Most business owners don’t need to be told twice that Google is ever-changing. With constant algorithm updates, advancements in machine learning, and “smart voice-directed devices” such as Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Echo (Alexa), and Apple’s Siri, it's becoming increasingly difficult for business owners to adjust to the fast-changing nature of the digital marketing world. With these new devices and technologies now at the forefront of how users are searching for information, products, and services, Google is constantly refining its ranking process to serve up the most accurate and personally tailored search results at lightning-fast speeds.
In this article, we will discuss how these emerging technologies are changing the ways in which users search for information, as well as the way search engines are evolving with these changes and what this means for your practice’s SEO strategy heading into the new year.
What Is Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning?
Machine learning, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality... the list goes on. We see these terms popping up everywhere, and while they aren’t new to our lexicon, applicable use to everyday life is relatively new. Still, that doesn't mean we understand them well. That’s OK; let’s leave the science behind the technology to Google and other computer scientists, and focus on how we can align our SEO efforts to these ever-changing technologies.
It’s worth noting that machine learning and AI are often used interchangeably. While they are closely related and work hand in hand, there are some key differences that are worth addressing.
In a nutshell, artificial intelligence (AI) is the ability of a machine (computer) to think, act, react, and learn like a human. Machine learning (ML) is a subset of AI, but it’s more specific to the overall idea that we can build machines to process data and use the data to learn on their own without the need for constant human input or supervision.
Essentially, the goal is to have machines that can perform tasks in a way that is deemed “intelligent,” rather than perform a single repetitive action. They can do more by adapting themselves to different situations, interpret said data, and apply critical thinking skills to solve issues or perform a seemingly endless amount of tasks independently by learning and adapting.
How Does Google Use These Technologies?
Google has actually been using ML and AI for quite a while now, starting with the Hummingbird search algorithm update which focuses on the use of natural language queries and understanding the context and meaning of an entire query instead of individual keywords. Then Google rolled out the RankBrain algo update. RankBrain is one of the hundreds of major ranking signals Google uses to generate the best search results. It has actually been officially confirmed by Google as the third most important ranking signal.
How is it different from the other ranking signals? The difference is that all of the other signals that Google uses were designed by humans (engineers) based on what they saw in everyday life. RankBrain, on the other hand, is a learning system, truly an AI, that interprets search queries in a way that has some of that same intuition and ability to guess the context, as a person would in a real-world, conversational setting.
So How Does That Make Searches More Efficient?
When you search on Google using an ambiguous or colloquial term, i.e., speaking to Google like you would a person, this was where computers were very limited and failed. This was because the technology available did not allow machines to understand it. Perhaps they have never seen that particular phrase before, or they can’t decipher between semantics. However, now the computer can generalize the context. Think of a concert where two people are having a conversation, but because it’s so loud you are only picking up certain words from your partner. Your brain has this amazing ability to take these bits and pieces of the conversation and interpret the correct meaning -- something machines had not been able to do in the past.
RankBrain AI is able to accomplish this by embedding an immense amount of written language into word vectors using a mathematical formula that can be understood by a computer. By filtering through words with similar meanings, the machine can infer the meanings of new and unfamiliar words or phrases.
Google also uses natural language processing (NLP), which is an area/category of artificial intelligence concerned with a computer program’s understanding of human language in its spoken form. NLP allows Google to work out syntax, semantics, knowledge extraction, summarization, and question answering.
Latent semantic indexing (LSI) is a system used by search engines to recognize keywords that are used around any given topic. These keywords don’t just include synonyms, but also words that are often related or in connection to what the page is about.
It’s safe to say that Google is building algorithms and using these different AI technologies to allow its bots (machines) the capability to think, act, and learn like humans, collect and process data to learn, adapt, and fully understand searcher intent without the need of a human to constantly influence or supervise.
Since AI and ML have actually been around for a while now, these machines have had a good amount of time to learn. Thus, their impact on search has increased dramatically over time, and is now a very dominant aspect of search engine technology.
How can you optimize your website and content to adapt to the world of AI & Machine Learning? This can all seem overwhelming, but chances are you have already shifted your SEO efforts years ago to adjust to the RankBrain update. Thankfully, out of this complexity, the solution, when it comes to SEO, is really quite simple.
Write content that speaks to the user in a natural conversational way. Don’t keyword stuff, know your audience and how they converse about your products and services. Know which questions they are asking, how they are asking them, and then deliver a great answer. Create valuable, engaging content, something you’ve most likely been told before, but it's extremely important to continue to strive to provide the most value to your website visitors as possible. If your users are happy, Google is happy.
Some tools can discover LSI and semantic keywords to better understand what questions your customers are asking in regards to your specific product or service. Answer the Public fetches and maps keyword suggestions/predictions that you see when you perform a Google search and LSIGraph helps you identify LSI and semantic keywords surrounding your niche.
Now that we’ve covered the very robust topic of ML and AI as it relates to your SEO initiatives, let’s look at some existing technologies and platforms that are dominating the way people search in 2019.
In a 2016 keynote speech, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that one-fifth of the queries on Google are voice searches. And, according to ComScore, by 2020 50% of all searches will be voice searches. We are now just one year away from finding out if this prediction will become a reality. Given the growth of voice search, ComScore’s projection actually seems quite low.
The use of voice search technology is another clear indicator that Google is taking massive actions to improve the user experience by way of semantics. It relies heavily on NLP to understand voice texture, interests, and behaviors.
When people use and interact with devices such as Google Home and Alexa, they usually do so in the form of questions. So, when you optimize your site for voice search, consider adding more content that answers question users have surrounding your product or services.
Using Schema/Structured Data
If you have already implemented structured data across your webiste (which you should have!) then you are positioned well for voice search. By specifically adding question and answer schema to you content you make it easy for the questions to be picked up by Voice Assistance, as well as reaching new visitors through the Answer Box also known as "Position 0".
If you’d like a more in depth look at Schema and Structured data, check out this fantastic Moz guide.
Augmented Reality Is Here to Stay
While augmented reality (AR) is still very new and in its infancy, AR is guaranteed to change the way people search for products, services, and local businesses forever. “Revenues from AR are expected to grow to $120 billion by 2020” – Retail Perceptions.
So what exactly is augmented reality?
AR presents you with visual information layered over the physical world. Basically, it uses a live picture from a device such as a cell phone and combines virtual elements layered over the user’s real-world environment.
Futurism offers a perfect example of how a dentist can use before and after AR technology to allow a patient to “try on” a new smile. As you can imagine, when the patient sees the the final outcome of what the dental procedure will provide in a way where it is almost lifelike, this will have a huge impact on their willingness to purchase. AR is literally changing the way people make purchasing decisions in a “try before you buy” format.
Why Your Business Needs to Start Preparing for AR Technology
According to Tractica, “Mobile Augmented Reality App Downloads to Reach 1.2 Billion Annually by 2019.” Giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Snapchat are also investing heavily in AR advertisements. These companies are betting heavily on AR, and so should you.
At Google, the search engine team is always working on providing a deeply engaging yet simplified search experience for users. So, naturally, in keeping with Google’s vision to improve search experience and remain the number one search engine, they are jumping on AR technology.
It's not unreasonable to say that AR-based content will have a greater impact on ranking higher in the very near future. Forward-thinking businesses will want to start incorporating augmented reality into their digital marketing strategy.
Local Search Will Definitely Be Impacted by AR
Location-based augmented reality allows a person walking in a busy shopping center to stand outside a physical business location and scan for details of said business using their mobile phone camera. By doing this, they can see in real time ratings, reviews, and other business details. Geo-based targeting lets you send out offers and deals in the form of AR experiences to those who are close to your business location.
So, it’s imperative that you continue to optimize your local business listings not only for “traditional” SEO but to provide the best AR results to prospective customers in the immediate vicinity of your location.
How do you optimize for AR?
Make sure you are on Citations Directories that use AR Technology.
Local directory listings are nothing new and have always been an essential part of your practice’s local SEO initiatives. So, making sure you are on the directories that are providing AR experiences to searchers is paramount in times to come.
Yelp is already providing geolocation AR experiences. Rest assured that the other main directories are well on their way to joining the AR revolution.
Beef Up Your Google My Business Page.
Optimizing your Google My Business listings will become more important in 2019. Much like Yelp, it’s highly likely that GMB will allow searchers to scan your physical business location by holding up their phone to your building. They will then see a virtual listing overlaid with all the same details you would typically find in the Google My Business listing on the SERPs. Real time reviews, photos, and special offers are an excellent way to compel them to walk into the door and purchase a product or service.
Google has already rolled out its very rubust AI-powered technology called Google Lens which uses your smart phone camera and machine learning to detect objects around you. Point your phone at literally any object such as a tree, or painting, and then ask Google Assistant what the object is. You'll recieve suggestions, like art galleries near by, who the artist is, and even a prompt to puchase the painting. Google Lens will also show reviews, address details, services, prices and opening times of a business. These are just the tip of the iceberg of what Google Lens is capable of and it goes without saying that this technology is shaping the way users interact with search results and your business listings.
Increase Your Reviews
According to BrightLocal, 91% of 18-34 year old consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. Reviews are among the top ranking signals Google uses when determining a website's position in the search results. Platforms like Yelp have incorporated realtime review stats in augmented reality.
Actively obtaining positive reviews and engaging with those who have left reviews is now more important than ever before. It will be an integral part of how consumers will use location-based AR technologies to make purchasing decisions.
Use AR technology to allow customers to “try before they buy”.
AR technology is not just for local businesses to show reviews and business details to a potential consumer who is out and about shopping. Businesses can also use AR apps to help buyers try a product before they buy. Companies are allowing consumers to see how a particular piece of furniture will look in their home. Cosmetic companies offer customers the ability to try different shades of lipstick before purchasing. Vision centers are allowing consumers to try on pairs of glasses with different lenses and frames before they even walk into a store. Dentists are utilizing this technology to show their patients what their new smile will look like after braces, veneers, implants, and even teeth whitening.
For cosmetic surgeons, a plastic surgery research group has actually developed an app that enables surgeons to use AR to simulate in 3D the results of facial reconstruction procedures, projecting the “new face” over the patient’s current face during surgery. This technology can easily be adopted for cosmetic surgeons to have a “try before you buy” feature on their website, and even during the initial consultations.
In the legal world, there is even talk of augmented reality litigation in courtroom.
Augmented Reality in Advertising and Social Media
“Experiential marketing has become the norm when it comes to attracting, converting and retaining clients. Virtual and augmented reality will assist many verticals in displaying what the client can expect -- from granite countertops to plastic surgery. It's the visualization and experience which add value to the sales and marketing process.” – Tom Felix La Vecchia, MBA, X Factor Media
We’ve discussed geo location targeting using AR where an offer will pop up if a user scans your physical business location or even just walks by. However, businesses will be able to change the way they advertise on social media by serving up ads that offer potential customers extremely immersive and captivating experiences.
Facebook is adding AR ads to its advertising platform. Snapchat and Instagram are also integrating AR advertising.
As Apple’s CEO Tim Cook told the BBC, “I’m incredibly excited by AR because I can see uses for it everywhere.
The possibilities seem endless, and many companies are taking big steps in adopting AR into their local SEO listings, blog posts, product and service pages, social media channels, and even in their advertising campaigns. Businesses that integrate AR into all of their digital marketing efforts will be ahead of the curve.
Understanding searcher intent is the name of the game in 2019. Regardless of what has changed technically over the years, one factor has remained consistent and every SEO strategy session and tactic implemented should always have one overarching theme: Google’s mission should be YOUR mission when it comes to SEO.
From the mouth of Google: “Our goal is always to provide you the most useful and relevant information.”
Focus on providing high-quality conversational content that answers questions, solves problems, and keeps the user engaged. In a digital world that is driven by visuals, it may be time to up your visual content game by producing more videos and images. Continue building out your local business profiles and increase reviews. And most of all, expect that technologies such as AR, AI, ML, and voice search are here to stay and will be the standard of how people interact with search engines as well as your website.
If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point, we get it! It can be very difficult for a practice owner or manager to stay on top of all the complexities of the ever-changing digital marketing world. Your focus should be on running and growing your firm.
If you find yourself in a position where you’d like to team up with an SEO or digital marketing expert, please don’t hesitate to contact Page 1 Solutions. We would love to learn more about your practice and its goals, and how Page 1 can make sure your business is constantly on the cutting edge of an increasingly complex digital world.