Content Discovery

How to ensure discovery of your content in the conversational search era?

Back when I was starting to learn how to use Google to search for anything you wanted find - no matter how obscure, there were quite some tips and tricks to how to perform the based searches. What sort of keywords you can use, how to make use of advanced search techniques etc. “Google” was a verb, and you could Google anything with a little bit of practice.

It was the time of keyword based searches.

Since then, and especially in the last ten years or so, Google search has evolved to the point where people no longer need to know how to perform the best Google searches. Now, Google knows how people search and it has adapted itself to the searcher’s behavior, instead of asking them to change. So much so that today if you look at any campaign from Google, it is always structured around the theme “Ask Google”. Google suddenly became (or is trying to become) people’s best friend - one that knows anything you need to know about.

And with this change and evolution, emerged the trend of conversational searches. Today, businesses, both big and small, use conversational search as a means to target their customers better, increase overall web traffic, and drive up their customer engagement.

So today, let’s talk about it!

What exactly is conversational search, and why is it important for your content strategy?

Users on Google and other search engines do not typically search using keywords. Instead, they use complete sentences, natural-sounding phrases and terms and complete query texts while performing searches, and then these queries are processed and interpreted by search engines using natural language processing algorithms and artificial intelligence algorithms to display the most contextually relevant results.

Whenever you try making a Google search, if you notice the search suggestions you get, they are in sentences and phrases - the exact same way as it would appear had you been asking a friend the same question. Same is true for the prompts you see in “People also ask”

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So, instead of an average user searching for “thai cuisine + main ingredient”, you see searches like “What is the main ingredient in Thai food”. Such searches that match the grammatical structure and syntactical pattern closely resembling how we talk make up for the majority of searches that happen every second of every day. In time, search engines have made themselves capable of processing such queries and interpreting them as keywords in the right context. This makes the overall search experience more organic, natural, easy-to-use, and therefore, more appealing to the average searcher.

The primary driver behind this change in approach is engagement. The more fluid, interactive and simpler the search experience is for the users, instead of having the need to follow rigid parameters and antiquated search behaviors, the more a user is likely to turn to searches. Not to mention, the more useful search engines get for a larger percentage of the audience.

All this means is that there is a need to place conversational search behavior at the center of your content planning process. Unfortunately, most of the content creation processes and guides that you see around you is still focused on keyword based content.

To really capture audience intent, and to give them the best experience vis-a-vis their search expectations, content that has been created with a conversational intent in mind tends to provide the most value, therefore witnesses the best engagement. This is why your business needs to follow a conversational search strategy for your content marketing.

What is wrong with using keywords though?

The problem isn’t with the fact that you are using keywords. The problem stems from the fact that keyword based content are fairly open ended. Traditional keyword searches unleash a flurry of undifferentiated results lacking any and all context. It is because of this lack of context that many of these results have no relation to one another other than the fact that they are all targeting the same given keyword. The lack of context also means you have absolutely zero visibility on the searcher’s search intent.

Because of this lack of context, combined with the missing search intent makes these results chaotic, tedious, and difficult to sift through to find meaningful information. The result? Bad user experience and reduced content engagement.

In contrast, conversational searches yield refined, targeted and filtered results. And with the rise of voice assistants in our phones, televisions, and entertainment systems, the usage of conversational searches is only bound to increase getting more and more people get accustomed to this better way of looking for content that’s relevant to the task at hand, and in the context of their needs and requirements.

What does content creation for conversational search look like?

You will hear people say that getting good search rank has gotten more complicated, complex and difficult because of conversational search. And it has. But despite the fact that it is often described as a bad thing, like it is adding up to the challenges marketers face every day, the reality couldn’t be more different.

Conversational search isn’t a challenge but an opportunity.

Earlier, optimising for search was another way of marketers just sprinkling in keywords in their content to increase the odds of their content popping up higher in search ranks. The perception was that the more dense a piece of content was with ‘relevant’ keywords, the more likely it would rise among the ranks and get those coveted top positions. This led to the rise of a trend best known as keyword stuffing. But let’s keep keyword stuffing aside for a moment and just think about a content that we are trying to optimise for keywords.

Even if people would have been making search queries based on keywords, those keywords weren’t what they were looking for. They were looking for specific information in that domain the keyword happened to be present in. So, irrespective of how high a rank you get, if you are not addressing the users’ query, you know you will have very little, if any, engagement. Essentially, you would be opening the flood gates on bad traffic.

Conversational search, on the other hand, starts with a context. This gives marketers the opportunity to actually address the searcher’s query, answer the question they have. Which means, a better user experience, and improved engagement. The more engaged searchers are with your content, the more signals Google receives of your content being valuable to the users, the higher you would get in search ranks.

So what should you do for your content to get discovered?

Walk a mile in your customers’ shoes. Try to understand the problems your customers have, the questions that pop up in the heads, the information they need to make an informed decision. And once you have some understanding of that, create content that offers exactly that.

1. Be like a chess player. Anticipate your customers’ moves, or in this case, their likely search queries

The beauty of content stems from the fact that you can go as broad or precise as you want. If you want your content to be relevant to the broadest possible set of customers, you would need to create content that is aligned with queries most people would have. If you want to target a niche, you will have to get precise with how you approach the problem and offer a solution.

Whether you go broad or narrow/precise, you will need to learn to anticipate audience queries.

What do your customers already know about the topic? How frequently do they think about it? How much of an impact does it have on their everyday life, or work? What are they doing currently to know more about the topic? Do they visit communities, read blog articles, read a book, listen to podcasts, watch youtube videos? What exactly do they do? How soon are they likely to act on the information? How exactly would they be acting on it?

Figuring out the responses to these questions will help chalk out the path and the direction you need to take with respect to creating your content. It will lay the groundwork needed for you to create content that would be valuable for your audience…and your business.

2. When thinking of content, always prioritize natural language

If you want Google to suggest your content to readers for their search queries, you need to align your content to their queries. You need to walk a mile in their shoes. You need to talk how they talk. And that means, you need to stop thinking in terms of keywords and start thinking in sentences and phrases. Natural language and grammatical structures need to take the stage - front and center.

This also means writing at a reading level. Avoiding complex sentence structures, unnecessarily complicated terms and phrases, and way too much technical jargon. Your verbiage needs to align your content to the speaking and thinking patterns of your target audience. Take a contemporary example. We have all been stuck inside our homes and our lives disrupted for the past 18 months or so. It is natural that there would have been billions of search queries all over the world on the topic. What do you think would be a more common search: “What are the symptoms of Coronavirus” or “What are the symptoms of Sars-CoV-2”?

It doesn’t matter that Sars-CoV-2 is the scientific term for the ailment, if your users are searching for coronavirus, shouldn’t your content address the same? And just so we are clear, it doesn’t mean you can’t, or even shouldn’t, include Sars-CoV-2 in your content. All it means is that you should consider your users’ search behavior when assigning priority and importance to terms and answering queries. As far as including both terms in your content is concerned, I would actually recommend including multiple derivative forms of the same query so as to cast a wider net of relevant searches.

3. Whenever possible, integrate conversational search terms and phrases in your content

Don’t do that.

Sure, I want you to integrate conversational phrases within your content, and it would definitely help you get found better. But. And that is a huge but. It doesn’t mean you should carpet-bomb your readers with phrases even when there is no context. If you do, that will do you more harm than good.

You should look for context and ways to incorporate these phrases within your content that comes across as natural. Answer, in detail, the pertinent questions in a way that’s as closely aligned to the readers’ expectations as possible. Capture your readers’ attention by weaving in sharp hypothetical questions, and painting realistic scenarios. (Scenarios. You would have seen me do that quite so often on this blog.)

You should also take up the mantle of being an authoritative figure on the topic at hand.

Few years ago, I was researching for a new mattress. I was having some back-pain and spent countless hours researching different types of mattresses, brands etc. I finally got one, and I have to say - slept like a baby. Anyway. Since then, if you ask for my advice on what mattress should you buy, sure I would give you a crux of my research, outlining the pros and cons, features and benefits of the options you have. But at the same time, I would suggest to you a pocket spring mattress. I bought one myself, and couldn’t be happier with my decision and the heavenly comfort it gives me.

The same logic applies to your content as well. Do not just present facts and figures to your users. Take a stand. Be an authoritative figure.

Wrappin’ up

Conversational search is where we are at today. And from the looks of it, it is where we are going to be for the foreseeable future. And unless you, as content creator, start creating content that’s aligned with what your audience is searching for, you are going to have a real tough time getting your content found.

And it isn’t too complicated to do it this way. The rules of the game are still the same, our intent is still unchanged. Identify what our customers want, and then serve it to them on a silver platter.

Oh. Also, with conversational searches and “People also ask for”, you can come across some pretty disturbing wtf-worthy searches going on. Don’t believe me? Try starting a search for “Why won’t my parakeet…” and see what is the first result that pops up… Disgusting!

I did come across that “why won’t my parakeet” search on a Google image search I was doing. I tried it myself. And I’ll say it again. Disgusting. I hope curiosity does not get the best of you. But if you do end up searching for it, you can share your pain with me. Outrageous!

That’s it for today, see you tomorrow.

Cheers,

Abhishek

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