With digital personal assistants, including offerings such as Google Home and the Amazon Echo, becoming more common, a new challenge is beginning to emerge for people in the SEO industry. These assistants conduct web searches like any other device, but unlike computers or mobile systems, there isn’t a brutal competition to make it to the search engine results page. A digital assistant takes a query and typically attempts to return a single answer unless it is specifically prompted to provide more answers. Companies that have already invested a lot of time and effort into adapting the more mobile-heavy world of modern SEO, and encountering this new terrain, feature voice-only assistant systems, may come as a shock for some. How do you SEO for the world of the digital assistant?
As with many SEO problems, the first step in addressing this one is to assess the challenge. In this case, the one-off nature of the responses to questions from the end user presents several issues.
The biggest problem is that assistants often don’t return answers that present any real business opportunities. What is the business case for supplying Google or Amazon’s Alexa systems with the answer to the question, “What does a baby giraffe sound like?” The digital assistant is likely to simply make a short statement followed by audio of the animal. There is unlikely to be even a simple source citation, and that ultimately destroys any business argument for doing SEO to rank for the sound of a baby giraffe on digital assistant devices.
A secondary issue is how the digital assistants present information. If you’re a site that specializes in listicles, for example, be prepared to get your citation and also to recoil in horror at how your list may be handled. The digital assistants have been coded to place an emphasis on fairly short responses. For example, if you present it with a challenge to list all the teams that have ever won the NFL’s Super Bowl, the assistant is likely to truncate the response fairly quickly by enumerating a few and then stating simply, “and more.”
Also, ordered lists aren’t handled elegantly by the current generation of assistants. A list that includes a phrase like “Item One” will be recited by the assist as “One, Item One.” While there is a lot of room for improvement, this will likely create problems for sites that focus on lists or ordered instructions. For example, cooking sites can expect to have recipes and ingredient lists mangled extensively by the popular digital assistants.
There are two big spots where opportunities can emerge from SEO for digital assistants. The first is any type of convenient factoid. The second is local search.
You can already see in the regular Google search system how factoids are handled. Search for something fairly fact-driven, such as, “How long can a groundhog live?” You’ll see a distinct knockout box at the top of the results with a concise answer. Underneath that, you’ll also see the citation for the factoid. When a digital assistant handles this sort of thing, it will give the same answer as you see in the factoid box, and there will also be a citation. In this example, the answer would be something like, “According to Wikipedia, a groundhog can live up to six years.”
For a lot of answers, the big websites you’d expect will already dominate that space. Wikipedia, understandably, is going to do well in this world. So are sites like Snopes and Urban Dictionary, since they have a level of brand awareness that will drive searchers to ask specifically for their answers. Alexa is going to be asked by a lot of parents, “According to Urban Dictionary, what does Netflix and chill mean?”
For smaller sites, the business case is going to center on long-tail opportunities, identifying factoids that haven’t already been cornered by the big boys. For example, Wikipedia might have everyone boxed out on the first man to walk on the moon, but a site called “Eat Me Daily” wins in Google search if someone asks what Neil Armstrong’s favorite food was.
One case where life gets a lot better for SEOs is local search. With the digital assistant now a common source of information about area businesses for customers, it is incumbent upon every enterprise to find religion on local search. The digital assistants tend to fail over to new answers if they can’t find a good one. If Alexa can’t find a number when queried to “Call Uncle Joey’s Chicken Shack,” it will try to satisfy the query by stating that it couldn’t find it and then offering to find a similar business. Every SEO now has a case for telling a company that their competitors may really be eating their lunch.
An added benefit for SEO firms is that almost all issues with local search are known. Making sure that a site is optimized for its keywords and includes accurate contact information is something any decent SEO should be able to do. With digital assistants as SEO targets, however, it becomes much more important.
The emergence of digital assistants can seem very limiting. In some regards it is. A lot of content-heavy websites aren’t going to be readily able to compete in this space. For some sites, though, competition is absolutely critical. If there are three grocery stores in town and yours is the only one up with a good site built with local SEO in mind, you’re going to win customers.
Clever content sites will also be able to leverage long-tail keywords based on factoids to establish themselves as authorities, too. Some searches will always find their way to a computer or a mobile device, and being the source that Google Home and Alexa regularly cite on a specific topic will drive visitors. The digital assistant is a new technology, and like any before it, there will be opportunities for enterprising website operators.