Search Engines Get More Personal – How Google Works to Answer Your Questions
May 14, 2013
The other day I was in my kitchen, cooking breakfast, when I realized the eggs were a day or so past the expiration date on the box. Wanting to know if they were still edible, I typed the following into Google: “How do I tell if an—“ Before I could continue, the auto-complete search suggestions popped up—and oddly enough, the first one was the one that answered my question. I submitted my search query: “How do I tell if an egg is still good” before I clicked enter. The eggs were fine, in case you were wondering.
However, this led me to think of the nature of search, and how the way in which people query for information may be shifting. Google has become some sort of guru for answering questions as much as indexing URLs. Along with the knowledge graph, predictive search suggestions, and most recently, the Siri-inspired Google Now, Google has ushered in new innovations and prioritized user-experience and familiarity with almost pin-point precision. In tandem, users have responded by treating the search engine more and more like a friend. Instead of seeking a particular type of page that might give a user the answer to their questions, it seems as if more searchers are actually just typing the question directly into the search engine, begging for an answer.
Using a small sample of data related to financial terms, this trend becomes quite clear. Looking at the images below, one can see a steady increase in searches involving the phrase “how do I buy”, and an almost corresponding decrease when just starting with the phrase “buying.” The same is true of “how do I sell”, and “selling”, “how do I make”, and “making”, etc.
It seems as if as time goes on, users are continuing to expect a more human-like response from the search engine for questions of all shapes and sizes. This trend continued with other, more open-ended and complex questions: For example, “why does” shows a dramatic increase in search activity over the past few years.
So what implications does this have for SEO? Well, as Google encourages webmasters to prioritize user experience, the data suggests that users, too, have come to expect a pretty conversational rapport with the world’s leading search engine. Google’s response to this has been to condition their search results with previews and quick answers to search queries via tools like the Knowledge Graph and Google Maps. Though this is an important advantage to how Google works to answer your questions, this can also rob webmasters of organic traffic. Google answers their question before they have the chance to click on any other search results. Beyond that, and considerably more important, this trend should be considered in one fundamental component of any SEO campaign: Determining your target keywords.
We all know that good sites always put the user before the search engine. But many search engine marketing campaigns tend to define keywords by trying to identify what the site is, in broad terms, or general terms that sum up their services, rather than what solutions it offers or questions the site may answer.
Instead of looking for descriptors, try thinking of questions that might yield those keywords, as those searches might prove to be the game changer. Consider the user who searches for a “certification program”. Now, think of the user who instead might ask “how do I get certified”. These variations may open doors for organic search traffic, changing the competition level and ultimately leading to more conversions.
Now more than ever, it’s crucially important to get inside the mind of the target user. What questions might they have or problems might they be looking to solve? Instead of assuming they know the answer or the potential solution, sometimes it might be best to let the site simply do the asking.