Search is in a constant state of change. Google is updating their search engine to the tune of 2 algorithm updates a day. We’ve gained the ability to search by voice, search in app, and search our own private results. Google is offering up predictive search results in the form of Google Now, and we’ve trained ourselves to speak to our devices as if they were more than just circuits and software, as if they were our friends.
If we don’t search the way we did a decade ago, should we write or optimize content the way we did a decade ago?
In May of 2013, at the I/O conference, Amit Singhal argued that a Search Engine’s primary functions will need to evolve to: 1. Answer, 2. Converse, and 3. Anticipate. Here’s a quote from his presentation:
“A computer you can talk to? And it will answer everything you ask it? Little did I know, I would grow up to become the person responsible for building my dream for the entire world.”
Search language is evolving, and mirroring Amit’s predictions, there are three types of search queries and one form of search results that have seen tremendous growth over the last several years: question based queries, conversation based queries, self referential queries, and predictive search results.
Question Based Queries
Users don’t browse Google. They have a goal in mind, and more often than not their goal is the answer to a question.
- How tall is mount kilamanjaro?
- When is Labor Day?
- Why is the Sky Blue?
Google has taken advantage of the expansive data they have on frequently searched questions and the access they have to content across the web, by answering user’s questions in SERPs:
But answering user questions can also be a win-win strategy for you and your audience. With the right strategy you can increase visits to your site, gain searchers trust, remove objections to conversion, and help somebody out. All by writing smart content. There are many formats for answer based content, whether it comes in the form of a FAQ section, an opinion based blog post, or even a community based forum on your site.
In order to start creating answer based content, you really need to get in touch with who your audience is. What questions are they asking? What pain-points do they have? Is there a reason they aren’t completing the actions you’d like to see them complete on the site? I recommend starting out with Quora, Yahoo Answers, Google Trends, and Google’s keyword Planner to answer these questions.
Once you have a good feel for what questions your audience has, provide the best answers possible. Be descriptive, be unique, find ways to really help them understand. Take a look at your competitors for any given question, and make sure you’re providing a more comprehensive answer than what currently exists.
Google Now has had a huge impact on conversational search queries, since it uses voice commands that encourage conversational verbage. Here’s a few examples of how traditional keywords are evolving into more conversational queries:
- “Weather Salt lake City” vs. “Is it going to rain tomorrow?”
- “Ben Affleck’s Wife” vs. “Who is married to Ben Affleck”
- “Chinese restaurants Salt Lake” vs. “Show me nearby Chinese restaurants”
Data from Google Trends shows a substantial increase in conversational based queries like “Is it going to rain tomorrow?” as shown in the graph below:
Traditional keywords (especially broad, high volume keywords) aren’t always indicative of users goals, but conversational queries provide you with insight into the user’s intent. This provides you with an opportunity to create a content strategy based around user intent, and not just a keyword. Consider the goals of the user (are they looking for an overview of the weather, trying to figure out if it’s going to rain tomorrow, or trying to plan an outfit based on the chance of rain?) and let that form your content, design, and other online marketing efforts. By speaking directly to users goals, you make it easier for them to convert.
A great example of this strategy can be seen at Daily Dress Me, a site that offers outfit recommendations based on local weather.
In order to create an online presence that matches the search habits and intent of your users, you’ll need to consider ways to make your site more conversational, more relevant to user queries, more human.
Self Referential Queries
As we move towards queries that are question and conversationally based, it’s natural for us to start referencing ourselves more in our search queries and commands:
- “How do I change my oil?”
- “Where can I find pho in Salt Lake City”
- “When are my taxes due?”
The increase in self referential queries is most clearly visualized in this Google Trends graph for “oil change instructions” vs. “How do I change my oil”:
Thanks to Jordan Kasteler and Scott Cowley for the great example!
Now, Google understands that someone searching “How do I change my oil” might still be interested in a page titled “How to change your oil”, so don’t take the pronoun too seriously, consider instead, how your content relates to users. How is your content going to help them? Will it add value to their lives? Does your Title and Description provide context on why they should click on your link, or read your content, or return to your site in the future?
Grab some of your most important pages and determine if the content is focused on the user’s experience. If the user’s experience isn’t an integral part of the copy, brainstorm ways to make the user front and center through personalization (if you have the data), creative copy, or even editorial content where it makes sense.
Predictive Search Results
One of the most exciting (and still a little mind boggling) trends, is predictive technology. Google Now is Google’s version of predictive technology, and pulls from data sources across their ecosystem to show cards that are timely, helpful, or might be of interest to you. Examples of Google Now’s predictive results include:
- Packages that are in transit to you (based on tracking numbers in gmail messages)
- Restaurants nearby (based on GPS location)
- Developments in news stories you’re following (based on articles you’ve read on chrome)
- Recommended articles (based on interests, aggregated from chrome browsing)
- Directions to an address (based on addresses of recently searched places)
By focusing on providing results that are timely, relevant, and specific to a user, Google Now has created a unique user experience that exceeds expectations or requests.
There are a handful of companies that are investing in predictive technologies including Amazon, who has patented technology that will algorithmically predict which items it should ship to you before you buy them, or IBM, whose Predictive Analytics analyzes social sharing of users to understand what their future needs might be. Depending on what type of data you have access to, you may or may not be able to recreate similar experiences, but we can all be inspired by the spirit of predictive technology:
- Give your user more than what they’re searching for. Predict their needs, questions, or requests, and address them preemptively.
- Use Google Trends data to forecast seasonality
- Offer related products and services based on purchasing data.
- Get creative. Find ways to give your users things they didn’t even know they wanted.
So How Do We Evolve?
If a search query can be a spoken self referential conversational question, then how are we supposed to optimize for it? By being human.
All of the search types above share a common theme of creating a more intuitive and humanistic search experience. There’s a need for Copywriters, Content Strategists, and SEOs alike to evolve, to mirror the efforts of search engines in our content, to adopt the same mentality we’ve had for site design and experience for ages: a focus on the user and their intent.
If we as marketers can hone in on our audience’s wants, needs, and questions, if we can take the time to really care about our user’s experience, then we can affect more than keyword rankings and visits. We can affect people.