At their annual developers’ conference, WWDC, Apple announced an update to the software powering their popular iPhone and iPad devices. Called iOS9, the software brings several notable improvements, but the most surprising is something the company calls “Proactive Assistant.”
Billed as their response to Google’s popular “Google Now” platform, Proactive Assistant promises to help users by giving them relevant information when they need it. For example, if you have a flight ticket in your calendar, the app will let you know when it’s time to head to the airport to get there on time. If you like listening to music right after you wake up, it will give you a shortcut to your iTunes library after you disable your alarm. The Assistant will come to customer iPhone’s and iPad’s later this year.
While it’s unclear how useful customers will find this new tool, it represents another step by the Cupertino company towards semantic search.
The Growing Popularity Of Semantic Search
In a recent article on Search Engine Watch, Jayson DeMers noted that the way customer’s interact with their devices, and by extension the web, is changing. With technology, specifically on mobile devices, getting better at understanding natural language, customers are increasingly comfortable asking a complete question. Instead of trying to make our question as obvious as possible, such as “macy’s hours of operation,” search engines are smart enough to understand “When is Macy’s open until?”
With mobile devices, customers adopting natural search terms is more dramatic, thanks to most modern smartphones featuring an app that promises to not only accept spoken commands, but to respond verbally to them. Here’s some of the most popular offerings:
Featuring the power of Google’s search algorithm, is the most feature-complete of the current offerings. If you use the program, Now monitors your email and calendar to give you useful information, but it also learns from your patterns, identifying your home and work locations. If you usually go out to a specific restaurant on Saturday nights, the system is smart enough to recognize this and provide you with directs and estimated time of arrival, just on Saturday nights.
Siri started out as a popular app in iPhone’s store before Apple bought the company and made it a central part of iOS. With proactive assistant, Siri gains the ability to monitor your calendar to pull useful information, but what set’s the iPhone’s assistant apart from Google is that Apple intentionally created the program to have a sense of humor. The company knew that their customers would ask Siri unusual questions, such as “are you real” and so they built in amusing responses, making Siri feel more like a true assistant and less like a computer that talks.
Named after the popular artificial intelligence (A.I.) in Microsoft’s award winning Halo series, Cortana debuted on Windows Phone, but should be available on Android and iOS later this year. Like Siri, Microsoft wanted to design their assistant with a personality, programming it to understand many common jokes. Where Cortana excels, however, is understanding who you’re talking about when you mention people in your contact list. For example, you can tell it to remind you to call Joe on his birthday, and if you have that information saved, will just add it to your calendar.
All three services are constantly improving and adopting ideas from one another. A few years ago, talking to your computer and having it reply seemed like something right out of Star Trek. Now, we’re more likely to get frustrated when our phone’s don’t know what we mean.
For companies that market or sell things online, this means that the tried-and-true method of keyword optimization is changing. Bing and Google are getting better and understand what customers mean when asking questions, which means digital marketers need to improve their understanding as well.
A Smarter Search Engine
Thanks, in part, to millions of customers using Google Now to search for everyday information like “will it rain today,” the search engine has a lot of raw voice data to work with, meaning that their understanding of how customer’s use language has improved dramatically. Google took this information and combined it with their algorithm to find new ways to provide relevant information for people searching for content.
Context And Related Terms Matter
Keywords are still valuable, but Google is a lot better at understanding on how you’re using those words in your content, which means they can pick out overly optimized descriptions or irrelevant links easier with every algorithm revision. Thankfully, the search engine also recognizes related words, which means those keywords will hopefully gain value by the content around them, allowing for a better experience for your users. Look at this quick search I did for coffee:
Google had a pretty good idea that I wanted to find a coffee shop and not something to brew in the office, so the search engine returned local shops and not nearby grocery stores. Using my location, Google found companies that had their location properly configured and returned a easy to read list. If I performed the same search on my phone, I could get directions to my chosen shop in a single click.
In this example, “Coffee” was the primary keyword, but the context I used it in let Google know how it should rank the results it provided.
Quick Answers And The Knowledge Graph
In 2012, Google announced the knowledge graph, which completely changed how customers interacted with their search engine. Now you could ask questions like “how old is mickey mouse” and Google will pull the answer and put it directly in your search results. For websites that build their entire business around serving ads to people looking for easy answers saw their traffic dry up overnight, forcing them to create better content or find a different way to make money.
Recently, Google announced that they were so confident in their algorithm’s ability to identify useful, accurate content that they started experimenting with ranking websites based on these factors instead of traditional links. Links aren’t going away anytime soon, but it’s becoming clear that the company is actively looking for better ways to get the best content in front of their users.
Searchers trending towards longer search terms help accelerate this process since it gives Google more information into what they’re really looking for, and digital assistants like Siri and Google Now change how those questions are asked.
A recent update to Google Now allows the program to pull your location, allowing you to search for information without using a keyword. For example, if you pull up at your favorite restaurant just to see it’s closed, you can ask your phone “when does this restaurant open.” Google Now pulls your location, notices you’re in the parking lot of that restaurant, and gives you their hours. Maybe the Star Trek computer isn’t so far off after all.
Building For A Post Keyword World
Keywords aren’t dead, but like links, they’re not as potent for digital marketers as they once were. Finding creative ways to use the same terms repeatedly in your product descriptions won’t give you the same boost it used to, but they’re still the best way to help Google understand what your page is about.
So, how should a company optimize their content for search engines powered by natural language search?
Use Markup Language
Schema.org markup is a great way to let search engines understand what the content on your page means, such as telling Google that your site is about the Apollo 13 mission and not the movie based on that mission. While not officially a ranking signal, Schema markup appears in 33% of all results even though only an estimated .3% of sites use it. Giving crawlers context for your content makes it more likely they’ll know when people are searching for the information or products you provide. Stellar SEO’s service can provide you with the content you need to advance you brand.
Keep Your Local Listings Up To Date
If you have a traditional storefront, it’s important that you keep your information up to date with both Bing and Google’s local business listings. Users looking specifically for your store will find this information useful, but the real benefit is finding those customers who say “Ok Google, where can I buy a cup of coffee” when they’re nearby.
Always Design For The User
At Trinity, we believe that your first priority when designing a website should be to build something your customers will love to shop at. Fortunately, Google’s best practices often align with client usability, so every change you make to benefit your users will also make your page more attractive to search engines as well.
Google’s frequent algorithm update’s often shake up the online marketing and eCommerce worlds as previously useful strategies, like link-building campaigns, now penalize sites that use them. Reading most sites reporting on these changes, it’s easy to assume that Google’s constantly shifting what they’re looking for, but this isn’t true.
From the start, the search engine said it wanted to provide customers with relevant, useful information. When Google launched in 1998, the algorithm it used was groundbreaking for the time, but simple by modern standards. As the company learned how websites exploited flaws in the way they ranked pages, they corrected them.
At first, they simply fixed the errors, but with recent updates like Panda and Penguin, Google is starting to punish pages that exploit their algorithm, hoping that the risk of a penalty will make webmasters hesitate before taking advantage of a fresh exploit they discover. Through every update, Google’s message of “Build the best content” remained the same, they just got better at identifying what that content was.
What’s really changing is customer expectations. In 2015, more searches start on mobile than they do on a traditional PC, customers expect engaging, responsive content with a frustration free purchasing process. They’re less willing to accept broken pages or errors than they were even five years ago, and the websites that grow year over year are the ones that identify these new trends and implement them before their competitors do.
Trinity Insight works with our clients to help them build the best experience for their users. From content creation, to conversion optimization and technical audits, we help them bring their pages in line with Google’s Best Practices the right way, by showing them how to delight their user. We’re confident our strategies will continue to work in a post keyword world, because we help develop the type of content that customers want to find.