Voice Search: The Evolving SERP and You

Imagine a search engine results page (SERP) you do not see. Can you picture it? No? Well, the thing is when we talk about voice search and the evolving SERP, that is what marketers need to prepare for.

This blog is part one in a series. View part two here.

We know voice search became a big topic of conversation several years ago. While it may have begun with Siri, the introduction of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home has accelerated the voice search revolution. That revolution, however, hasn’t happened in a vacuum.

The search engines – specifically Google – have also evolved in that time. Add in machine-learning and AI and you have a multi-faceted revolution with voice search a nexus around which so much of the change pivots.

As president and chief search artist of Chicago-based digital marketing agency, Be Found Online, I’ve seen firsthand how brands must adapt if they have any hope of surviving the massive voice revolution coming to search.

To help, I’m sharing a playbook that brands could follow to adapt and survive. Let’s get started.

Why You Must Adapt and Be at Peace with SERP Changes

The SERP evolves. Gone are the blue links. Gone is the paid search 3-pack. Today’s SERP may be topped by an ad or a featured snippet, depending on whether you’re using a desktop or mobile device.

The entire SERP may include paid ads, organic results, apps, news, local listings with maps, a knowledge graph and somewhere in there, more organic results. Ads themselves continue to change in appearance. Featured snippets themselves include Google curating content to answer questions.

And the changes keep coming.

Google De-duped Featured Snippets

Just recently, on January 22, 2020, Google announced websites that earned a featured snippet won’t appear again on page one. Furthermore, the change went into effect immediately and affected every search listing around the world.

Suddenly, brands that won the coveted featured snippet spot at the top of the page only had that spot. In an instant gone was the typical other organic position on the page one SERP. A January 25 follow-up article reported brand traffic hadn’t changed substantially since the release.

This begs the question, what page (if any) will the brand’s organic listing appear. Clearly, this affects search and keyword strategy. We’re still gathering data.

October’s Algo Update, aka Bert

In October, Google introduced algorithm update BERT which it called “one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.” BERT allows Google to understand search queries in context. Rather than looking at words one by one, one after another, it looks at how words appear together.

As BERT rolled-out, it changed the SERP. Where before your featured snippet would only include context from a single site, now it can curate its own answers from content. For the user, this delivers more relevant content and results. For the brand, your content needs to be high-quality, optimized, and well presented.

New Searches Happen All the Time

Here’s a SERP stat that will blow your mind.

In 2017, Google reaffirmed an earlier finding that “15% of all searches we see every day are new.” Google does trillions of searches every year. Even so, they continue to see new searches.

When we think of the scope of those numbers, 15% is an amazing volume of new searches. And there is a takeaway here. You need to listen and know your audience, to keep up and never miss those new searches your audience may be doing.

The Zero-Click Conundrum

According to SparkToro, over 50% of Google searches never generate a click. It’s the zero-click search result. The user does a search, finds the answer on the SERP, and navigates away without ever clicking a link.

The zero-click result means now you can answer a search with your highly coveted featured snippet and get nothing for it. All that optimization, SEO, and content work and you got nada.

Now, before you start to consider whether the featured snippet is worth it, we need to look a little deeper at what exactly this means.

Welcome to Destination Google

Google began as a portal. You did a search. A page of links appeared. You clicked the link and left Google for a non-Google property.

Today Google is a more diverse property. Everything that can be indexed is. And Google wants it all in the search results, and even to build a native ad experience in every property it owns.

Going even further, we can see Google wants to be the destination where you can make purchases from a variety of vendors in a single visit. Buy your clothes from Target, your athletic gear from Under Armour and your TV from Best Buy.

Of course, Google has competition on Amazon and Facebook. While Google knows what you search for, Facebook knows who you like and where “in a digital sense” you hangout while Amazon knows what you buy. And no one is waiting to see what happens.

  • Facebook recently opened search ads to all advertisers.
  • Amazon acquired Sizmek, effectively now getting paid to drive traffic to itself.
  • Walmart has even joined the fray and now offers sponsored search ads.

For retail sales, however, Amazon has the advantage, as demonstrated by the survey that found nearly 70% of buying searches start on Amazon.

Yet, according to eMarketer, e-commerce will only account for about 14% of U.S. retail sales by 2021. Looking at buying trends, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Walmart can see a big retail opportunity exists online.

To capitalize, Google and the others need to carve out their corner of internet, which is why you can expect to see your SERP continue to evolve at an ever-faster rate.

What to Do About the Changing SERP Landscape

With all the changes, brands need to rethink their campaigns, both organic and paid. Our first step, however, requires we know where we are and what tools we have at hand.

Reviewing your Organic Search Strategy

The results page changes depending on Google’s interpretation of where the search occurs in the marketing funnel. Is the user doing an informational or transactional search? You’ll see a different page for either one. If local results are relevant, you’ll see those too.

As you review your organic search strategy, you need to know –

  • How your brand is positioned, and
  • Where you are in the knowledge graph

Although featured snippets no longer give your site a second position on the results page, rich results on the SERP more than doubled from 2018 to 2019. Google, being a destination, wants to serve more rich results, so you need to consider that in terms of brand positioning. Knowing where you are on the knowledge graph and where you need to be become an essential first step for your organic search strategy.

Adapting Your Paid Search Strategy

In 2019, paid search saw huge changes. Some features passed on, such as accelerated delivery and position-based bidding strategies. New features were introduced. These included:

  • Monetized discover feed
  • Vertical ad widgets
  • Responsive search ads
  • Commuter targeting
  • Smart bidding rollout

Automation also improved. Machines got better and began out-performing third-party providers. The success of responsive ads represents this success.

For your responsive ad, you give Google 20  or so potential elements, including images, ad copy, and calls-to-action (CTAs). Machine learning tests these components to find the combinations that give the best response on desktop, mobile, and in display ads.

Marketers may be hesitant to let a machine create their ads. The machine’s ability to test though and the success that marketers using these responsive ads are seeing, makes it a feature every marketer should consider. Unlike a marketer’s interpretation of data, the machine builds ads on objective user response data. In other words, if it serves an ad that doesn’t work, its ego doesn’t get bruised…

Another benefit seen from responsive ads involves adaptive ad targeting of the user wherever they are in the search ecosystem.

With machines, search ads are becoming awesome again. In addition to responsive ads, chat ads let you chat with customers during their search. Lead format ads let users populate lead forms. New ad types keep developing and marketers must stay alert and be willing to test.

Embracing Machine Learning and AI

Responsive and chat ads show how machine learning and AI are changing paid search. Each has its own applications beyond creating ads that generate great click through rates.

Machine learning works best for:

  • Regression: predicting the relationship between two or more variables.
  • Classification: recognizing and classifying data.
  • Targeting: grouping data into categories based on similar traits.
  • Sequencing: predicting what’s next based on historical data.

AI applications include:

  • Recommendations, used by Google search, Facebook news feeds and more
  • Visual search, where users take a picture of a product (their search “term”) to get search results
  • Targeting, creating messaging based on customer profiles, not just previous behavior
  • As chatbots and voice technology, like Siri and Alexa

It’s hard for marketers not to find marketing tools using AI and machine learning today. The same goes for consumer mobile devices and personal assistants.

It’s here, then, we encounter the nexus of machine learning and AI with the SERP and voice search. People have turned to their voice search assistants to find them answers. Those answers – delivered through the AI and machine learning applications noted above – come in the form of a search engine result you may not see.

And suddenly, your organically earned featured snippet and AI-driven paid search campaigns become of the utmost importance. So too does voice search data.

This reality has led to unintended consequences which we will cover in Part II of the series, “Voice Search: The New Voice and Visual Search Ecosystem.”

Coming Up: Voice Search Continues

If you’d like to learn more about voice search, check back at AMA Chicago for my next two blogs in this three-part series that will continue the conversation.

In the next series article, Voice Search: The New Voice and Visual Search Ecosystem, we will explore:

  • Why you must adapt, especially if you are a consumer brand
  • What the changing face of search looks – or doesn’t look – like
  • How this affects your organic and paid search campaigns
  • The unintended consequences that have transformed the voice and visual search ecosystem

Please check back with AMA Chicago articles in a week for the next article in a three-part series on voice search.  

Also, if you’d like more information on voice search, please join me at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 29 for an AMA Chicago online workshop series, Future of Search.

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