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What would you ask for?

When it comes to managing their websites’ search engine optimisation, most people still think in terms of generic keywords. And with good reason: come top of the search results for ‘blue widgets’ and you’ll get a lot of visits, including some potentially decent commercial ones.

But we need to expand our horizons into more difficult territory if we’re really going to score in the future. Google cracked the results for generic keyword searches long ago, and those are just the bottom level of three or four which the search engine of the future will need to solve. Above this are simple factual queries (e.g. “When were blue widgets invented?”), then ones which require more understanding of language (“What was the first type of widget in general use?”, and finally those which need to analyse data and make a decision (“What’s the best type of widget?”).

These harder categories are becoming more prevalent, as users realise that Google can make a decent stab at the answers nowadays. However, it’s a long way off being able to confidently answer the last two levels, so if we can help it along, we can score in several ways.

What we know is that if someone asks “What’s the best type of widget?”, Google can’t independently tell us yet. One day, there’ll be enough computing power and data for that to happen, but it’s a way off. So the search engine has to drop down a few levels of complexity to one where it can be confident, and that’s going to be returning a page in its index which happens to be titled “What’s the best type of widget?”. If our website is the only one which has that page, there’s a very good chance we’ll be the first result it offers.

But by creating the right pages, we’re building for the future in two ways. To begin with, Google’s language interpretation will improve, so our page will also show up for related queries. In addition, while people are clicking on those results, we’re building up our site’s authority for other searches.

How do we focus on what queries to answer on our websites? SEO experts will immediately start talking about ‘keyword research’, but I’d be prepared to bet that for most readers, that might be fruitless. Most experts work in competitive markets, where huge numbers of related queries are made online every day. When you’re involved in technical fields, the search volume is much lower, and usually too low to confidently pick out any data. For me, intuition is still the best way. Picture those people who you imagine are the ideal prospect: an existing expert looking for an alternative supplier, or someone coming into the field for the first time. What would they ask for? What would you ask for?