Now that we’re eight months past the release of Google Hummingbird, we’re starting to see the effects of semantic search technologies on SEO. These technologies offer amazing potential for improved user experiences, and as SEOs and marketers, we’re happy about that. At the same time, there are potential pitfalls that we shouldn’t ignore.

In their effort to refine and improve user results, the big search engines are using their semantic capabilities to generate their own knowledge. These knowledge bases cull content from sites the search engines index and allow them to return instant results to the most common user queries. Google Knowledge Graph and Bing Snapshot are the two initial examples of this.

While these tools have clearly enhanced the user experience, in some cases they’re resulting in fewer clicks to websites in the SERPs, and this presents SEOs with a dilemma.

On the one hand, we’re being encouraged to mark up our content semantically so it’s more readable by semantic search engines.  I’ve written about this myself. On the other hand, we’re now seeing that making our sites easier to index also means an increased chance that our content will be used to fill up an answer box and potentially lower CTRs. What’s an SEO to do?

It’s too soon to tell how this will play out in the long run, but for now, I think we’d be wise to keep some strategies in mind.

The first is stay on top of the trends and measure your own site’s performance. In this article at Search Engine Theory, Michael Martinez says anyone using semantic markup should monitor traffic coming from search engines against their visibility in the engines’ knowledge bases. Do the two correlate? What you learn could be very helpful in deciding whether there’s a problem and, if so, what to do next.

Trend awareness includes keeping an eye on alternative search engines—and I don’t just mean sites like Yahoo and Ask.   I especially like the layout, metadata, and context displayed by Wolfram Alpha.  There’s slow-burning interest in other engines that don’t track personal data, as well as vertical search tools within specific niches or industries. While neither of these categories is going to overtake “core search” engines any time soon, the field is volatile enough and there’s enough interest in them to make them worth watching.

The second strategy is to diversify your sources of traffic. This seems really basic (and it is), but the truth is most enterprises still get the bulk of their traffic from search, whether paid or organic.   And social traffic continues to increase as companies get more proficient with their social strategies.  Another alternative that’s getting a fair amount of attention right now is mobile apps. People behave differently on mobile than at their desks—we can see this in different query types, lengths, and conversions. And search engines are testing, refining, and planning strategies now for the tipping point when mobile search on tablet and smartphone overtakes standard search.  There’s growing evidence that users are choosing apps to fulfill what are basically search functions—especially for place-based queries.

The third strategy is to dig deep into improving your website’s user experience. Because Google and Yahoo/Bing now provide direct answers through Knowedge Graph and Snapshot in addition to sources of answers, it’s not hard to imagine a day when our websites will need to compete with search engines for doing the best job of meeting users’ needs. Some would say that day is already here.

The approach is to offer such a great experience built off of a strong brand story that users think about going to you first. Then, once people are on your site, work harder to get them to come back without going through search. For starters, this could include tactics like:

  • Making it easy to sign up for a newsletter, subscribe to your blog feed, or follow you on social media.
  • Offering a free, high-quality app.
  • Making sure your on-site search function is robust, relevant, and mobile-friendly.
  • Paying scrupulous attention to technical SEO, especially site-wide errors, multiple-hop redirects, and site speed (for mobile).

A lot of the ideas I’ve outlined here are pretty basic to any marketing venture, and my guess is you’re already using a lot of them. But the fact remains that search marketing can be dizzyingly dynamic, and SEO has taken some hits in the last year. Diversifying your traffic sources and doubling down on user experience are solid practices that will stand you in good stead no matter what the search engine giants serve up in the future.

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