The impact and importance of conversational search in SEO

What is conversational search and how does it work?

Introduced by Google last year, conversational search is a significant step forward, encompassing natural language, semantic search and more.   Similar to Siri on Ipad and Iphone devices, Google’s conversational search looks to evolve further still.

Chrome users may already have discovered the microphone on the right hand side of their search box – it’s been there for a couple of years now – but now there’s a difference. Speaking your question into the microphone prompts the words of your query to appear, then your search results are displayed and Google speaks the answer back to you. For example, if I were to ask, “What is the capital city of England?” Google displays an image and map and replies, “London is the capital of England”. Pretty cool.

But it gets cleverer. You can then continue the conversation using natural language, like employing pronouns in a way that can’t be achieved with typed search. To extend the above example, I could then ask, “Where is it?” to which Google returns a map and responds, “Here is a map of London, UK”. Google realised the ‘it’ I was referring to was London and replied accordingly. For a search engine to accomplish this is quite something.

It goes one step further by taking what it knows about your location and applying it to a query. So if I take a cue from Danny Sullivan and ask, “Will it rain tomorrow?”, the weather forecast comes back with my location and Google answers (predictably), “Yes, the forecast for tomorrow is 25 degrees with a chance of rain”.

Lets jump forward – right up to date.  Anyone seen the new Google adverts on TV promoting EXACTLY this?  Conversational search evolving.

The function doesn’t apply to every single search. Beyond the information cards that appear as a result of queries like the above example, you can only get a listing in answer to a spoken search. For instance, “Places to eat in London” returns a results based on London’s best restaurants with no voice response; a more specific query like, “Restaurants in Covent Garden” returns Google local listings with the spoken reply, “Here is a list of restaurants in Covent Garden”, but doesn’t read out the results.

Hummingbird and the dawn of conversational search

google hummingbirdGoogle’s priority has always been to return the most relevant results for a search query, so when the Hummingbird algorithm was launched in September 2013, the search engine reached a new level of accuracy. The aim of the update was to understand long, complex search queries semantically, enabling the display of more meaningful results than ever before. 

Hummingbird was not just an update like those prior to it – it was a complete change in the algorithm. Searchengineland.com likened it to a car engine:

“[Panda and Penguin] were as if the engine received a new oil filter or had an improved pump put in. Hummingbird is a brand new engine, though it continues to use some of the same parts of the old, like Penguin and Panda.” 

The main component of Hummingbird was the introduction of conversational search. It focuses on the meaning of words, and on the sentence as a whole rather than specific keywords within a sentence; thus the user’s meaning can be better understood. As a result, Google can answer long-tail queries with certain non-specifics included with relevant information even if a page is not optimised for them.

To cite an above example, my question “Will it rain tomorrow?” takes a colloquial way of asking about the weather, associates the query with the subject ‘weather forecast’ and translates it into my locality. I didn’t need to ask, “What is the weather forecast in London tomorrow?”, the search engine discerned the context of my question itself. I even got more than a simple ‘yes’ – Google also told me what the temperature would be. Thus I have an answer that is relevant, contextualised and more detailed than I had requested.

Why is conversational search so important now?

In a recent discussion about the future importance of backlinks, Matt Cutts emphasised Google’s plan to focus on conversational search. The feeling among the big players in the SEO industry is that these developments will impact the importance of backlinks in the coming months, which could have a significant impact on the practice of SEO. With the introduction of the Penguin and Panda updates, Google shifted back towards an emphasis on quality content and the Matt Cutts’ latest comments suggest that links will only decline in value further.

The key to Google’s plans clearly lies in the increase in mobile usage over the past few years. With mobile traffic now accounting for 28% of all web traffic, the need for easy, simple search on the move has been brought to light. Voice search that can be continued into a conversation is the Google’s solution to that need.

A Google study  in 2012 showed that mobile users were less likely to continue searching for something specific due to the fact that typing on a device such as a phone is harder than on a desktop. They would simply find the information they needed some other way. Voice search makes the process of getting information easier, and the implementation of a conversation functionality i.e. Google’s ability to relate searches to one another in context, means that SEOs now need to think about the presentation of information in a more holistic way. Optimisation of keywords has given way to optimisation of words and relationships.

the future of seoHow to optimise your site for conversational search

As with any SEO, there is no magic answer or fast fix to this question. Most of the leading experts out there are assuring us that as long as our strategies have been evolving with the changes Google has been making over the past couple of years, we’re not far off the right track.

As we mentioned above, search is becoming about relationships, so there’s a need for structured campaigns that cover a range of channels and a continued production of good quality content that draws in visitors and quality natural links. Mobile optimisation continues to be high on the list of priorities, as do things like rich snippets.

The major point, in case you’ve been asleep since 2011, is that the user needs to come first. It’s no longer about churning out poor quality content that’s designed for search engine spiders, it’s about creating interesting pieces that your audience will want to look at and share. It’s about getting out there and profiling your users, finding out what makes them tick and supplying them with that material. Bear in mind your users will come through different channels, so an integrated marketing strategy is absolutely essential.

User experience testing is now a must for marketers. Ranking for particular queries, while still important (if nobody can find your site, how will you get visitors there through natural search?) is starting to play second fiddle to providing a great experience for your customers. Think outside the box with content so that you can fulfil user needs beyond what they may initially have come to your site for. As an example, a wedding planning business might feature articles based around questions such as ‘Do I need wedding insurance?’ or ‘What entertainment can I provide for kids at my wedding?’.

The future of conversational search

Ultimately, it’s a waiting game to see how conversational search develops and what it will mean for SEOs in the future. Google has adopted something of a ‘watch this space’ attitude, and although it is likely to revolutionise the digital marketing agenda, that change is not going to occur overnight. The best course of action is to focus on your user, create quality content and keep an eye on the latest updates from Google.

Contact Folkestone SEO agency - Whitefish Marketing 

For more details on the benefits of SEO and how it can help your business, contact Whitefish Marketing today, at our Folkestone office on 01303 720 288. Our team of SEO experts can walk you through a variety of options, discuss your marketing needs and likely ROI in more detail.


About Chris Surridge

Chris Surridge is an experienced Digital Marketing Director with a wealth of knowledge on Search Marketing Strategies and Conversion Analysis. His value is in strategic planning for client accounts, and his consultative services.


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