The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We are experiencing a period of unprecedented flux in the search industry. But dig deeper, and there are some elements that hold stubbornly true.
Historically, search has been about Google and it has been about text. There has been a shift in this relationship, as voice-based digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa take hold, and search results become much more varied.
The way we approach search has also changed. Search is now central to most marketing teams and it encompasses a wide variety of skillsets. Everyone from the CMO to the creative team to the data analysis specialists has a vital role to play.
This provides a lot of food for thought for modern marketers. Enough for an all-you-can-eat thought buffet.
Just some of the big trends in our industry in 2017 are:
It used to be so much simpler, right?
All of this can be disconcerting. So how can we stay on top of so much change?
If you react to every new, shiny update, you’ll fall into a trap. The faster our industry changes, the slower we should be in our decision-making. The choices we make now will shape how successful we are over the next few years, so it’s worth taking the time to get them right.
There are some comforting constants within all of this exciting flux.
The act of searching has not changed; it depends on an accurate answer to fulfill its function. Search engines are getting better at judging which answer is the most relevant and for that, we should be grateful. The industry has a long way to go, but the path we are on is a constructive one.
Therefore, with one eye on the present and the other on upcoming trends, we can set ourselves up for short- and long-term search success.
Below are four tips we should all bear in mind as we prepare for the future of search.
1. Use Psychology & Technology to Shape Strategy
People don’t change as quickly as technology. Marketers should understand the psychology behind their audience’s actions.
These eternal marketing principles will take center stage once more as search grows in sophistication. It is in understanding the full breadth of potential interactions our customers can have with our brands that we can thrive in this new ecosystem.
The hardware used to find this information may change, along with the search engine used to power it. However, the user behind the query will have the same impulses and requirements they always had.
Sure, the form these queries take will advance in lock-step with technology. We have seen this with longer queries via voice search, for example. We will see this more and more as users tap icons rather than typing queries.
This is exactly why we shouldn’t chase shadows by targeting specific search queries.
Knowing which keywords led visitors to your site is useful to know. It always will be. But from a strategic standpoint, gaining insight into the intent behind that keyword will be much more valuable.
Both quantitative and qualitative resources are required to reach this level of comprehension into consumers.
This is where we can use technology to our advantage.
Your company’s CRM data can be a goldmine. Even the humble survey still has a role to play.
If you want to know what people are thinking, ask them. Combine this with what you see in your analytics and CRO software to get an idea of what truly leads a customer either to engage or disengage with your brand.
Psychology is the foundation of a great search campaign. Technology enables us to create a stronger foundation than ever before.
2. Structure Your Site Around Topics
Taking this approach to research will provide you with a rounded view of your customers’ preferences and requirements. This then becomes a fantastic resource when you consider the structure of your website, as you can build topical hubs for semantically related content.
We have been talking about this way of structuring sites for quite a while now. The logic is sound: Map different sections of your website to different products and services and, within each, cover every point of the consumer journey with different landing pages. This lends itself to a URL structure that is great for search engines and users alike.
This can be extended to encompass your apps and social media profiles, should they be a more fitting home for certain types of content.
What this provides is a perfect platform to populate with a variety of content formats. Informational pages may benefit from videos while transactional pages require structured, clear answers to pressing questions.
Let’s take as our example an insurance brand. Applying this approach, we would have separate sections for each type of insurance.
We can consider the lead product page in each section to be the main content. This is then supported by supplementary content, which supports the main product page by adding further color and guiding users towards an informed decision.
Often these supplementary pages can be migrated from the blog, with some minor amendments. As a result, your product hub will cover everything from [what type of car insurance do i need?] to [get car insurance online].
This adds to your authority as a reputable resource and allows you to nest all related content within sub-folders under the main product.
Wherever the industry takes us in the next five years, this approach to site structure will have merit.
3. Think Beyond Google
Searching implies the requirement for an answer. The transmission of those answers may differ by channel or search engine or by media format, but search is just a vehicle for the information.
In fact, search engines only have access to our information once we choose to put it in their hands. They are not the creators of the content, but they form an essential link between demand and supply.
Google has been a dominant presence in our landscape, although competition is increasing as user behaviors differentiate. And yet, this is driven by a core truth: People are simply seeking new information.
This is important to remember as we ponder the rise of Amazon as an e-commerce search platform, or as Pinterest’s visual search technology evolves. Yes, we should learn how to code Skills for Amazon’s Echo. Undoubtedly, we should know how Pinterest’s “similar items” feature functions.
Nonetheless, this should not come at the cost of creativity. The age of generating content just to fit how we think Google ranks results is long gone. If we try to manipulate our way into a wider array of search engines and media formats all at once, we will lose sight of what is important. Moreover, we’ll have no time left to create anything of worth.
This new era will reward genuine creativity and research over ‘quick win’ tactics. The future of search should actually be much more unified, from a strategic perspective, in the sense that we require one cohesive plan across all of those touchpoints.
That has not always been the case; often we have had to make do with the acquisition stage, which is harder to deliver on when you don’t really shape the awareness or consideration phases.
Where we need to upgrade our skills is in the area of content discoverability. Whether it is through Schema.org markup or creating Actions for Google Home, our focus should be on making it as easy as possible for any digital assistant or search engine to find and serve our content.
4. Devise a Flexible Measurement Strategy
We need to measure all of the above in a more nuanced way, bearing in mind that personalization is still an untapped opportunity.
Much has been made of personalization in search for a few years now, but true personalization is still on the horizon. This will be great for marketers, no doubt.
Personalization will, however, present us with new measurement challenges.
Search results will never be static. So how can we measure our ranking performance?
Furthermore, we need to know how to evaluate the success of our content across media platforms and social networks.
The key point in this area is to accept the importance of flexibility in a measurement strategy. The expectations of a video embedded within an informational page will differ greatly to those of a product launched on Amazon. A piece of content that gets links will be different to one that gets social shares, typically, and those will differ greatly from content that converts customers in volume.
Therefore, the communication of our measurement strategy is just as important as its component parts.
We need all parties to buy into the fragmented nature of search as we move away from being a pure, direct response channel.
This can be a very fruitful approach for businesses and may end up being a more varied and satisfying role for search marketers.
Of course, we need clarity in our data to achieve any of this success.
Hopefully that data will be shared by all digital assistants, which will give us insight into performance across devices.
We should also expect Google to split out voice queries within AdWords and Search Console (a feature they have tested already), which will at least provide a little transparency within voice search performance, too.
By using a unified reporting solution with tailored dashboards for different stakeholders, we can share our successes and learn constantly.
Our industry is changing, for sure, but it is changing for the better. The savviest marketers — and communicators — will reap the rewards.
Featured Image and In-post Images: Pixabay