, but direct answers.
And this indeed might spell trouble for marketers. With direct answers, Google's goal is to provide the best possible user experience by answering questions in searches as quickly as possible. Google stressed the value of direct answers way back in 2014 in an annual report it filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission:
"We used to show just ten blue links in our (search) results. You had to click through to different websites to get your answers, which took time. Now we are increasingly able to provide direct answers — even if you're speaking your question using Voice Search — which makes it quicker, easier and more natural to find what you're looking for."
What This Means For Marketers
In a recent evaluation of more than 850,000 search queries, Google served up some form of direct answer 19.5% of the time, according to Eric Enge, CEO of Stone Temple Consulting, the company that conducted this test.
Commenting on this study, the CIO blog makes the following observation:
“If you're hoping to draw traffic based on information that's within the public domain, you'd better have alternative plans, according to Enge. Of the 850,000 search queries Stone Temple Consulting evaluated, Google supplied direct answers to 42,160 of them using ‘public domain information,’ or basic facts, such as the capital of the state of California.
“If you publish song lyrics on your site, you'll soon be singing the blues, because Google increasingly responds to song lyric queries with direct answers.”
Yes, direct answers – not links to your website which might contain the answers.
However, Google will still use the information it finds on your website to supply the direct answer – and this is where you can start playing the optimization game once more.
To explain, I want to refer once again to the CIO blog:
“Websites with content chosen by Google to supply direct answers can benefit from increased exposure, according to Slawski [i.e. Bill Slawski, director of search marketing, Go Fish Digital]. Such sites can be seen as authoritative sources on the topics in question. Content chosen to supply direct answers is also formatted differently from other search results, and that could help content get noticed. It could also draw more traffic to a site, especially if Google's direct answers don't satisfactorily address users' questions.”
Featuring In Direct Answers
Although it might seem like it’s still early days to be worried too much about featuring direct answers, it’s not.
As the Stone Temple Consulting test revealed, direct answers are being served up by Google nearly 20% of the time. That’s 1 in every 5 searches, and marketer worth his/her salt would want a piece of that action – especially since it’s only set to increase as time goes on. This means that the time is now to start mastering at least the basic techniques of creating content that will appear in direct answers, and thusly increasing your exposure and SEO.
So, what are they?
Well, in the end, this type of optimization will all come down to the way you format the written content on your site. The Google search bots will have to be able to “read” your content easily, and so that means that you will have to structure it a way that makes this possible – and to do this you will need to think in terms of structured data. One strategy for thriving in the voice search era is to find out what questions your target audience is asking and create content that answers them. Consider adding a Q&A service to your site that allows users to ask questions to which you later post answers.
It will also pay to think about the user experience of your specific brand. How does it tie into the questions that you predict users will be asking? If consumers are seeking the location of your store, then you need to optimise your content accordingly. If you are selling a particularly complicated service or product, which consumers want to better understand how to use, then are you producing content that directly answers the direct question “How do I use [name of product/service]?”
Of course, as ever you will need to perform split tests with your direct answer content to ensure that it reliably turns up in search results – and that indeed will be part of your ongoing SEO work for 2016. Enjoy!