A mere decade ago, the term “conversational search” would have meant nothing to professionals on the front lines of the ever-evolving content creation and SEO industry.
Today, it’s a core targeting strategy employed by thousands of companies, big and small, to increase web traffic and drive consumer engagement.
What makes conversational search an important innovation and such a potential stumbling block for content creators? To understand that, you first need to understand what it is and why its importance has risen.
What is conversational search?
Conversational search refers to the use of complete sentences and other natural-sounding phrases and verbal units in search queries and how those queries are interpreted by search engines using artificial intelligence algorithms.
Historically, most internet searches were based on keyword phrases, such as “Thai food” or “long-haired dog breeds.” However, conversational searches use grammatical and syntactical patterns that closely resemble the way people talk. The result is a search experience that’s more organic and appealing to the average searcher.
Research related to the conversational search phenomena indicates consumers are much more likely to engage with fluid, interactive digital experiences than rigid, antiquated ones. Reports like these underscore the need to place conversational search considerations at the center of the content planning process.
Keep in mind: “Organic” doesn’t mean open-ended. Traditional keyword searches tend to unleash torrents of undifferentiated results, many of which have no relation to one another aside from the inclusion of a given keyword. Most searchers find these results tedious and difficult to wade through, often resorting to random clicking to get to the information they’re seeking. In the worst-case scenario, they may abandon their search altogether, drastically decreasing their chances of encountering content that may serve them.
By comparison, conversational searches return refined and targeted results. In recent years, the explosion of conversational searches is largely attributable to the growing popularity of digital voice assistants like Siri, Alexis, and Google Assistant. Its use is predicted to continue climbing as more users come to rely on intuitive text and voice searches.
The popularity of these AI-driven devices isn’t surprising, considering they went mainstream with Siri’s release in 2011. But satisfaction rates now are as high as 80%, according to GetVoIP, with many customers citing their ease of use and reliability in comparison to other devices.
Put simply: Conversational search represents a distillation of the things modern consumers value most: convenience, accessibility, and a high degree of personalization in online activity.
How does conversational search impact content creation?
Optimizing for search once was as simple as sprinkling in discrete keywords to increase the odds of the content popping up higher in search engine results. The more times the keywords appeared, the more “relevant” the piece was deemed for searches containing those keywords, and the more likely it was to claim a position in the coveted SERP top slots.
Adding conversational search to the picture makes things a bit more complicated.
For content to rise to the top of search results pages today, it must satisfy searchers’ informational demands immediately and minimize the probability that they’ll venture elsewhere for answers. This is easier said than done.
Double-digit search result pages are chock-full of well-intentioned posts that try and fail to be useful to internet users. To avoid suffering the same fate as those underachievers, you must avoid the traps they fell into.
How to optimize content for conversational search?
When formulating novel solutions to novel problems, cling to old wisdom: Know your audience.
Putting yourself in the shoes of your prospective reader or viewer not only enables you to develop more effective content, but it opens up more avenues to deliver it. That was true in the days of newspaper advertisements, and it’s true now.
Several optimization tactics can help your content fit the contours of a conversational search. All of them require you to go back to basics and pair useful, well-conceived, quality information with revealing website data and SEO best practices.
Anticipate likely queries
Tailoring your content to the broadest possible range of consumers starts with predicting the kinds of questions most people would ask. Before you draft your content, ask yourself some fundamental questions, such as:
- What does the average person already know about this subject?
- How does this subject affect people’s day-to-day lives?
- When and where are people likely looking up this information?
- How might one act on the information I plan on presenting?
- Will the structure of this piece tell the reader everything they need to know?
Pondering these sorts of questions will put you in the right headspace to empathize with your hypothetical reader and aid in laying the groundwork for a piece with universal utility.
Prioritize natural language
Another part of anticipating user questions and providing accessible responses is emphasizing natural language from a grammatical standpoint. It’s necessary to use the same kind of verbiage when structuring your content that an average person would use.
It’s safe to assume, for example, that more internet users would ask, “How do you fix a broken Wi-Fi connection?” than, “How can I troubleshoot an unresponsive wireless connection?” Your content should use a similar language: “To fix a broken Wi-Fi connection, first run the troubleshooter tool under your network settings to diagnose the cause of the issue.”
That said, it’s usually worth including multiple derivative forms of the same query to better cover your bases.
Assimilate conversational search terms
It’s no longer enough to carpet-bomb readers with simplistic keywords and search terms that lack context. Instead, writers should look for ways to incorporate and answer detailed questions that directly align with readers’ needs.
One way to do this is to weave in pointed hypothetical questions intended to capture the reader’s attention or act as the authoritative final word on the topic at hand:
Consider the query: “What’s the best way to sleep?”
A conversational piece of content likely to appear in the results might use the question as a header, then offer an answer like this: “There’s no one right answer in the health-related question. However, most sleep specialists agree that curling up on your side is the way to go, as it alleviates back pain, prevents snoring, and improves circulation and digestion.”
Another way to incorporate conversational search terms is by creating a frequently asked questions section. It allows you to address multiple anticipated queries in the exact form you expect them to be asked in search.
With both of these strategies, you’re essentially treating ideas, phrases, and even whole sentences as complex versions of traditional keywords and building them into your content the way you’re accustomed to doing.
Focus on engaging design
It’s not enough just to create quality conversational content – you must make sure your audience can access it easily and gets something worthwhile out of it. Web designers and analytic experts must be involved to develop a systematic approach for planning and producing content-first design to maximize consumer engagement.
From the headline and the copy to the basic layout and surrounding graphic elements, every aspect of a post should be engineered to establish a connection with the reader from the moment they load the page. By steering them toward the information they seek with a minimum of clicking, you can help your content gain readers from conversational search.
The current consensus in search analytics spheres is conversational search is the future of online interactions. Content creators must get with the times or languish pages and pages down in search results.
But if you look closely, you’ll see that this emerging landscape isn’t so different from the one most of us already know well. It is simply a matter of doing what content creators have always done – identifying the needs and preferences of consumers and meeting them on their terms.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute