In the first part of our discussion on the evolution of search, we looked at the change in customer behaviors, which has led to a struggle between search engines and apps to remain relevant.
We also started to dissect key parts of the new digital ecosystem, looking in detail at the most obvious manifestation of these indirect answers, the information that powers these, and the change in mindset required to capitalize on the opportunities direct answers present. In this second part, we will consider further the outputs of the fundamental changes to search—and what this means for SEO as a channel in the future.
Voice is important, but we’re looking at it the wrong way
It wouldn’t be right to consider the evolution of search and featured snippets without discussing voice search. Many are looking to this as the new frontier for search, doubling down on strategies to become the answer to questions that people ask. Voice search is undoubtedly taking off in a big way, with 2016 being a turning point in the growth of the channel, but there are two challenges “voice marketers” will face: firstly, there is still a stigma to using voice in public—consumers may use quick commands, but they are yet to embrace the full capabilities of smart assistants among other people.
Secondly, smart speakers are becoming a part of people’s homes in a big way, with an estimated 40% of UK homes due to have an Amazon Echo in 2018. Despite this, companies will struggle to convince their audiences to receive unsolicited branded messages without permission. This is more of a problem in the wake of GDPR and claims of smart devices “listening in,” and I expect more tolerance to come in the future.
Until that point, it doesn’t matter if you’re the answer; users won’t know who has delivered the results they are listening to.
A much bigger opportunity in voice, although falling a little outside of the search marketer’s remit, are “skills.” When the app store launched, many of the first apps were utilitarian or games; the idea of a “branded” app was yet to be developed. However, as smartphones became ubiquitous, the prevalence of apps increased. I believe the same will be true of “skills.” For now, many of these provide data that the assistants cannot store first-hand, such as bus times and weather information. Over time, however, these could provide a branded experience for more conventional voice queries. Already, skills allow brands to provide a personalized response across voice. Importantly, as skills must be linked, these are solicited; or, put simply, you can brand the answers you give to user questions in an agreed format. Right now, this is a powerful tool; in the future, this will be a game-changer.
For those still looking to own the answers, owning the data feeds is key. While you can optimize for this in the same way as featured snippets, it’s harder to convince voice speakers, whose sole result has to be infallible or users will stop asking, that you are the one result to rule them all. This is why I believe Yext’s recent announcement that they will be pushing information directly to Alexa is as critical a change to search marketing as the launch of Penguin or Panda. For the first time, key data and knowledge feeds can be directly inputted into and brands can not only influence the information that Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other platforms have on them (which is currently the case with answer optimization), they can own the narrative entirely.
As search engines look to promote results directly in search (whatever the format), this is a giant step forward towards the digital ecosystem of the future and should not be underestimated.
Speed and mobile are intrinsically linked; new formats will enable this
We’re all bored of hearing the phrase “content is king”—in fact, the “is king” moniker has been done to death. “Speed is king,” this probably does not carry the weight it needs to; and this is a shame, because it runs the risk of overlooking a crucial part of web marketing in 2018. From a pure SEO perspective, speed is now linked to improved visibility, in the same way that the interstitial ad penalty penalized sites for pop-ups.
However, if you’re blocking pop-ups or reducing your page load times for search traffic alone, you are firmly missing the point. This isn’t an “SEO thing.” This is a user experience essential, based on the changing demands of the digital-savvy customer in the modern age of technology; an audience that expects to quickly access the content they wish to furiously consume. Any delays or blockers in this process can be disastrous—not only to the brand, but to search engines as a whole.
Popular apps provide seamless, tailored experiences to their users; to stay as information leaders, this has to be replicated across search. A slow response, even if it’s not directly the fault of the provider, only serves to drive users away.
For now, the biggest threat is mobile and apps; as other emerging technologies become more widely adopted, particularly in the immersive experience space, both the web and search engines will need to catch up to survive. And I believe that not only is it the responsibility of SEOs to drive forward these changes, it is both absolutely in our interest to do so and intrinsic to the continuation of investment in our channel.
The future is bright, but SEO will never be the same
With the rise of apps and Google looking to push answers directly to users, reducing the importance of the website in the digital ecosystem, you could argue that the importance of SEO activity is dwindling. This would be a myopic view of the future; while the basis of our activity roadmap may change, there will be a requirement for optimization. As the major algorithm launches earlier in the decade fundamentally changed the way we operate and skills required to succeed in the channel, so too will the behavioral changes we are currently experiencing. As we have always done, we will adapt.
In his 2016 Brighton SEO talk, Jono Anderson argued that the digital marketer of the future will not need to learn new skill-sets but combine existing ones. For search marketers, this means focusing on specific areas of knowledge where we can be the most effective, instead of trying to know it all as we currently do. Most digital agencies have already separated content and SEO teams into two different, yet complementary work streams. Structuring technical and local experts into teams of their own is becoming more popular and in doing so, allows the marketers within them to shape their abilities around the requirements and objectives of their specialism.
Looking ahead, there will always be a place for search engines in the digital ecosystem, although their importance to the whole is yet to be decided. As such, there will be a continued opportunity (and need) for search marketing. The SEO of the future may be a very different person than now and the focus of digital agencies will be split between building brands, building web experiences, and structuring information to be easily understood by data feeds. But until agencies truly leave the ranking factors of the past behind and fully support this new digital world, powered by technology, convenience and customers, it will be at perpetual risk of becoming irrelevant to our audiences.