While examining SEO performance for the past quarter, a clothing retailer’s marketing team uncovers an interesting trend. The composition of relevant keyword searches has been changing slowly over time, with search queries growing longer and taking the form of natural language, rather than the typical “search language” consumers have used in the past.
At first, it seems curious, but not necessarily a point of concern. On closer inspection, though, the marketers realize that this trend has been growing steadily for years.
Dig even further, and the root of the issue is discovered. Digital assistants are steadily gaining a foothold in the homes of consumers, and their use is fundamentally different from how consumers search through typed queries. This isn’t just a blip on the radar—rather, it’s a harbinger of a fundamental shift in how marketers should be thinking about search and SEO.
With digital assistant adoption expected to rise sharply over the next few years, consumer behavior is likely to change in a way that forces an overhaul of SEO strategy. If you’re a marketer dealing with SEO, a lot of this responsibility will fall on your shoulders. The uncertainty for most marketers is in knowing what they should be doing to prepare.
Incremental change is already taking place, but full disruption is still waiting on the horizon. That’s good news for marketers who aren’t prepared for the changes levied by digital assistant-driven search. Even though numerous products are already out on the market, they haven’t hit the mainstream in a way that has caused significant disruption.
Heather Pidgeon, VP of Media at the digital agency Genuine, said that voice-driven search is beginning to change how her firm approaches SEO, but that the market for voice search hasn’t yet hit its inflection point.
“It’s kind of like, if you think back to how it’s been the ‘Year of Mobile’ for the last 15 years, then in the last three or four it’s like the industry has really figured it out, advertisers have really figured it out,” Pidgeon says.
The transition is slowly taking place on a small scale, but Pidgeon believes total disruption will be driven by a new product or software release from one of the major players in voice search, which include brands like Amazon, Google, and Apple.
“Now that it’s becoming more commonplace, brands and advertisers are interested but don’t really know how to work it yet,” Pidgeon says. “It’s not necessarily monetized by the Googles and Amazons of the world. I say that knowing that it’s going to be eventually.”
Transformation isn’t merely driven by the functionality of digital assistants. The consumer data available to these products is significant, and brands are eager to leverage this information to drive better insights and consumer-centric strategies.
Business2Community notes that a digital assistant housed on a smartphone can have access to a user’s “financial information, social networks, and loyalty programs,” while also collecting data on purchases, location activity, connections, and other behaviors.
“These devices know more about you than pretty much anyone else,” Pidgeon says. “It has your schedule on it and knows when you’re driving and how long you’re driving. So the fact that this is a key to really connecting with your target audience on a one-on-one basis, it provides an interesting opportunity for an advertiser or a brand.”
While the changes to Genuine’s SEO remain relatively minor to this point, Pidgeon says voice-driven searches through digital assistants are affecting the company’s keyword strategies and content strategies, as brands work to leverage new data-driven possibilities while balancing their obligations to both traditional SEO and new voice-driven search traffic.
In terms of practical changes to approaching SEO, Pidgeon emphasizes that the basic rules of SEO still apply: Brands need to understand how people are finding them or seeking them out online.
Search marketers should be using marketing technology to comb through referral data and look upstream and downstream to see where people are coming from, as well as how they are finding a brand. They should study keyword trends to see what types of phrases people are using, especially since this behavioral change can be hard to predict without data to lean on. Pidgeon says that one clear trend driven by digital assistants is the proliferation of long-tail keyword phrases. When dictating to an assistant, consumers are far more likely to phrase their question as an actual question, unlike text-based search activity, where questions are uncommon.
“I tend to laugh a little bit, because I’ve been in search for so long,” Pidgeon says. “Back when Ask Jeeves was around, the entire premise was that you ask it a question, and it gives you an answer. Ask Jeeves was maybe a little bit ahead of its time, and now we’re circling back to that.”
Pidgeon says that for companies who already know their audience well, there is less of a need for dramatic changes than for the more measured approach of using marketing technology to marry data with search intelligence. Constant analysis of search data can help drive day-to-day insights on a real-time basis, making it possible to see these trends evolve in slow motion, and to continually tweak your strategies in reaching that audience effectively.
For now, the vast majority of search traffic is still coming through typed queries on desktop and mobile, which will provide some stability as marketers prepare to accommodate voice-driven search. But that smaller share will require much more elbow grease as marketers refine and evolve their strategies, developing a best practice approach on the go while responding to market changes that are unfamiliar to everyone—even to the brands driving this change.
Featured image attribution: Clem Onojeghuo