Five useful ways to create content for service and product pages

Content development knows no bounds!

As you’re likely aware, every bit of your website or blog needs content development at one point or another. However, I find that many people get stuck when it comes to developing content for their business’s service and product pages.

It’s easy to get creative when writing a blog or creating a guest blogging strategy, but product and service pages can scare people off. We end up seeing pages full of boring, traditional text because the content on those pages may has been deemed “unimportant.”

It’s true that that this is a place where you might need to be more creative and you need to invent your own ways and ideas to produce content. But the good news is that if you do, product pages have an even better chance of ranking highly and getting more traffic as landing pages.

So, if you need some help figuring out how to invent new ways to create content for these pages, check out some of the ideas below.

Ask: what do people want to know about our products and services?

When you are stuck trying to develop content, a good starting place is to ask what it is exactly that your audience wants to know. After all, your products and services should act as a solution to their needs. Yet, do not leave your products and services as stand-alone documents, answer the questions that your customers are asking.

A really great way to do this is to have a creative Q & A section. You can either develop these questions (and answers) yourself based on what people ask you and your sales team the most, or you can actually turn to social media and emails where people have explicitly asked your product and service related questions.

In any case, developing content around this notion of product Q&A will show your ability to anticipate the needs of your customers, but it will also give you an interface that you can constantly update, change, and revise for fresh content.

Below is an example from QA Flooring Underlay Accessories:

product page

In the example above you can see that under the various product and services tabs they have designed a Q&A section for customers to review. This is a great way to give them the “so-what” and the “why” explanations about your product.

An interactive sales person: be conversational

There are so many ways that you can be innovative in presenting these pages as a space for an interactive sales experience.

According to CopyPress, your website should act as an online sales person – not just offering descriptions of products, but focused on sales and giving your audience plenty of reasons that people might want to buy from your site.

This idea is most important when developing summaries for each product or service. You definitely need to have one, but you have to do it right.

Your description really should be more of a “brief summary.” While it doesn’t need to be lengthy, it does need to provide some explanation as to why the customer should choose to buy it from you.

Descriptions of the product itself are not enough. Take this as an opportunity to provide some information to your client so that they are not left with questions hanging over their heads before purchase. Here are some things your summaries should tell:

  • Why the product or service is useful
  • Why they have a need for your product (that they hadn’t considered before)
  • Why your company is the best option

Remember that you don’t want to overwhelm them with information – being concise and considering careful integration with this kind of content is key. Use first-person language to help answer the questions above, but keep out all of the fluff.

Keep your content organized and then move on to other elements of the page.

Create a sense of urgency

Creating a sense of urgency with content on a product/service page is a balancing act. On the one hand, you don’t want a buyer to think that a product they fall in love with is going to go away out of the blue once they purchase; but on the other hand you don’t want them to wait to purchase your product or sign up for the service.

One of the ways you can create a sense of urgency is by making sure that you utilise content on these pages to send that message.

Develop content that is going to get visitors hooked and also feel the need to buy or sign-up ASAP. There are a variety of ways to do this: promotions, monthly offers, showcased products, all of which involve creatively developing content which can be updated on a regular basis!

The example below from Shoedazzle shows how they used a monthly offer to help keep visitors hooked with their content:

shoedazzle ad

Make content unique and capture attention

Since this is an opportunity for creative freedom and being innovative, push the limits with uniqueness.

Here are some ideas that you can make content more unique on these pages and also increase conversions:

  • Pay attention to aesthetics like layout, style, and color choices
  • Find ways to use appropriate images and video
  • Incorporate your brand and mission as often as possible
  • Utilize customer reviews to make a claim for success stories and satisfaction
  • Make customer reviews visual
  • Link to other related content on your site
  • Add a “suggested” section based on demographics and user interest

All of these points are becoming more commonplace on product and service pages, but it’s still a great way to offer your audience something more.

Take Just Fab for example. Their layout has different tabs you can click with different information, one tab being reviews. The layout is easy to understand and covers everything a customer would want to know without being overbearing:

just fab product page

Continue to brainstorm for new approaches

When you are trying to be innovative in developing your product and sales pages, it is always your best bet to turn to the people that know the product best.

Ask your employees the aspects of products they have to explain over and over again. Ask your regular customers what it is that they love about your product. Ask members of your local community why they choose to shop at your store (online or in-person) over others.

While there is not necessarily a one size fits all plan for creatively developing these pages, figuring out what your brand wants to say and how these pages need to tell your story boldly to new clients is one step of the equation.

Remember, doing this market research will be an opportunity for you to continuously develop and grow the content on these pages, and this in turn will help your SEO. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to make your service and product pages as appealing and interesting as they can be.

The takeaway

When you start with a question, “what do people want to know about our products and services?” you are making this effort customer-centered, and that is going to be apparent for those who land on your product pages.

Consider your site an interactive salesperson, where your job is to convince people through summaries (rather than boring old product descriptions) why your products are the ones they should choose.

You also need to create a sense of urgency, so that people feel just the right pressure to sign-up today rather than tomorrow.

In the end, you can do these things by making content unique and attempting to capture the attention of your audience from the very beginning. There are a lot of ways to do this, but beginning with brainstorming is just one way you can get the ball rolling!

Do you have experience developing your product and services pages with fresh content? Let us know in the comments section below.

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The dangers of Googlizing your site

By optimizing your website for Google, you could be sabotaging your site for Baidu in China and Yandex in Russia and Eastern Europe.

It is an undeniable fact that Google has the largest search market footprint in the world. As a result, there is an endless supply of resources and information about how to optimize search for Google. As such, I understand how important it is for website owners to make sure that their sites are optimized and perform well in Google search results.

However, by optimizing a site solely based on Google’s algorithm changes and abilities, you may actually be de-optimizing a site for other search engines. This de-optimization could devastate your site’s performance in some critical markets.

If a market like China is important to your business, you need to ensure that the changes you are making to improve Google performance also work well for a search engine like Baidu.


For Russia and some eastern European countries, it needs to work for Yandex.

Yandex Screenshot_600

There are many differences in SEO best practices among search engines including local regulations, domain, and hosting location. Below are some of the updates that you may have implemented or are planning to implement to your site that may ravage your organic search traffic from Baidu.

JavaScript and AJAX

Last year, Google confirmed it could crawl and index links and content within JavaScript and AJAX. This was of course great news to many website owners as it would help improve their site experiences.

Unfortunately, Baidu is not good at crawling and indexing content within JavaScript and AJAX, yet. Using JavaScript for site navigation kills traffic from Baidu immediately after a new site launch. In one example, we saw how shortly after a new site launch, the number of Chinese pages indexed by Baidu decreased from 86,300 pages to 174 pages.

In November last year, Yandex announced it would start to crawl JavaScript and AJAX, and warned site owners not to block their JavaScript and CSS files. However, just because Yandex can now crawl and index those links and content, doesn’t mean pages will start to show up higher in search results. Yandex measures the value of the pages based on not only the content, but also the incoming links and other statistical data.


Where possible, do not use JavaScript and AJAX for navigation and content that need to be crawled and indexed by Baidu. If you still wish to use JavaScript and AJAX, create a separate Chinese site with static links in the navigation, and important content in HTML.

Yandex has created special mechanisms to give greater visibility in the search results for pages with JavaScript and AJAX.

Meta keywords, meta description and header tags

Content entered in the meta keywords, meta description and header tags might not be considered as important as it used to be for Google, but it still plays an important role in SEO for Baidu.

Google Meta Head_600


Therefore, place meta keywords and meta description tags in the <Head> section on all pages. You can leave them blank for other country/language sites, but be sure to fill them out on Chinese pages. Also use <H1> ~ <H6> tags on pages. They may not help as much against Google, but they also won’t hurt. It’s best to use them in your webpage templates to help your Chinese pages.

Subdomain vs. sub-directory

While most performance tests show that segmenting the country or language using a subdirectory performs better for a site without a country code top-level domain, some international SEO experts still advocate the use of subdomains.

Google’s Webmaster Help Guide allows businesses to use either method. However, Baidu specifically suggests using subdirectories.


If you wish your Chinese site to perform well in Baidu’s search results, you need to set your Chinese site as a sub-directory such as, “,” or “ not as a subdomain such as, “”

Content placement within the web page

Google and most major search engines have become really good at crawling and indexing entire pages of content.

However, Baidu is not as good as doing the job, yet. It is also known that when Baidu re-crawls pages that have been indexed before, it only crawls the first 1000 bytes or so of the content to see if it has new information. If it doesn’t find anything new, it stops indexing the rest of the page, and moves on to the next one.


Always place important content (including keywords) at the beginning of the page. If you update any content in the bottom half of the page, submit the URLs of those pages to Baidu using Baidu’s Webmaster Tool for re-indexing.

Yandex also has its own Webmaster Tools, where you can review your web site performance, submit XML sitemaps, and take other actions to improve your website.

There are many other algorithmic differences between the Google, Baidu and Yandex search engines. If China and Eastern Europe are important markets for your business, make sure that you take balanced SEO strategies that work for all of your target search engines.

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Understanding our love of visual content

We are experiencing an omnipresent visual domination lately and it’s not expected to change any time soon. So what makes us love visual content?

Whether it’s an image, or a video, people prefer consuming information in a visual form, as it’s more appealing, which leads to an increased engagement. Human beings are naturally drawn to visual content and any type of it may enhance a post’s performance.

Types of visual content

Visual content is a broad term that includes many types of content and the main ones are:

  • Images (photography, quotes, memes, screenshots, GIFs, etc)
  • Infographics
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • Presentations
  • Data graphs

All of them can be very engaging and a mixed use of them can create an effective content marketing strategy, provided that they are used appropriately for each medium, always by taking the audience into consideration.

Appealing visual content

Visual marketing at the forefront of social media

Social media has significantly relied on visual content, as it manages to grab the users’ attention, while its varying types (eg. the rise of infographics, or the domination of videos) allow it to maintain its popularity.

It is estimated that 63% of social media is made up of images and we assume that this number will only increase in the next years (especially if we also add videos to it).

The psychology behind our love for visual content

Every popular social network could attribute its success to the right use of visual content and the way it is offered to the users, in order to create the right balance between words and visuals.

According to BuzzSumo, Facebook updates that include an image had 2.3x more engagement than those without one.


Moreover, Buffer reported that tweets that contain images lead to 150% more retweets.

retweets buffer

Away from Facebook and Twitter, visual appeal has contributed to the rise of new platforms that exclusively rely on visual content, such as Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc.

All of them (almost exclusively) focus on images and videos and that’s what makes them so popular, with users loving the simplicity of adding content to them, while brands face the challenge of experimenting with new types of (visual) content to maintain and increase engagement.

Why do we prefer visual content?

The psychology behind our love for visual content

According to Jakob Nielsen, users only read 28% of words when visiting a website, with the trend of skimming rather than reading a text becoming prevalent in the online information overload.

Thus, visual content engages with a reader as fast as possible and in the most interesting way and that’s why publishers tend to rely on it even more every year.

The main reasons that we prefer visual content over plain text are:

  • It beats our short attention span
  • Its simplicity is tempting for any subject
  • It manages to engage with the reader and increase the time spent on content
  • It manages to communicate complex concepts in an appealing way
  • Its appeal increases the chances for the readers to share the content
  • It stimulates our minds, especially when it is linked with an emotion

Column Five has created an infographic on the power of visual communication and it presents three main reasons why we love visual content: Appeal, Comprehension, Retention.

visual content1

Appeal refers to the natural attraction towards visual content, and the way it succeeds even in a short attention span, comprehension is linked to the way our brain translates data to simplify them and retention is related to the memorable experience that visual content tends to create.

visual content3

How science proves our love for visual content

The psychology behind our love for visual content

It has been observed that 90% of the information sent to our brains is visual, with our brain responding to it 60,000 faster than it does for text.

Thus, our brains need a visual representation to process information faster and create a connection between the visual object and its concept. It’s impressive how the visual perception in our brain makes such a complex task easy and this could also be the scientific reason why an “image is worth a thousand words.”

The psychology behind our love for visual content

However, this is not an automatic process, as our brain still needs to rationalise the connection. Visual perception and the calculation of the surroundings rely on the person’s past experiences and memories that could be relevant to the exposure to the specific information.

According to neurobiologist Semir Zeki of the University of London,

“The brain has to actively construct or invent our visual world. Confronted with an overwhelming barrage of visual information, it must sort out relevant features and make snap judgments about what they mean.”

Scene perception, or else the perception of scene gist is the process that our brain performs to perceive the world, from the objects, to the connections they create to our brain, and Monica S. Castelhano and John M. Henderson proved in an experiment in 2008 how even the colours may affect the activation of a scene gist.

castelhano and henderson

Visual content may even become appealing in a way that we cannot explain and this is usually related to the emotions it may evoke.

The magic connection between visual content and emotions

The effectiveness of visual content can be further enhanced with the use of the right emotions.

A visual stimulation can create a visceral reaction by evoking a feeling that may even be subconscious, and that’s what makes it inexplicable to us when trying to understand what makes an image more appealing to us comparing to a similar one.

The psychology behind our love for visual content

Visceral reactions form the strongest connections on visual content and they occur from the brain’s part that is also related to our survival instincts, which means that the reaction may be more direct and intense.

Visual content needs to indicate somehow the emotion it aims for, either with the colours, the subject, or even with associations that lead to an easier connection which can elicit the right feeling.

For example, this photo brings out the feelings of security and positivity with both the colours and the people contributing to it, appealing to the idea of the family and the bonding it creates as an association.



Five tips for amazing visual content

Focus on quality

People appreciate the quality of the visual content, so don’t ignore it when creating visual assets. If you feel that you can’t find the right images, then here are some great free image resources of high quality images.

High quality images affect the effectiveness of visual content

Image source: Unsplash

Use visual assets in context

Visual content can be very effective as part of a content marketing strategy, but always when it is created and distributed in context, by delivering what your target audience will appreciate. For example, a high quality picture of an airplane you just found may be impressive, but can you add the right text to make it relevant to, say, young mothers you are targeting?

Be consistent with colours and filters

The choice of colours in visual content is very important, as this will associate a series of emotions afterwards, which means that the consistent use of colours should lead to a commitment regarding the emotions you want to elicit with your content.

psychology of colours

Image source: Aftercopia

Don’t underestimate typography

Typography can be interpreted as the first visual impression of your text and you want to make sure you engage enough with the reader to keep reading the text.

Thus, typography is a crucial part of your visual content, whether it’s a blog post or even an infographic, and it’s time to focus more on it from now on.



Text is still important

Last but (certainly) not least, visual content can boost your content marketing strategy, but it cannot replace the actual written content.

Find the right balance between words and visual content and don’t reduce the quality at any point to both of them.giphy (3)


Be precise, informative and interesting and appealing visual content will serve as the right boost for your text.

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Nick Wilsdon on Enterprise SEO and Customer Acquisition [podcast]

Welcome to the latest episode of the ClickZ Digital Marketing Podcast.

In this week’s edition, we interview search expert Nick Wilsdon on the current and future state of enterprise SEO and customer acquisition.


You’ll learn about the latest developments in search engine optimisation and what opportunities these present for marketers. Nick also shares some practical advice for getting started and what he thinks will be the main areas of growth over the coming months.

Nick Wilsdon started his online career in 1998 and is currently the SEO lead at Vodafone Group where he’s standardising and improving online performance across 22 markets and 55 partner markets.

You can listen to the full podcast here: ClickZ Digital Marketing Podcast Episode 6, but in the meantime are some of the highlights from his 40 minute chat:

09:34 – The move beyond links

Nick comments that the biggest change for SEOs in the last few years has been the move away from the siloed area of links and link acquisition into content and how content is used. “SEO has to be widely engaged with the other campaigns within a business.” It’s a broader discipline.

11:22 – Joining up TV campaigns with online behaviour

Marketers need to be much more savvy when it comes to building mini-campaigns around keywords used in broadcast advertising, as this drives much of viewers’ subsequent online behaviour.

13:39 – How important are links for SEO?

Despite recent pushes for social ranking signals to be acknowledged, Google is still a “link-graph and that’s the basis for the entire search engine.” However it’s the way we earn links that has fundamentally changed.

19:41 – The biggest changes for SEO over the next few years

Nick discusses SEO’s continued growth in importance within organisations, which is tied into the growth in traffic that SEO drives. But it needs to become “mobile-first” in order to keep up, and this extends to app-optimisation. Nick goes on to describe the fundamental differences between SEO and mobile SEO.

21:52 – Opportunities for local search

From the largest national chain to the smallest independent store, every retailer needs a good local search strategy and Google provides a variety of tools to help these businesses. Nick discusses a few of these recent developments.

24:09 – Major risks for brands not using SEO

“The biggest risk is not taking it seriously enough.” Nick expands upon this and further discusses the problems with not using data and using the “wrong people.”

25:30 – Practical tips for SEO

Nick rounds out the podcast with lots of helpful guidance on what you should be concentrating on when it comes to modern search marketing, including making sure your site is running on a secure protocol, as well as recommendations for tools you should be using.
Nick is speaking at Shift London, our new event aimed at the altered minds, business models, skill sets, buying habits and marketplaces driven by digital disruption – and the ensuing transformation imperative. Book your place today.

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24 key skills for SEO professionals (and wannabes) in 2016

Search engine optimisation is one of the biggest games worth playing in business.

The risks and rewards are huge. There’s a lot of head-scratching, occasional sleepless nights, some incredible eureka moments, and plenty of scope for amateur soothsayers. It can be hard work and it seems to be getting ever more difficult, but it is a lot fun.

What I find amazing is that most of the people I have worked with – and also those who I respect and trust within the industry – are self-taught. They have a natural aptitude for SEO based on a number of key skills which they possess, rather than the niche academic qualifications you often need to rise to the top of the tree in other industries.

Many of these people have more than a decade of experience, and can remember when keyword stuffing actually worked. How times have changed!

There are lots of different roles within search, and as such, the industry welcomes people with a variety of different skillsets. I thought I’d explore this in a little more detail, for anybody looking to forge a career in search.

What flavour of SEO will you be?

There are various types of SEO professional, but for now let’s focus on two broad types: the all-rounder, and the specialist.

In a small business there might be one SEO bod doing all manner of things, wearing many hats, and often undertaking wider digital marketing and CRO work. The SEO all-rounder is – or certainly should be – a prized asset in these companies.

The SEO all-rounder can do everything, of course, but time is finite and some projects are absolutely massive. They’ll need help, and will probably need to work with other teams. Delegation may come into play, even if they can do it all.

In bigger companies (and agencyland) you often find specific people doing specific SEO tasks. Some projects are vast and take an age to complete, as anybody who has experience of a site migration with gazillions of web pages will tell you.

Broadly speaking, I think there are three areas of focus – technical, analytical, and creative. There is a great deal of overlap in a lot of specialist roles, whereas others are more skewed towards one or two of these areas.

The right skills for the job

I’ve put together a list of skills that I think are pretty much essential for SEO professionals. If you want to break into the industry then you’ll need some or all of the following.

The skills you have will help determine the career path you choose. For example, if you are highly creative and a great writer but don’t know how to code or understand server configuration then I doubt technical SEO is for you. Instead, you could explore roles relating to content, which plays a major part in achieving strong search positions.

In addition to the core skills, there are also a ton of softer skills. These are essential in modern marketing, and always make an appearance on the job ads I write.

I also asked the ‘skills’ question on Twitter, to mine the brains of expert practitioners. Let’s kick off with Andrew Girdwood’s reply, which I love…

The all-rounder

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 13.21.03

That’s absolutely on the money. It’s not to say that you’ll need to do it all, but if you’re capable of building, launching and monetising a blog from scratch then you are super-employable.

I’ve always valued practical experience over academic qualifications, and I value a winning DIY-approach above all else. Gumption!

T-shaped marketers

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 13.22.18

Dawn Anderson’s suggestion is spot on, and reflects the wider trend in hiring circles.

The vertical line in the ‘T’ represents the deep skill, while the horizontal reflects a wider knowledge of other topics and tactics. The longer the vertical line, the more skilled you are in any given area.

Or, to use a phrase Dawn coined: “Jack of all trades, master of ONE.”

T-shaped marketers have risen to prominence in recent years, not least because digital has to some degree flattened organisational structure. Teams need to talk to one another like never before. The right hand should always know what the left is doing…

Templum-shaped marketers

Jono Alderson thinks that being T-shaped isn’t enough, describing it as woefully inadequate. He says SEOs need to “master multiple pillars”.

I think there’s something in this. It certainly chimes with Andrew Girdwood’s “all rounder” comment. Maybe the ‘T’ should stand for ‘templum’…

It makes sense to have a strong understanding of other marketing disciplines, as well as business strategy more broadly. Perhaps being strong in just one area isn’t enough to stand out these days?


A huge part of SEO relates to the technical setup of your web pages (content) and your server (ability to deliver the content). Google offers many brownie points to those who make the most of technical SEO, and in a competitive sector it can make all the difference.

There are so many foundational things that you need to get right, from a technical perspective. No amount of link-building is going to sustain prominent search rankings if your web pages take 10 minutes to load.

In addition, there’s often a massive gulf between marketing and technology teams, so tech-savvy SEOs can play a vital role in making things happen. They are ambassadors that sit between these two teams, and play a vital role in making websites work effectively for the business.

You will waltz into a technical SEO role if you develop a strong understanding of HTML, schema markup, canonicals, server configuration, and mobile optimisation, among other things.


I’ve always believed that producing quality content is the best hope you have of achieving high rankings on the search engines. Yes, you need the basics in place, but from a standing start a strong piece of content will stand a good chance of attracting links, shares and traffic.

Content comes in many different shapes and sizes. If you’re a great writer then copywriting or blogging might be the place to start. If you are a design whizz who can work with data then producing visualisations could be the thing to do. But these jobs might be better positioned under the ‘content marketing’ banner, rather than SEO.

I think content-focused SEO is rather more strategic. It should be based around detailed research and analysis, and there should be a grand plan, when it comes to content creation…

  • What terms are you chasing down, and why?
  • What does your information architecture look like, and is it fit for purpose?
  • Where are those hero and hub pages that you need to point all those internal links at?
  • Why is your on-page content not converting?
  • How should micro content – such as button labels – be optimised?

These are the kinds of questions that content strategists need to explore, and SEO should occupy a large chunk of their headspace when doing so.


If you have an aptitude for working with a lot of data then SEO might be a great career choice for you, because there is a hell of a lot to process, and to make sense of.

Your peers in SEO respect people with analytical brains, especially if they possess the ability to work with multiple spreadsheets, databases and APIs to discover errors, patterns, and opportunities.

Performance analysis, competitor benchmarking, technical audits, traffic analysis, keyword research… all of these things may become a regular part of your working life, and require a lot of left-brained thinking.


It’s essential to look at search through a wide-angled lens. For many businesses it is the number one source of web traffic, leads and sales. That is a position that needs to be protected, and optimised (hence the ‘O’ in SEO)

There are many strategic risks and rewards to be aware of, and to explore. Google makes countless changes to its algorithm and user interfaces every year, and it is tempting to narrow your eyes and focus on the tactical. Wading into the reeds of search can be a dangerous distraction.

It’s important to know what’s going on, and certainly to be aware of major updates, but it’s also crucial to take a long-term view. Taking shortcuts with SEO tends to be akin to shooting oneself in the foot.

As such, a strategic mindset is vital. You have to be able to look beyond the horizon, to be patient, and to explain long-term strategy to senior stakeholders/clients.

Project management

Or should that be process management? SEO is a constant undertaking for a lot of web-focused businesses, though some tasks seem to be ‘projects’ rather than ‘processes’.

In any event, Ingo Bousa has done a good job of summing things up…

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 13.30.58

You will have many plates spinning at any given time. Making sure they don’t break is part art, part science.

Client management

You should be able to communicate ideas and approaches to internal stakeholders, for in-house SEOs, or external clients, for agency-side professionals.

Clients may think they know best, but they probably don’t. That’s why they hired an agency. Just because they’re paying you doesn’t mean that you should become one of those nodding dogs.

Meanwhile, agencies sometimes promise more than they can realistically deliver. In some cases they will implement quick but sketchy wins, which almost certainly paves the way to a shitty future. Bad news for both client and agency, amid much head shaking.

Managing expectations and making people aware of the risks (and rewards) is par for the course.

User experience

Google has clearly stated that user experience is of increasing importance for achieving and maintaining strong rankings.

I don’t actually know how much of this has been put into practice, given the high rankings of websites I’ve stopped visiting on the grounds that they appear to hate me, but I suspect UX factors will become a key ranking criteria in the years to come.

You don’t need a HCI degree, though if you’ve got one and fancy a career in SEO then don’t be shy. But an understanding of user flows and intent is crucial. We’re talking about optimisation more broadly now, but knowing about these things is always a good sign to recruiters and interviewers.

As with a lot of things in digital marketing, there’s a lot of crossover. It seems reasonable to me that SEO professionals might be the ones driving that user journey mapping project, or looking at the most common sources of friction on a website.

Skill up in this area to stand out from the pack.

Soft skills

There are a bunch of softer skills that you’ll need to work in digital, and that apply to SEO. Most of these are essential, and reflect the right kind of mindset that you need.

I actually think that most of them cannot be taught… you either have them, or you don’t.


This is massively important, and is something I look for when hiring across all areas of digital marketing. To be blunt: if you’re not that curious, you’re not that interesting.


This is something Ammon Johns mentioned, and it is genuinely essential. In the world of SEO there is no shortage of opinions and statements. It’s a bit like journalism, where you are taught to look well beyond the press release – or the obvious – for the true story.

It is important to have a healthy degree of skepticism, and a few spare wheelbarrows of salt. Narrow your eyes.

Critical and whole-brained thinking

This was suggested by Dan Shure and follows on nicely from skepticism. The whole-brained thinking methodology helps to remove bias and blind spots. The ability to think laterally and to find creative solutions to entrenched problems is a valuable talent to possess.

Competitive nature

SEO is a big game, after all. You should want to win, consistently, and with one eye on the rules and the other on what goes on under the table.


The best people I’ve ever worked with have a real passion for digital, and are effective operators because of it. They are constantly interested in many different things and have an ongoing desire to learn. If your heart isn’t in it, then why not do something else?


You should want to set and achieve goals, objectives and targets. Goals should drive you forward, and you should take great pleasure in smashing through them.


Lots of organisations are still full of silos and glass walls, with people not talking to one another and teams working independently. People with collaborative mindsets tend to be more effective in getting things done, and thrive when working on projects with others of a similar nature.


Alex Jones flagged this up. Search is an ever-changing landscape, given the changes to algorithms, search positions, your web assets, and by the competition. It’s really interesting, but you need to be able to adapt and react quickly.

What you thought was right today might prove to be wrong tomorrow. Big deal. Adjust your thinking and move forwards.


Filip Matous suggests that you’re not going to get any quality links unless you understand what gives real value to the places you link prospect. You need to understand a little psychology, and to figure out what makes people tick.

This also chimes well with Chris Lee’s comment about PR acumen, which is a real bonus in SEO if your job involves building relationships.

Entrepreneurial spark

Working in SEO normally means that you’re close to the money, and that’s something that should give you a thrill. If you have past entrepreneurial experience it will go a long way, and most interviewers will be interested in exploring that side of your personality.

We’re not talking about a multi-million dollar conglomerate here… a small affiliate-based side project will be enough to spark a discussion. How did you build the website? Did you implement Google Analytics? What were your main sources of traffic? How much revenue did you make?

All of this shows that you have plenty of gumption, passion, and drive. Bravo.


Ever seen a “dear blogger” letter, in search of a link? I could show you so many horrific examples. There is a better way…


A lot of SEO work is manual. It’s certainly not coal mining, but it can be a slog. There are tools and processes that can help you, in terms of identifying links to disavow, or opportunities to secure some new inbound action.

If you have ample reserves of persistence and a tolerance for repetition then it will help with some of the tasks you may take on.


Yes, you need to be able to read (and write) but what’s key is the desire to read, read, read. I often tell people that it accounts for about 20% of most jobs in digital. There is much to learn, and the environment is constantly changing. You have to stay on top of things.

Attention to detail

Just massive. I look for it, I test for it, and I rarely hire if you haven’t got it. Moreover, I don’t think you can learn it.

What did I miss? Leave a comment below…

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17 ways to improve your site search results pages

As site search users can be have a greater intent to purchase than the average, it pays to provide the best possible experience for these users. 

In this post I’ll look at the presentation of site search results, and what retailers can do to ensure that users’ searches are successful.

Filtered navigation

An absolute must. Unless people have searched for a very specific product with a unique model number, or perhaps for a catalogue code, searches will result in a number of matching products.

For example, this search for a ‘red shirt’ on House of Fraser returns 810 possible matches. That’s a lot to go through.

hof site search

However, the addition of product filtering options allows shoppers to refine the results by price, brand, reviews, and so on.

This should help the customer to find a more manageable number of results that match what they’re looking for.

hof filters

Leave the search term there and let people edit it

Many sites delete the search term once you get to the results page, or show it in such a way that you can’t edit it. As here on H&M:

HM site search

Leaving the term there, and making it editable allows users to append searches with other words, or to quickly correct any mistakes they may have made.

hof ss

Provide non-product results

While most site searches may be product-driven, retailers should also cater for those users who are simply looking for information.

Here, Boden shows non-product results on different tabs. This is a useful way to separate the information out for different types of searchers.

Boden site search

Show reviews

Reviews should be used around the site where they can influence and help shoppers.

Showing them in site search results helps people to make a faster and more informed decision about the suitability of a product.

Here, Best Buy shows average review scores in its search results. With so many matching products, this helps a lot.

digital camera search

Allow filtering by customer reviews

To carry on from the previous point, Best Buy also offers ‘customer rating’ as a product filtering option, among a very comprehensive list of filters.

This allows users to quickly dismiss the worst-rated products.

filter by review score

Sprinkle in some social proof

Reviews work, but other forms of social proof can be incorporated into search results, as here on reviews

It tells us that these hotels are in high demand, with people looking at and booking them today.

This is useful in one sense, as it tells the user that they need to book soon to secure it, and this can nudge them into making a faster decision.

Let people sort the results

Some people are price conscious, and want to see the cheapest products first, others may want to see newer stock, and so on. So let them order the results according to these preferences.

Schuh sort

Provide viewing options

There’s no right or wrong answer for how to present search results. How many per page, do you paginate results or show them all on one page, grid or list view?

The obvious answer is to let them choose themselves.

Here, Macy’s provides plenty of choice.

Macys views

Consider other useful display options

Here, M&S allows users to toggle between different types of product shots. They can view the product on its on, or worn by the model.

M&S ss

Learn how to deal with misspellings

Users will misspell items or make mistakes when typing search terms. The best way to deal with them is to anticipate what the customer meant (where possible) and provide the relevant results.

Zappos misspellings

Avoid zero results / dead ends

There will be times when items aren’t stocked, or the customer’s search term is indecipherable.

In this case, provide some options. Here, River Island has some advice on searching, then shows its most popular searches and new products.

river island

Consider quick view

Many sites now provide a ‘quick view’ option, such as Fossil:

quick view

This allows users to click and see a smaller version of the product page in overlay form.

The intention is to save them the time and effort they would spend clicking into and out of full product pages.

fossil qv

Show different views on mouseover

This is a quick way for users to see alternative product views on results and category pages.

Here’s an example from Wolf & Badger:


Learn from your data

Your site search data can tell you a lot about how people use it, and how well it performs. This information can be used to improve presentation of results.

For example, you can look at click depth. This can indicate the relevance of site search results and how deeply visitors go into the results.

So, if they’re clicking through to pages three and four of the results, does that mean they’re struggling to find what they’re looking for?


Data can also be used to identify best sellers, popular searches etc, and this can be used to preset relevant product suggestions.

This brings us to ‘searchandising’. Retailers can use site search results to give greater prominence to popular or recommended items, as Curry’s does here:


Adjust colours

This is another feature that makes it easier for customers to see items in search results before they click through to product pages.

Macy’s allows searchers to change the colour of products shown in search results:


Try bigger images

Product images are important, and sometimes larger images will work better.

The tendency is for retailers to show plenty of products in search results, using relatively small images.

However, larger images can be more effective by allowing users to see more detail of products.

This A/B test on a Czech site demonstrates how this can work. The ‘winning’ version, which delivered a 9.46% increase in sales was the one in which the product images were largest.

AB test image size

In summary

Good site search is all about relevance, and doing as much as possible to improve the user experience.

Features like quick view and effective filters make it easier for customers to find the relevant products without too much hard work.

The caveat here is that these features should be tested and the best balance found for your site. While some principles are widely applicable, what works for one site doesn’t always work for others.

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How to optimize your Google My Business listing: expert tips

A Google My Business profile is an essential for local SEO. It’s free and will enable you to appear in local search results for queries specific to your products or services. 

Even broad queries with large volumes are now showing local results which is something small business owners can capitalise upon.

We’ve been asking SEO experts for their advice on setting up and optimising GMB listings..

The experts are:

How important is Google My Business for local SEO? 

Greg Gifford:

GMB is incredibly important, but it’s going to lose prominence now that they’re removing all location information from the GMB listings.

There’ll now simply be a social interface (on a social network that no one is using). But – the GMB dashboard still feeds the info to Maps and the Knowledge Box for a business, so it’s still of vital importance to claim your location and fill out your info.

Kevin Gibbons:

The increased visibility that Google has placed around Google Local listing results on mobile has meant that Google My Business is essential for local SEO.

If you are searching on a mobile device you will see that organic results are now shown below the fold (you have to scroll down to see them) and there are now only the top three Google local results being shown – so due to the on-page real estate Google local can take up, there’s huge traffic opportunities for being listed for competitive searches.

GMB mobile

Max Holloway:

GMB is incredibly important for local SEO. Without it you won’t be appearing on any local map listings in the SERPs which Google displays for the vast majority of local queries. 

Raj Nijjer:

Critical. It’s the centerpiece and fundamental to any local campaign! You simply don’t exist if you don’t create a Google my business page for your local business.

What are the most important things businesses can do to optimise their Google local listings? 


It’s absolutely important that the number listed is a local number, and that it matches the number displayed on the landing page it links to.

It’s super important to use the actual business name and choose the correct categories as well. Beyond that, my suspicion is that nothing else will matter after the change.

Kevin Gibbons:

wrote a guide on this last year which should be a good starting point, but to pick out some of the key points – I would strongly suggest:

  • Firstly claim your listing, as often many people don’t. 
  • Ensure your details are up-to-date (previously you might not have accepted Credit Cards). 
  • Double check your opening hours and phone number as these often change over time or the business has new owners or management
  • Check the business images you are using and consider refreshing them or uploading higher res versions. 
  • Check no-one has made an edit to your listing and changed the businesses’s website to their affiliate link, have seen this too!

Max Holloway:

When it comes to choosing your categories be specific. You have a much better chance to rank for “Fresh grocery store” or “Organic butchers” than for generic terms like “Shop” or “Groceries”.

You should also add photos of the business, or its customers and the people who work there. As well as opening hours and any other useful information such as parking locations.


Raj Nijjer:

It starts with getting NAP (name, address, phone) right and then creating citations (listings) on every other site like Yelp, Bing, Yahoo etc. Category is also important so the consumer can find you. Most recently Google announced their ranking methods at a surface level.  

Adding more information about your business always helps with click through rate. My advice has always been to get the website right and then copy all the information into GMB like description, hours, menu, photos etc.

Having the same NAP  information on your website is absolutely critical, especially marked up with so your website speaks the same language as Googlebot. 

What advanced tactics can businesses use to improve local visibility? 

Greg Gifford:

Advanced tactics? Stick to the basics… have awesome content, a kickass link profile, and consistent citations…

Kevin Gibbons:

  • Pick a picture or logo that will make your listing stand out and get clicked
  • Check the popular times of the day and use paid social or AdWords to drive more visitors during times your business is open but you are not as busy.
  • Encourage local reviews and social checkins from your customers.
  • Encourage visitors to upload photos of your venue/business.
  • Use services like Yext to build relevant citations to build up the profile of your business and its physical location. 
  • Consider employing a Google certified photographer for a Indoor Street View tour of your business, this is something we did this for our own office recently which helps to show a more personal side to the business.

gmb 2

Max Holloway:

To really improve your local rankings you will want to build citations for your local listings, these can be on local business listing website (LBLs), other websites or even your own website i.e. in a store finder section.

Another big ranking factor is to encourage customers to leave positive reviews on your GMB listing. Your star rating is also displayed on the map to searches so a high rating can also improve your click through rate from the SERPs.

When this feature was first introduced it was very easily scammed; adding a large number of positive or negative reviews would have a huge impact on your ranking, and you could see small business on the outskirts of London ranking for terms for “Hairdresser London”. Fortunately this has now been fixed.

To further improve your local visibility you will want to build pages about the services you offer in certain locations and theme those pages appropriately generally along the lines of [service] in [location]. 

If you notice some of these pages are having a hard time getting good rankings you’ll need to start building links into them. Often links from other local sites can have a bigger impact on the ranking than more generic or high authority sites, as Google will weight their locality higher than most other factors (when it comes to local rankings).

Raj Nijjer:

First, Prominence – reviews and exposure. Google wants to translate offline popularity online. Getting positive reviews is critical these days so it’s a must that business owners work with their best clients to get positive reviews that mention their products and service. 

Second, Duplicates – since there is no master record, publishers are constantly compiling and recompiling data which creates duplicates. Many of these duplicates have the wrong Name, Address or Phone. This can really harm your ranking! Suppressing these duplicates is a MUST because Googlebot is a machine and it can’t infer which listing is right. 

Finally, I call this approach the CAN principle. 

  • Consistency – having the same NAP data on directory sites and search engines. It’s something I evangelize at Yext. 
  • Accuracy – correcting your Nap data across the local ecosystem to make sure it’s consistent. Also, getting rid of duplicate listings which can harm your ranking because it confuses Google. 
  • Number – having authoritative citations (listings) across as many cites as possible. There are over 50 sites where you can create a citation for your local business and many more vertical specific sites. 

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Five of the most interesting SEM news stories of the week

In this week’s round up we have penalties for bloggers, Google indexing image alt tags and the most expensive AdWords keywords. 

Google begins testing green ‘ad’ labels

A few people starting spotting green ‘ad’ labels on Google paid ads from yesterday.

It initially seemed to be a UK test, but I’ve since seen examples from around Europe, the US and Australia so it seems Google is testing this widely.

The question is why, and it’s not hard to guess that making them seem more like organic results is a possible explanation.

US green ads

Testing whether Google will rank keywords in image alt tags

An interesting test conducted by Dawn Anderson, which she writes about on SEM Post.

Dawn explains the test in detail, but it shows that Googlebot will read and index keywords in the image alt tag.


The most expensive PPC keywords in the UK

With help from SEMRush, Chris Lake looked into the most expensive PPC keywords on Google UK.

The most expensive was £148…

tech keywords

Mobile advertising stats

This week we released our State of Mobile Advertising 2016 report, produced in association with Search Optics.

It contains plenty of useful insights on mobile advertising from clients and agencies.

For example, Paid search is found to be the leading mobile channel for ROI, though measurement and attribution issues are holding advertisers back.

paid search roi

Google punishes bloggers for linking to reviewed products

After last month’s advice to bloggers reviewing products they’ve received free of charge to nofollow any links to product pages, we’ve had a spate of manual actions.

Google penalty

Bloggers reviewing products have reported receiving notices like the one above when logging into Search Console, and Google’s John Mueller has confirmed that these are linked to Google’s earlier advice.

Whether the action are justified or not is another matter, as we have no idea how Google can tell if links are due to freebies or not. However, bloggers now need to be careful when reviewing and linking.

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30 quick and easy SEO tips for small businesses

For the uninitiated, SEO can seem to be a complex and foreign landscape, but it doesn’t have to be too complicated.

Indeed, there’s a lot that small businesses (and anyone) can do without any great SEO knowledge, and without spending too much money.

With the help of some search experts, I’ve compiled a list of tips (in no particular order)…

1. Set up a Google My Business account

Set this up and get all of your business details uploaded. It’s totally free and will enable you to appear in local search results for queries specific to your area of operation.

Even broad queries with large volumes are now showing local results which is something small business owners can capitalise upon.


2. Build a fast, mobile-friendly website

Developing mobile sites can now be done easily with simple plugins for your CMS, such as WordPress, meaning that making all of your content mobile-friendly can be done quickly and cheaply.

Optimising it for fast load-speed (again through plugins where available) will help you stand out from the competition in terms of performance.

3. Conduct extensive keyword research to identify gaps in the market

Targeting the same keywords as your bigger competitors won’t see you make much ground as they are more established and have more coverage online.

Using keyword research tools such as Google’s Keyword Planner to spot gaps in the market will enable you to capitalise upon these – they may even convert at a better rate too.

Tips 1-3 by Jamie White, Head of Technical SEO at Search Laboratory.

4. Start using Google Search Console

It’s a free tool that gives a wealth of information about your website’s performance in Google search, as well as any errors on your site and issues you should address.

Improving your website without Search Console is like running a marathon without any shoes on. With Search Console you can find out what keywords Google thinks your website is relevant for, whether there are problems crawling your website, if your site is mobile friendly, and much more. It’s the starting point for most of your improvement efforts.

5. You need to understand your online audience through and through

Who is your typical online customer? What are they looking for? How do they spend their time online? What kind of content do they like to consume?

When you completely understand your audience, you will understand what you need to do online to grab their attention.

If your audience spends a lot of time on Facebook, you should focus effort there. If your audience reads online tutorials about topics relevant to your niche, maybe you need to produce your own tutorial content.

Without a thorough understanding of your audience’s needs and requirements, you won’t be able to make effective use of the online channels at your disposal – you’ll just be trying out different things at random, and that’s a terrible waste of your precious resources.

6. Look at how search engines are displaying results in your niche

Too often, small businesses have no idea who or what they are actually competing with in search.

For example, if you want to focus on a keyword that has a lot of huge international companies ranking on the first page, you should realise that perhaps your expectations need to be tempered.

Another example: if search engines show a lot of images or videos in their results for keywords you want to be visible for, you should consider producing that sort of content rather than just focus purely on text.

Also, often search engines will show local business results – if that’s the case, your efforts need to be adjusted to focus on achieving visibility in those types of results.


Tips 4-6 by Barry Adams, Polemic Digital

7. Get ScreamingFrog and check your site for possible onsite issues

Watch for security issues too – Sucuri site check is free and while it won’t be able to see all possible issues it can catch some of the most widespread ones.

This may seem unrelated to the topic of this article but compromised sites do lose their traffic and visibility.

8. Claim your physical address on Google Maps

If it’s a local business which a physical location and offline customers, make sure you claim your physical address on Google Maps.

9. Whatever you do, be genuine

Hiring somebody on the cheap to run  your Twitter account or build links for you may seem like a tempting  idea but it can – and probably will – backfire.

If you haven’t got  much of a marketing budget, take one step at a time but do it yourself as nobody knows your business and your customers better than you. Connect with them personally, do not count on somebody else spamming them on your behalf resulting in any positive outcome.

Tips 7-9 by Julia Logan, Irish Wonder

10. Beware of agencies that promise the earth

Unless you’re prepared to buy PPC ads, then there is no way to guarantee a page one listing (even then it can be tricky on competitive terms).

If an agency or salesperson promises you this, ignore them. They’re lying and will likely do a lot of damage to your long-term search visibility.

page one guaranteed

Also, if you’re just getting started, you don’t necessarily need an agency to improve your SEO efforts. See what you can do yourself first.

11. If you do hire an agency, keep an eye on them

Agencies using the wrong methods can do a lot of damage.

Often by dodgy link-building which may achieve some short-term results but will expose your site to the risk of penalties long-term.

12. Keep up with industry news

Things can change fairy quickly in SEO, so things that work for a while can become against Google’s rules over time.

As with the recent penalties for bloggers reviewing products, Google will rarely spell things out. It will give advice and hints, but it won’t contact you. You’ll often only know you’ve done something ‘wrong’ when you login to Google Search Console and receive a notice like this:

Google penalty

13. Try not to rely too much on Google

Yes, it’s well worth working to improve your rankings, and search traffic is valuable, but don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.

Google can change the way it ranks sites, the way it display results at any time, in ways which could adversely affect your search traffic.

Look to build email lists, use social media etc so that you’re attracting customers from a range of sources.

14. Launch a blog / create content

Content is what will help you rank for your target terms. This means content on product pages, homepages and everywhere around the site, but a blog can also help.

It shouldn’t be done just for SEO reasons, as blogs present an opportunity for you to talk about your product and services and the issues around them.

It means you can create the kind of content that people interested in your product or service would appreciate, and begin to build an audience.

15. If you blog, do it regularly

You don’t have to write five articles a day, but regular updates mean your visitors have something to read, and you’ll also be creating fresh content for the search engines.

16. But don’t go keyword-crazy

Yes, you want to target the terms that your customers are likely to search for, but you have to write for humans first of all, or your content will be weak.

17. Aim for evergreen content

Look to create quality content that addresses customers issues and has a longer shelf-life. This ‘evergeen content’ is more likely to achieve search rankings over a longer period of time.


18. Use a clear URL structure

People should be able to guess the topic of a page just by looking at the URL.

19. Use internal linking to optimise your site

Effective internal linking is about linking topics and themes together in a more sensible way, for readers and for search engines.

For example, if you are providing cake-decorating services, you’ll have lots of articles using that phrase. They’re not all going to rank for that, so choose the page you’d most like to rank for that term and point the links at that.

It can be very effective, as this internal linking example from the Daily Mail website shows.

David Cameron landing page

20. Use your site search data to find terms to target

You can view the terms your visitors search for on site by looking into your analytics data.

You can learn a lot from this site search data, which can help in many ways.

For search, the keywords that people use on your site could be terms that you aren’t currently targeting via SEO or PPC.

If so, analysing site search data is a great way to find more relevant terms to target. They also tell the the kind of language that customers use.


21. Encourage reviews

Reviews will help to drive conversions but, from an SEO perspective, they help to drive your local SEO visibility.


22. Optimize images

In this article, SEW Editor Christopher Ratcliff explains how to optimize images for SEO, with the help of his cat.

wordpress photo upload highlighting caption and description

23. Set up Google Analytics

It’s free and it’s essential for you to understand customer behaviour, traffic sources and more.

Here’s a beginner’s guide to Google Analytics.

 Google Analytics app

24. Think about UX

For one thing, after mobilegeddon, your mobile ranking depends on factor related to UX.

Site speed is just one. Use tools like Google’s pagespeed insights to learn about your site and how to improve it.

25. Optimize your Google My Business profile

The basics should be there – if you have a physical store, provide opening times, directions and other useful information.

Don’t leave it at that though. Add images, regular updates and more.

26. See who is linking to you and learn from it

You can view the links you receive through tools like Majestic and others. Are you attracting links from relevant sites? If so, which kinds of content / pages are attracting these links?


27. Write a unique title for every page

On Google, you have around 55 characters to make the topic of a page clear to searchers and search engines.

page titles google

28. Don’t expect results too quickly

The tips here will produce results, but don’t expect overnight success. Good SEO can take time, so be patient and stick with the process.

29. Use a little PPC

If you have the budget, PPC can deliver traffic more quickly.

It can also inform your SEO efforts – you can see which keywords work best for conversions and can help you to improve your landing pages.

30. Write your own product page copy

If you’re selling products that other sites will also have, unique product descriptions can help your site to stand out.

They’re also better for conversions, as the manufacturer descriptions will not have been tested for effectiveness, whereas you can try variations and see what works best for your site


What have I missed? Add your tips below…

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Everything you need to know about natural language search

Search engines like Google, Bing and others are making efforts to bring searching for information in line with everyday conversation with a type of search called ‘natural language search’.

This development is a move away from the type of searching that has dominated the web since the advent of search engines in the 1990s. It is part of an attempt to make searching faster and more effective by understanding searcher intent and more complex, multi-part queries.

Natural language search is also key to a number of advancements currently taking place in technology, including voice search, digital assistants and smart home hubs. But what exactly is it, and how is it going to affect the way that we look for information online?

What is natural language search?

Natural language search is search carried out in everyday language, phrasing questions as you would ask them if you were talking to someone. These queries can be typed into a search engine, spoken aloud with voice search, or posed as a question to a digital assistant like Siri or Cortana.

This is as opposed to keyword-based search, which is what most people who are used to using web search engines still default to. Keyword-based search is an attempt to break down a query into the most important terms, getting rid of unnecessary connecting words like “how”, “and”, “the”, and so on.

So if you wanted to know how high the Empire State Building was, a keyword-based search query for that information might be “Empire State Building height”. But if you were searching using natural language, you would phrase your query as, “How high is the Empire State Building?”

“Don’t speak in these weird haikus.” CollegeHumor’s ‘If Google Was a Guy’ series satirises keyword-based search queries by placing them in a life-like context. 

Natural language search has always been around – think of Ask Jeeves, the 1990s search engine which encouraged users to phrase their queries in the form of a question. But Ask Jeeves was ahead of its time; keyword-based searching was the norm then, and Jeeves found itself out-competed by more powerful keyword engines like Google.

Several years too late for Ask Jeeves, search trends are coming back around towards natural language search. This is the result of a number of different developments in search and technology coming together.

The trend towards natural language

First of all, search engines – particularly Google – have improved their search capabilities so much over the years that people expect to find exactly what they’re looking for on the first try.

There’s a reduced patience for sitting and trying different keyword combinations; people are searching on their mobiles, on the go, and they want to be able to ask a question, get the answer, and move on. And search engines have worked hard to meet this expectation, so that people will feel satisfied with the service they provide instead of frustrated by it.

Secondly, search technology has improved to the point where we can begin to teach search engines to understand longer, more complex queries, with different components that modify each other and can’t operate independently.

Google recently published a blog post welcoming “complex questions” and illustrating how its search engine can now understand superlatives (tallest, largest, oldest) and “ordered items”, such as a list of the largest cities in a given state, in order of area.

Google now also has an improved ability to interpret specific dates, and complex, multi-part queries like “Who was the U.S. President when the Angels won the World Series?”

A screenshot of the search query, “Who was the U.S. President when the Angels won the World Series?” with Google's Knowledge Graph displaying the answer "George W. Bush" below, next to a picture of the former president.

You’ll notice from the screenshot that Google doesn’t just aim to serve the right answer to that question, but to display it within the Knowledge Graph at the top of the screen, eliminating the need to even click on another site in order to find the answer.

The third key component contributing to the development of natural language search is the rise of voice search and digital assistants. As Rob Kerry noted in his presentation on the future of search at Ayima Insights digital marketing conference, “It’s becoming a lot more common for people to search by talking into their phone.”

Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google Now – these AI assistants are being adopted more and more widely, and their voice activation capabilities increasingly integrated into technology.

The technology might have had its stumbling blocks at first, but as with Google, it’s improving steadily, leading people to become much more used to speaking commands and queries aloud in everyday, natural language and expect an accurate response in return.

A screencap of a Siri voice search asking "How big is the Serengeti?" Siri's answer pertains to the breed of cat, answering "Medium", rather than to the region in Africa.

Will Oremus of Slate put the progression to natural language search best when he described it as a move from us speaking the language of computers in order to communicate with them, to us teaching them our language.

“In the beginning, computers spoke only computer language, and a human seeking to interact with one was compelled to do the same. First came punch cards, then typed commands such as run, print, and dir.

The 1980s brought the mouse click and the graphical user interface … the 2000s, touch screens; the 2010s, gesture control and voice. It has all been leading, gradually and imperceptibly, to a world in which we no longer have to speak computer language, because computers will speak human language—not perfectly, but well enough to get by.”

It’s not just Google

As the world’s most popular search engine, it’s not really a surprise that Google is leading the pack in natural language search advancements. But it hasn’t been the only search engine to do so by any means.

In 2014, Microsoft made updates to Bing smart search which improved its parsing of natural language queries. A few months later, it developed on this even further by introducing the ability to “continue the conversation” after asking a question in search. In other words, you can ask a follow-up question which depends on the previous one for context, and Bing will understand what you mean.

Two screencaps of Bing search results, one showing the query "Who is the president of America" with the response "Barack Obama" displayed with Bing's Instant Answers. A follow-up query below asks, "How tall is he?" Bing displays the answer "Barack Obama - Height: 6 foot 1". Below this are the heights of George W. Bush, Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton in smaller type.

This works, and it’s quite impressive – ask Bing who the “President of America” is, and then in a separate query, ask “how tall is he?” and you’ll get the right answer, with the height of the First Lady and a couple of other presidents thrown in just in case.

Of course, it depends on the first question being one that Bing can answer, which mostly restricts it to simple “who is…” or “how is…” questions. Still, not even Google, which always treats individual searches as a new query, can do this, and it’s a big step towards the kind of frictionless, conversational searches that natural language search aspires to.

Newer search engines are also making natural language search capability their goal. Plonked, a niche business-focused search engine which launched in March, aims to provide its users with a natural language interface in order to keep up with the level of searching offered by Google and other major search engines.

I also made an unexpected discovery when researching this article, which is that Ask Jeeves is not the only natural language question and answer service left over from the 90s. START is a “natural language question answering system” developed by the InfoLab Group at MIT, and it has been online since 1993.

START functions more like a reference book than a search engine, designed to give factual answers to questions in fields like geography, science, history and culture.

It also might be a little out of date. But it has an ability to puzzle out the different components of a complex query in a way that Google could stand to learn a thing or two from – and by the look of things, has been doing it for much longer than Google has.

A screencap of a query from the START Natural Language Question Answering System, showing the query "When was the constitution adopted in the most populous country in Africa?" START reasons the answer as follows: " know that the most populous country in Africa is Nigeria (source: The World Factbook). Using this information, I determined when the constitution was adopted in Nigeria: Constitution: several previous; latest adopted 5 May 1999, effective 29 May 1999; amended several times, last in 2012 (2016)"

Where next for natural language search?

We’ve published a number of articles on where Google is going with search, from using Hummingbird to better understand searcher intent, to employing RankBrain to guess at the meaning of never before seen questions, to making strides towards semantic search.

Natural language search is bound up with all of these, since these are all capabilities that would allow Google to better interpret and respond to search queries in everyday language. So I think it’s fair to say that we can expect much better and more accurate natural language responses from Google as these algorithms learn, develop and have their limits tested.

But as we’ve established, it’s not just about Google. There’s a possibility that we’ll see natural language search developing in a few different directions as Bing furthers its ‘conversational’ search style, and other search engines play to their own strengths.

The kinds of natural language search queries that a niche engine like Plonked needs to interpret and respond to could be very different from those put to a general search engine, which could lead to some interesting advances in unexpected areas.

An image of two smartphones side by side, one an iPhone running SIRI, and the other a Windows phone running Cortana.
Screen capture via GV Commerciais

There are even bigger developments taking place in the ‘digital assistant’ field, which is heavily tied together with voice and natural language search as digital assistants handle search queries along with a myriad of other tasks. Siri, Cortana, Alexa and others are all threats to Google’s dominance of search, and there are rumours that Google is planning to develop its own voice-controlled assistant device to take on Amazon’s Echo in the smart home space.

Natural language search is not only a direction that search engines are overwhelmingly moving in in order to better understand the goals and desires of searchers online, but also a key component of some of the most important – and, let’s be honest, futuristic – developments currently happening in the field of technology.

from Search Engine Watch
via Auto Feed