Why Google needs to have the answers

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

An opportunity for SEO this year

In 2018, being number one isn’t enough, at least as far as search is concerned. While the competition has historically been between brands fighting for a top position in search results, it’s no longer the only way to get in front of your audience – and more importantly, the types of queries users ask are evolving.

Many see voice search as a catalyst for this, but finding answers to questions through search is nothing new. The key difference now is that users have an always-on, personalised access point to this data – their mobile. Voice search is certainly an innovation, but users are still relying on finding the same information through other methods.

Search engines face growing competition

As users’ attention span wanes, the need to quickly present the right information back has never been more important. Google’s shift to mobile in recent years is a symptom of this. But it’s now not enough to keep them engaged; users don’t want fast answers, they want the right answers, tailored to them. While, again, this isn’t a new concept – personalisation and search features have been around for years – the difference is that now users do not need to use a search engine to find these answers, and this is a problem.

Think about how search engines generate revenue – despite attempts to diversify, advertising is still a primary source for this. Hence, they rely on users engaging with their services to stay alive. And while mobile broadened their access to the market, it also allowed competitors to get their share. This historically wasn’t an issue as search engines connected the dots for consumers. However, you no longer have to search ‘takeaways near me’ to find a restaurant, particularly when there’s an app that can show you their whole menu, personalised to your taste and save you the hassle of making an order; therein lies the issue.

Convenience and personalisation

Two key themes for innovation this year – convenience and personalisation – pose a problem for search. If users can go directly to the information they need, and this provides a better experience, then why would they search for it? This has a knock-on effect for brands as it makes the user pool smaller and more competitive – and the need for blanket coverage across platforms only drives up costs. But it also reduces the importance of existing players; why should advertisers focus on capturing a large but indifferent audience when you get direct access to engaged target customers? Perhaps this will create better relationships between advertisers and the major platforms.

The opportunity for SEO

For organic search, however, there’s a huge opportunity. The industry focus is still on position one, but we’re missing the bigger picture; search engines aren’t trying to push position one to their users any more. This relies on an extra user step where the experience is entirely out of their control. Instead, they want users to find their answers directly in the search engine result pages (SERPs) themselves, through formats that they can manage. It’s not that ranking ‘traditionally’ isn’t important – it’s more that there’s a whole new world that many aren’t capitalising on.

But achieving this is difficult. On the surface, it should be as simple as having the ‘best’ answer for a query; but when someone asks ‘what’s the best restaurant in London?’ or any other subjective question, being ‘correct’ isn’t enough. Convincing search engines that your response is right for clearer-cut questions isn’t easy either, as many other sites will say the same thing (there’s only one answer to ‘what is the capital of France?’). You could say that ‘answer experience’ will be the key – but again, this is subjective and difficult to optimise. I expect we’ll learn more throughout the year, but if you’re yet to think about this – whether you’re a brand or an agency – you’ll quickly be losing out.

Ric Rodriguez is SEO operations director at Croud

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