When the Google search engine launched in 1998, its biggest rivals were human beings. At a time when web search was primitive, directories determined our dial-up downloads. Today, advanced algorithms know what we want to see before we’ve even finished typing it. For many search terms, the answer is on the results page, or even in the search bar. Search engines have become answer engines.

Learn why this presents a threat to your traffic, but also an opportunity to capture new visitors.

TL;DR

In summary, to maximise traffic from ‘instant answers’ on search engines:

  1. Recognise when paid search will deliver more visitors than organic.
  2. Write high-quality content using semantic HTML markup, targeting pain points and natural language search.
  3. Don’t build simple tools like calculators. Make clever, complex campaign pieces which are useful, engaging and fun.
  4. Position your brand as the authority within your niche.

Just like I have in the four bullet points above!

The fractured relationship with modern search engines

Content publishers and search engines used to enjoy a win-win relationship. Publishers allowed search engines to list their pages, so they could build a comprehensive index of the web. When people browsed these indexes, the search engines referred them to the publishers. Perfect, right?

Nope. In this model, the search engines were losing out. In September 1999, one year after its launch, Google was answering 3.5 million searches per day. Fast forward to 2016, and it now answers 3.5 billion searches every 24 hours. Of course, powering processors and employing engineers takes more than small change.

Plus, we don’t always need a list of results. Google aims to build ‘the ultimate personal assistant’, but is often more like a game show host. “Is the answer A, B, C, D?” You receive millions of results for the simplest of searches. A good personal assistant will whittle down the options to give you the right answer, fast.

Search engines needed to make money to survive, and deliver better results to thrive. So, they changed the model. Paid search monetised commercial keywords, while organic search provided fast answers to non-commercial queries.

If the search results answer the question, why click through to a website?

The thing is, convenience for users leads to high stakes for publishers. Instant answers can cull your traffic overnight. Google has a calculator, currency converter, dictionary, and even metronome right in its results. If you offer any of those tools, your traffic will have taken a colossal hit.

If you don’t, maybe you’re next.

Let’s not forget Bing. Yes, it’s the butt of many a joke, but Bing is the default search engine on Windows. If you target business or education users, on devices locked down by their IT department, Bing has huge potential to send you visitors.

Now, Microsoft’s search tools also serve instant answers. Personal assistant Cortana provides calculations, conversions, weather conditions and more. The full fat Bing experience even carries an interactive periodic table, and a times table test.

When the search engines are the content, how can you compete?

Organic search as part of a synergised marketing campaign

Paid search is an essential element of modern digital marketing. This doesn’t have to mean Google AdWords or Bing Ads. Paid promotion on social networks may better suit your content or campaign.

For organic search, take a two-pronged attack.

Firstly, become the authority. Write high-quality content search engines want to scrape for their instant answers. The pain points in your niche are a perfect source of inspiration, along with tools like AnswerThePublic and Huballin. Semantic tables and lists will help search engines interpret and recreate your content. Be sure to use your branding and product names within the copy, wherever appropriate.

Secondly, create complex campaign pieces search engines will never want to replicate. Build content that is so useful, so engaging, and so downright fun, search engines will never have the resources to replace it. And then market it, everywhere.

An example campaign – music to your ears?

Imagine you run an ecommerce site selling music equipment, and search traffic is instrumental to your success.

For commercial queries – ‘Yamaha guitars’, say – you’ll get best results from PPC. Strive to achieve technical excellence on category and product pages. This will help capture organic visitors, improve your quality scores and lower your bids.

Your organic search campaign should focus on non-commercial queries higher up the funnel. You could target ‘how to hold the violin’, or ‘which musical instrument should I play?’.

By the “fat head, chunky middle…” model, those are long tail keywords with low search volume. However, more than 50% of searches now take place on mobile devices. As our phones become our PAs, optimising for voice search will be vital. Evergreen content targeting natural language search terms is forward-thinking and futureproof.

Let’s say your music site hosts an interactive metronome, which ranks well for ‘metronome’. Now Google serve a similar piece of content on the results page, your traffic has nosedived. It’s unfortunate, but there is a solution. Make your next content piece not just OK, but outstanding. Make something like the HTML5 drum machine.

Google might make a simple alternative for a one-off Google Doodle, but in the grand scheme of things you’re unlikely to be bettered. Plus, you can market that killer content via other channels.

After all: that drum machine has 10,000 likes on Facebook.

What do you think?

I would love to know your thoughts on this article, and the future of SEO. Drop us a line via @RocketMill.