Tuning Into Voice Search

The big question for search marketers is: What must be done to make sure that a site comes up in answer to voice search queries? This is both a simple and difficult question, but one that must be addressed.

SEO Is Dead — 5 Rules for Winning in the New World of SearchHave you met Siri, Cortana or Alexa yet? If you haven’t, you will soon. Perhaps you’ve used Google Voice or Amazon Echo. The market for voice-activated search is poised to explode. Users are rapidly embracing this technology.

I expect that we will see rapid adoption, because voice-activated search doesn’t have a huge user learning curve and the devices are increasingly affordable. It’s their simplicity of use that will drive rapid adoption.

The big question for search marketers is: What must be done to make sure that a site comes up in answer to voice search queries? This is both a simple and difficult question, but one that must be addressed.

In previous posts, I have urged site owners to prepare their sites for mobile search. My admonitions have been to increase site speed and to make sure that the site is mobile-compatible. This is the underlying technical architecture needed for search success in 2017. Faster is better, and not to be fast and mobile-ready is to be left behind from a technical standpoint.

Unfortunately with search, no matter how wonderful the content and offering is on a site, technical miscues can doom it to obscurity. With the technology challenges met, it is time to turn to the offering itself, and this is where voice search enters the picture. Voice search is all about the user, the user’s intent and the user’s challenges in articulating the query.

Voice Search Adoption Will Be Faster Than Mobile

Voice-activated programs have been in the technology marketplace for a number of years. They are finally maturing.

The original versions required extensive training before they would recognize the user’s commands. The results were sometimes comical. I once tried an early version when I was writing a book and decided that it would require more editing to make the results coherent than just keyboarding the text.

Fast-forward to today, and we have technology so simple to use that it is prudent to safeguard it from toddlers likely to place orders on their parents’ Amazon accounts.

Estimates suggest that one in five consumers use voice search on a mobile device. Younger users have adopted the technology faster and use it more often than older users. As mobile searches increase, so too will voice searches. However in my opinion, the proliferation of voice-activated devices with search capabilities will add a booster rocket to the adoption rates and the volume of searches.

How Can Search Marketers Respond?

The key to an effective response is to ensure that your content addresses the questions a user might pose.

This may require rethinking your content approach. Most SEOs have used keyword-based strategies for search. These have been quite effective; however, in the future they must be linked to what the user wants.

This requires an inside-out process. Content must be able to answer the types of questions users pose. Where, when, why, how, and what are often starting cues for a voice search. Searches for directions are “where is” something; events are the answer to “when is” queries; “why” and “how” are often signals for factual information. There are a number of other signals — best, near, open, etc. An individual searching on a voice-activated device is unlikely to search for a giant head term — computer. The user is much more likely to pose a question that would fall into the realm of long-tail search.

As site owners create content, they should carefully consider if the content does address these cues and what other questions might a user ask. This will result in voice-search-relevant content.

If you haven’t already done it, now is the time to implement structured data on your site. This provides a framework for the presentation of data in a format easily consumed by search engines and returned in answer to voice queries.

One More Tip

Here is a bonus tip — extra credit, if you will. Years ago, many sites included FAQ pages. They fell out of fashion, but it is time to dust them off, make sure that they are up-to-date, linked into the site structure (not orphaned, as happens with older, unloved content), and the SEO reviewed to make sure it isn’t outdated.

These pages often provide just the type of information a user wants and seeks on a voice-activated device.

Voice search will change how we search. Instead of keying in keywords, we can expect search to become more conversational. If we expect to succeed, we need to think about engaging in an informative conversation with our site users.

2017 Search Trends — No. 1, Faster Sites

Before turning the last page on the 2016 calendar and welcoming in 2017, I’d like to pause for a moment and look briefly at some important trends in organic search that will strongly impact search performance in 2017. These should not be mysterious hints of things to come, but rather strong signals — claxons, if you will.

faster seoBefore turning the last page on the 2016 calendar and welcoming in 2017, I’d like to pause for a moment and look briefly at some important trends in organic search that will strongly impact search performance in 2017. These should not be mysterious hints of things to come, but rather strong signals — claxons, if you will.

Faster Site Speed Is Now an Imperative

If you have not been working on improving your site speed, by 2017 you will be left in the slow lane and passed by sites that have taken on the challenges of improving end-to-end speed.

You might ask: Why is it so important now? Google has been nudging site owners to improve their sites for several years. They have offered tools for site speed measurement and guidelines for improvement. The search giant even announced that its algorithm would give a boost to faster pages. The boost proved to be minimal; so many site owners did not see it as an imperative. Besides, in many organizations site performance improvements are seen as the province of the technical team, not marketing. Now, a slow site will inhibit your ability to successfully execute other trendy initiatives.

Mobile Is First

In 2015, more searches were done on mobile devices than on desktops.

The trend to more mobile usage has not abated. Google noted the growing use of mobile and is now working on a mobile-first approach. Because more people see pages on a mobile device, Google will be indexing and ranking based on the content of the mobile pages.

Guess what? Slow sites deliver slow mobile pages, which users rapidly abandon. Some site owners chose to address the need for a mobile site by offering stripped-down versions of their sites. With the mobile-first imperative, these sites will be judged based on the content given on the mobile version, not their “full” sites.

Several years ago, Google began advocating for using responsive design for mobile sites. As we move into the future, responsive design will simply be table stakes for mobile search performance. With mobile-first, it is more than likely that even mobile-friendly, slower performing sites will be left in the search rankings dust.

Now, with accelerated mobile pages (AMP) expanding beyond news content, fast, lean pages are leaping to the forefront. Google is even identifying them in the search results so that users can choose these fast, lean pages for themselves. The number of AMP pages is expected to continue to grow in the future.

In 2017, not having a fast, mobile site will put you behind the curve.

Secure Is Better

Google continues to push for more secure sites. It has already been announced that in 2017, users of Google Chrome will see clear designations on the browser bar whenever they are visiting insecure pages.

Google intends to essentially shame sites into moving to secure environments. Because of the encryption, secure sites tend to be slower than insecure sites.

Once again, this cries out for a need to improve site speed.

If there is a single unifying theme that should drive organic search efforts in 2017, it can be summed up in this slogan: Get fast or get left behind.

Spring Cleaning Is Not Just for Houses, It’s for Your Website, Too

It’s been my experience that businesses hate to say goodbye to products and often keep product pages up for discontinued and no longer available products. If you don’t have in-place a regular process for handling discontinued products on the site, then you should build one. Consider this akin to cleaning out the closets.

The calendar says it’s spring and in many parts of the country, the weather is warming and the flowers are starting to bloom. In the past, homemakers would herald the change of the season by giving their homes a thorough cleaning. Walls were washed, floors scrubbed and closets cleaned out. As we have become busier, the ritual of spring cleaning has faded into a memory of things that Mom and her generation did. I would like to suggest that just like homes, sites need to be cleaned on a regular basis as part of the organic search workflow. Maybe it is time to spring clean your site? If you do not already have cleaning and pruning the site as part of your organic search workflow, I’d like to suggest that there is no time like the present to put together an action plan.

Why Bother Cleaning and Pruning Your Site?
The reasons for instituting a regular process for cleaning and sprucing up your site are legion. It is my experience that we love the new and often forget about those sections of the site that were once upon a time the bright, shiny new objects. You may have forgotten about the pages. But once they are found by the search spiders and indexed, they are part of your footprint. Pages can live in search results for years, particularly if they happen to have search-reactive content. They may still draw traffic; not huge volumes, but enough to merit your attention. If your company has changed and progressed, you may have pages that represent what you were then — five years ago — and not what you are now. You do not want to show the world an out-of-date version of your company.

Where to Begin?
A very obvious place to begin is to use Google’s Webmaster Tools to get a sense of how many pages from your site are in Google’s index. This is a first-level sanity check. Most organic search marketers use this tool to monitor the level of indexing on a regular basis, but I am suggesting that it is a good idea to take a slightly different slant on how to view the results. For example, if your site has 20 top-level category pages and 1,000 product pages, plus some essential supplemental pages about the business, it would merit further review if the tools showed 5,000 or more pages. Run a spidering tool of your own against your site and check for discrepancies. It’s been my experience that businesses hate to say goodbye to products and often keep product pages up for discontinued and no longer available products. If you don’t have in-place a regular process for handling discontinued products on the site, then you should build one. Consider this akin to cleaning out the closets.

What to Do With the Discards?
During a spring cleaning that includes cleaning out the closets, lots of discards go off to secondhand shops, charity or whatever. You can’t quite do this with your site, but you can generously share any search value with other pages on the site by redirecting with permanent 301 redirects any traffic from your discards to other still-viable pages. This signals to the search engines that you have moved the page. You know that the page has not just been moved, it has been obliterated.

When to Clean?
It may not be practical to set an arbitrary time based on the change in the seasons to give your site a regular cleaning. If your business has a new product introduction cycle, as in fashion, then the best time is when the merchandise changeover has occurred. For businesses that continuously add new products, then a regular schedule must be set to clean up the site.

Don’t just look at product pages. All too often, the supplementary materials on a site are very out of date, so they merit a review, as well. Computer storage is cheap, so we never really see the pages we should be discarding bulging from our digital closets. Unfortunately, we really don’t want our customers using search engines to find and view our out-of-date materials. So if your site has out-of-date pages, be assured that if they are indexed, they will be seen by someone. Jiffy up your organic search presence by getting rid of any out-of-date pages.

Google Announces Significant Changes

As a marketer who uses email, you know as well as I do, your campaigns do not stand alone. Without proper support from your website—and throughout your organization—email campaigns will produce disappointing results. With that said, Google’s recent announcement of impending significant changes affects us as much as our Web developer team. Pay heed

As a marketer who uses email, you know as well as I do, your campaigns do not stand alone. Without proper support from your website—and throughout your organization—email campaigns will produce disappointing results. With that said, Google’s recent announcement of impending significant changes affects us as much as our Webdeveloper team. Pay heed.

In short, Google’s announcement focuses on two primary points—both of which are designed to acknowledge the mobile-device and app trends and provide suitable content to the device user. The purpose of this new release is:

  1. Google will return more mobile-friendly websites in search results.
  2. Google will return more relevant app content in search results when a signed-in user has the app installed.

To date, Google has checked websites for mobile compatibility, and if you are the webmaster, provided you with an email to keep you abreast of potential concerns and how you might address those issues—a fairly passive, observer-type approach.

With this announcement, beginning on 21 April, Google is apparently poised to take a harder line and relegate non-mobile websites to the far reaches of results—which will not affect direct links you’ve embedded in your campaign, but will most certainly affect future searches your constituents perform to revisit your site or to find additional information.

Does this have a real, measurable impact on you? Most certainly.

We recently ran a campaign where we checked the websites of thousands of our subscribers, leads and clients and were astonished to find only around 30 percent of them have properly functioning mobile websites, and less than 1 percent have a mobile app. The campaign was designed to highlight the experience of their clients when visiting their website and encourage them to purchase Web-development or app-development services. We included a screenshot of an iPhone 6 and on the phone’s screen we displayed an actual view of their site.

If this 30 percent suddenly shifts to the top of search results, imagine what this could do to your rankings if you do not have a mobile site. Assuming you’ve implemented a good SEO strategy, and are enjoying a top-ranking website, you will now have 30 companies displayed before you. With typical search-results pages showing the top ten companies, this means you have been relegated from page one to perhaps page three or even four.

With these changes, mobile sites—and landing and squeeze pages—have gone from important to critical. Your site and all campaign pages must provide sufficient depth to answer questions visitors may have beyond what the campaign provides or questions return visitors have—and in a format appropriate to the visitor’s device.

Updating your site doesn’t have to be difficult. If you’re using WordPress, there are plug-ins that you can add to your current theme in order to present the site in a mobile format. One I’ve used and had a good experience with is WP Touch.

If you have an HTML site, things become a bit more difficult, but not unmanageable. You might consider switching your site to a WordPress site with a mobile theme, which would negate the need to add a third-party plug-in to convert the site. Another option would be to post a new site specifically for your mobile users, and use javascript or an .htaccess file to detect what device your visitor is using and then send them to the appropriate site.

You do need to think beyond your website, no matter which option you choose. This affects landing pages, squeeze pages and microsites as well.

In other words, if you’re not mobile, you may not be relevant.

Are You Squandering Your Search Budget?

Google has your site on a budget. This is not just the budget that you set for your paid search ads, but this budget is one that Google controls for your organic search. Unless you are mindful of the ways that Google manages their resources and how this impacts your site, you may be squandering the organic search budget that Google allots your site. If you are dependent on search traffic from Google whether organic or paid, you need to consider how you might get more out of what is allotted to you. This may seem like a cynical view, but it is a reality.

Google has your site on a budget. This is not just the budget that you set for your paid search ads, but this budget is one that Google controls for your organic search. Unless you are mindful of the ways that Google manages their resources and how this impacts your site, you may be squandering the organic search budget that Google allots your site. If you are dependent on search traffic from Google whether organic or paid, you need to consider how you might get more out of what is allotted to you. This may seem like a cynical view, but it is a reality.

Before any traffic can flow to your site from search, your site’s pages must be found in Google’s index. It is Google’s stated goal to index the entire world’s content. This means the search giant must continuously crawl the Web to locate new pages and revisit existing pages to ensure that the index is up to date. With billions of pages already available to index and more being created every day, the task is gigantic. Although the crawl is automated and Google’s bots are very efficient, they must be supported by extensive computing resources. Google has had to develop ways to manage its huge crawling resources. The result is that every site has a crawl budget, just how many resources Google will allocate to crawling your site. It is up to you to optimize how efficiently you use your crawl budget. There are a number of things that you may be doing that waste the crawl budget that Google allocates your site. By the way, don’t ever expect to know precisely what your actual budget is; for it is based on a series of complex mathematical formulas—an algorithm.

A small site that seldom changes poses less crawling challenges than a very large site with thousands of frequently-changing pages. Unfortunately, very large sites often sabotage their crawling efficiency and squander their crawl budget. This can have a substantial economic impact for the site owner. For a large ecommerce site, if areas are not crawled and indexed in a timely fashion, it is as if the site owner turned off the lights and signage for a part of the store.

You can obviously squander your budget by using an SEO-unfriendly product filtering systems that create duplicate content or through a clumsy implementation of a new technology such as endless scroll pages. There are other less obvious, but equally insidious ways. Several years ago, Google made available through their Webmaster Tools Sitemaps; whereby, site owners could indicate for Google what pages they wanted crawled. Today, most sites have automated the submission; however, many have taken a “set it and forget it approach.” If this has been your approach, then put a mark on your search task list to revisit your sitemaps and their performance.

Several years ago, Google announced that site speed would figure into their algorithms. It is a simple logical jump to realize that part of this calculation would include not only how fast you deliver your site to a user’s browser, but also how fast Google’s crawlers could traverse your site. If you focused on this briefly and then put it aside as finished, revisit it now. Just how fast is your site? If you use a CDN to speed your site to users, do not assume that you have optimized your delivery for robots. Robots such as Googlebot must be handled as a separate type of user. Any changes made to your technology or architecture should trigger a review of site speed performance for users and robots. If you optimize performance to ensure that you do not waste Google’s crawling resources, you just may find that your site is fully indexed and will most probably rank higher in the search results.

Doubling Down on Google+?

When determining how to integrate Google+ brand pages into your planning for 2012, it’s important to understand what Google+ is and what it isn’t. By Google’s own admission, Google+ isn’t meant to be a social network. Or so it says.

When determining how to integrate Google+ brand pages into your planning for 2012, it’s important to understand what Google+ is and what it isn’t.

By Google’s own admission, Google+ isn’t meant to be a social network. Or so it says. Google+ Pages will help brands in terms of search position and relevance with more real-time content that’s prioritized above other search results. But it’s not designed to drive the type of deeper engagement true social networks allow. While Google+ should be part of your overall media strategy, it won’t replace other social efforts anytime in the near future.

For example, there are limitations placed on Google+ Pages right now regarding promotions and contests. Specifically, the inability to host any promotions or competitions directly on Google+ Pages may actually end up driving more promotional traffic to Facebook. This is further made likely by Facebook’s own policy requiring that contests running on its site be hosted there.

The threat to the existence of Google can’t be understated. How real is this threat? Google certainly feels confident that it owns the internet and mobile web based on current platform dominance. But it should remember that it’s benefited from disruptive shifts in technology and user behavior.

For mobile specifically, this threat is embodied not only in Siri, which we know Google fears, but also potentially in Windows Phone. From a user experience perspective, Windows Phone represents a paradigm shift. Flameouts show how a dominant position can be compromised by complacency and failure to shift product strategy to reflect evolving tastes.

What further increases this risk for Google is that TV online advertising rates are on track to return to prerecession levels, while the overall ad industry is still below 2007 spending levels. While 2012 will see the growth of online ad spending surpass TV (11 percent growth versus 7 percent growth), brand advertisers are still spending more on TV. With more and more ads driving traffic directly to Facebook in search of deeper engagement, we see yet another strong channel that bypasses search-driven web use, even websites, entirely.

While I’ll be the first to admit that speculation on Google’s ultimate demise may be a bit premature, it does lead to some questions about what this all means in the short term. While Google+ will most likely have to be part of your overall search marketing consideration set, it’s a nonstarter from a social platform or deeper engagement perspective. Plans should reflect that. Google’s impulsive product strategy should also pause brands when considering how much effort to expend on Google+ as a whole. What it’s already shown us with the recent product cancellations and refocusing is that on Larry Page’s watch, anything is possible.