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Marketing SEO

Questions over Keywords: Why the Future of SEO Strategy Is a Conversational Approach

4 Minute Read

SEO strategy may be one of the fastest-moving disciplines in digital marketing, thanks to the breakneck speed at which Google and the other guys push out updates for their engines, forcing marketers to stay on their toes.

For content marketing teams trying to keep up, SEO conversations can quickly turn into meandering affairs that range from high-level strategy to exceedingly specific technical implementation.

But the SEO dynamic today may have shifted. While site optimization remains ever-important, search giants and SEO experts alike have begun talking about the shift from keywords to “quality content.” The concept is simple: Search engines ultimately want to understand what a searcher is looking for (i.e. search intent) and to deliver them the best experience, so as technology improves, the overall content experience becomes more relevant than the presence of keywords.

The smarter our search engines, the less reliant they become on keywords. We haven’t made the full transition yet, but there is plenty of opportunity for brands who know how to create content that “talks” to search engines and searchers alike.

Questions over Keywords

Over the past few years, there have been a number of technological changes to search engines that have signalled a shift away from keyterming towards a more conversational future.

The first sign came way back in 2009 when Google depreciated the use of keyword meta tags in page ranking. This didn’t signal the end of keywording, but it forced Google to publicly acknowledge the problem: If you provide a clear mechanism, people will exploit it. From 2009 on, we’ve seen search engines continue to take steps to identify pages that exploit keywords, stuff their pages, and all around do work to be seen without actually providing content in return.

Google has also introduced a number of new search-result formats that reduce the number of steps searchers have to take before reaching meaningful information. Among these rich results is the ever popular Answer Box, which takes queries and serves up results that address the concern. In this, we see Google encouraging searchers to ask questions and pose more specific queries, rather than relying on key-term searches and scrolling through a list of results.

The Rise of Voice Search

But perhaps the final straw for marketers who have been dragging their feet on content-oriented SEO has been the rise of voice search, which has moved a large portion of searches away from typed interfaces into conversational exchanges. Rather than a passing fad, natural language processing has begun to roll out across numerous devices, from cellphones to voice-activated speakers, and it certainly seems to be an important part how people will interact with their tech in the future.

Two women sitting next to each other, holding phones

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Turning Conversations Into Tactics

The future of search may be more conversational, but what does this actually mean for your brand’s SEO tactics? You can’t exactly give a script to your audience, can you?

There are two ways you can start reorienting your SEO strategy around conversational searches today, and both require only a slight change in perspective for your SEO team.

Build a Keyword Tree

When we create keyword strategies, we often think of our keywords in the form of an umbrella. At the top sits high-volume, high-visibility, broad key terms, from which stems a network of increasingly specific, lower-volume, long-tailed terms. This framework still remains relevant for your SEO strategy, but what if there were another layer you could add to help guide your content efforts?

Start at the bottom of your tree and select a term. What possible questions could your audience be searching for using this term? Make a list. You can even type terms into Google to see what questions auto-populate as commonly searched. Do this process until you have two to five questions written out for most of your keywords. Your umbrella should now have sprouted branches that give you specific avenues to explore to capture your audience’s attention, based on trends from your existing keyword strategy.

Create Content That Answers Questions

You now have a long list of questions. All that’s left to do is answer them!

During the ideation phase of content production, consider doling out some questions to your content creation team to tackle. This content should still adhere to your brand’s style and voice, but it should also directly call out the question you’re trying to answer and then walk through a practical, informative approach for addressing it.

As you roll out this content, you’ll want to be sure you note what questions you’re addressing in your content library and take the time throughout the year to update your “answer” content to ensure that the information you’re providing remains relevant for whatever changes are taking place in your industry.

The Future Is Conversational

The future of search certainly appears to be moving towards natural language. As users become more comfortable talking to their devices when they need assistance and search engines continue to work to provide more actionable, conversational results, it will land on brands to make sure they’re holding up their end of the conversation. Orienting your SEO tactics around the questions being asked today can be a powerful way to set your brand up for success.

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Featured image attribution: Søren Astrup Jørgensen

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Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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