How voice search and Google 'direct answers' are changing SEO

Mobile and voice search are shaping the future of SEO, and Google is putting new emphasis on 'direct answers' to queries. Here's what digital marketers, content creators and SEO experts need to know about these key changes.

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Tips to help marketers, publishers capitalize on direct answers

Voice search and direct answers have a number of ramifications that website publishers and digital marketers should keep in mind. Here's a quick breakdown.

If you're hoping to draw traffic based on information that's within the public domain, you'd better have alternative plans, according to Enge. Of the 850,000 search queries Stone Temple Consulting evaluated, Google supplied direct answers to 42,160 of them using "public domain information," or basic facts, such as the capital of the state of California.

If you publish song lyrics on your site, you'll soon be singing the blues, because Google increasingly responds to song lyric queries with direct answers, Enge said.

A site's "authority" has always been crucial for SEO, and it could be even more important in the future.

Google chooses direct answer responses for "natural language" search queries, which can be performed via voice or text, from authoritative online sources, according to Bill Slawski, director of search marketing, Go Fish Digital. Sites that are frequently chosen in search results and that consistently rank highly in results for relevant queries are often deemed authoritative, based on a natural language search patent Google Israel filed in 2014, Slawski says. 

For example, the Google Israel researchers searched for pages that consistently rank highly for variations of specific questions, such as "how do I treat XY," "XY treatment," and "how to cure XY," Slawski says. Google researchers added those pages to a data store it is amassing, using headings such as "What are the symptoms of XY," along with specific answers to the questions. (You can learn more about how to improve your site's domain authority on QuickSprout.com.)

Websites with content chosen by Google to supply direct answers can benefit from increased exposure, according to Slawski. Such sites can be seen as authoritative sources on the topics in question. Content chosen to supply direct answers is also formatted differently from other search results, and that could help content get noticed. It could also draw more traffic to a site, especially if Google's direct answers don't satisfactorily address users' questions.

To increase the odds of being featured in a direct answer, content marketers and SEO experts should focus on the specific questions their content answers and then address those questions immediately and clearly, according to Ehren Reilly, director of product for growth for job site Glassdoor.

For example, Google's direct answer for the search phrase, "Facebook software engineer salary," used to come from an article on the website AllFacebook.com, Reilly said. "Their article has a sentence that directly answers the question, and our page [on that topic] didn't."

google direct answer facebook software engineer salary

So Glassdoor revised its page to clearly answer questions related to Facebook software engineer salaries, and now Google uses that page for its direct answer. 

Bottom line: If you want to be featured in a direct answer, "You need to know how to structure your ideas and take your page of content and place key points in places where [search engine] bots can see them and parse them out," according to Reilly.

"Just like a resume, you need to know the formula for your content page," Reilly says. "Make sure you make the key point in clear, simple sentences."

Reilly also suggests studying the direct answers Google pulls from other sites for patterns, and then structuring your own content according to the findings. It's also a good idea to create large, exhaustive lists to answer questions, if feasible, according to Reilly. Google often can't place all of the relevant information in a direct answer box, so it will have to include a link to your site so users can find the rest of the information, which will help you get more traffic.

"This is an opportunity to do a different kind of SEO from what you've been doing in the past," Reilly says. "And if you get in early, you'll have the advantage."

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