Site Search in the Age of AI: Why B2B Marketers Need to Care
We have all heard the terms T-Shaped Marketer, Full-Stack Marketer, and Marketing Unicorn. Today, marketers often have no choice but to be a jack of all trades.
They are expected to have hard skills such as analytics, content strategy, social media, and crafting strategic messaging. Tactical skills like building websites, email campaign execution, placing ads, and creating personas. And soft skills like creativity, resourcefulness, adaptability, and collaboration.
They are told they really need to be “data-driven” storytellers which sounds a bit like an oxymoron. All that and THEN they are also expected to learn about dozens of new marketing tools every year.
But there is one tool that marketers have seemingly ignored. Site Search.
Just in case you don’t remember what “site search” is because it seems to have become a relic of the past, it’s the search engine (search bar) on your website that is supposed to help your users find the information they need on your website.
Who Owns Site Search?
If you are a B2B marketer, chances are great you have never had to optimize the search experience on your website. That seems a little odd, given today’s marketers are supposed to manage everything related to digital experience.
So then who owns site search? Engineers?
Probably not, they are too busy building products. Or maybe it’s that no one has brought it to their attention because no one really cares about site search.
Let’s be honest – you likely removed the search box from your beautifully designed landing page. Or you are using the default search engine included in your CMS.
It is possible you believe site search is not relevant to your business because people already know what they are looking for when they land on your website. True or not, it is worth asking yourself: how’s your website helping customers find what they are looking for?
Here are the typical options provided when a visitor lands on a website:
They are useful for web designers to organize information and a best practice for SEO, but most visitors would not find the sitemap experience engaging – who wants to browse the inner workings of your site page hierarchies?
They provide a good high-level overview of your website sections, but as you add additional options you quickly have a cluttered menu that is not user-friendly.
Site search widgets typically use outdated keyword-matching technology, which provides a very different experience than Google. Does anyone remember Altavista? If you are feeling nostalgic for Altavista all you have to do is visit your current insurance company’s site search.
Consumers have quickly embraced chatbots and are becoming increasingly more comfortable interacting with them, but chatbots lack full integration with website content. Chatbots have proven to be successful for lead qualification, but haven’t been designed to help people search your website. Chatbots are becoming the point of entry for prospects and returning customers, yet when they land on a website they are unable to find the knowledge they are looking for.
Marketers have fallen behind when it comes to managing site search.
Reasons why site search has been neglected:
Search is hard.
Site search is very complicated and not easy to master. Even the masters of search at Google struggle to find good results for certain queries.
Marketers drive the content strategy for a website, but site search is an unknown territory that is extremely technical to manage and optimize and requires a skill set not expected of marketers.
Rather than tackle this bad search experience marketers focus on other aspects of websites, such as creating forms and chatbots because that’s what current marketing platforms offer.
Custom solutions require engineering.
Deploying advanced solutions usually means involving engineering. Developer tools such as ElasticSearch or Algolia are very powerful, but require engineering teams get involved. Most marketing tools are built to be really easy for marketers to implement, competitive site search solutions are not simple.
Obsessed with Google.
Marketers have been so focused on Google search and organic traffic that its possible they overlooked the importance of website search. The focus has been on using SEO tools to understand how people find our website, but empower visitors to use site search which is an invaluable source of 1st party intent data. Instead of using a site search box, most homepages are loaded with chatbots that say hi and collect email addresses.
The actual content experience is ignored.
Marketers are so busy creating more and more content, that the actual content experience – how people find and consume content on your website – is being ignored.
Keyword research, creating long-form content, executing using a documented content calendar, and focusing on everything related to bringing traffic to sites is already overwhelming most marketing teams. So then, where do they find time to fit in developing a great content experience and marketing content to a visitor once they have landed on the site?
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that 94% of all blog posts have zero external links – content is consistently going unread!
Search is not tied to business goals.
Today’s data-driven marketer is under increasing pressure to deliver quantifiable results that they are often “not allowed” to do things simply because it helps their users. A great search experience won’t immediately let you capture an email right or book a demo.
Marketers are expected to implement strategies and use marketing tools that put the focus on an executive teams agenda and business metrics, forgetting that users don’t really care about those things, but they do care about learning as much as possible about your company and product as quickly as possible so they can make a decision.
How do consumers search today?
How consumers find information on the internet has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Search began with simple keyword queries, evolved into the semantic web, and has now quickly morphed into question answering.
The shift from keywords to questions can be explained with two AI-related technology breakthroughs:
1. Direct answers: Google and Bing are focused on delivering specific answers to user queries.
2. Voice search: research studies suggest that voice search will represent anywhere between 30% to 50% of total search queries by 2020.
In our personal lives, we all enjoy using Google on our phones or our Amazon Echo or other devices at home, and we have grown to expect fast answers to our queries.
There is no denying search engines are becoming answer engines and consumers are increasingly embracing this fundamental shift. However, websites have neglected this shift and haven’t evolved to address the changing consumer search behavior.
So, why should marketers care about site search?
Optimizing content for answers is not a “nice to try marketing tactic” or an optional strategy. If you don’t answer your customer’s questions, your competitor will.
Winning in today’s “Answer Economy” requires you to meet today’s consumers’ search expectations by optimizing your content for answers but in return, you win with user experience, speed, and customer success.
Thinking strategically about the future of site search under the “Answer Economy” paradigm can:
- Allow customers to engage with your website content through a Question Answering experience that is exactly the same as when they are searching with Google Assistant, Siri, or Cortana.
- Give marketing teams the ability to learn about their customer’s question directly and optimize their content accordingly over time.
- By making your website “Question-ready”, you are helping external search engines retrieve answers and improve your overall AEO (Answer Engine Optimization).
What is Answer Engine Optimization?
As discussed, search engines are now becoming answer engines. Subsequently, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is going to evolve into Answer Engine Optimization (AEO).
Answer Engine Optimization is the process of creating and optimizing content that addresses user questions in natural language. The best way to get started with AEO is by auditing your website and understanding what questions your content is able to answer.
Technical aspects like schema also come into play, but answer engines will grow and become intelligent enough to find answers in your content regardless of templates and structural rules.
Current SEO content audit tools help us identify topic gaps, crawling errors, website performance, meta tags, and other technical SEO items. But auditing for AEO requires a very different approach.
Auditing for AEO means understanding what questions your website is able to answer in the most straightforward way. Why? Because this is what answer engines will reward – finding answers as easily as possible.
- B2B marketers haven’t made site search a priority or has made it a secondary priority compared to other marketing tools installed on websites. There are a variety of reasons why including the complexity of search solutions and the appearance that chatbots are quasi-replacements.
- In today’s “Answer Economy”, consumers are expecting search engines to deliver highly relevant results and increasingly expecting those results to be in the form of direct answers. This means marketers have no choice but to start focusing on whether or not their content is “question ready” if they want to win at organic traffic.
- The best way to assure your content is question-ready is to embrace answer engines to the full extent. This means your website does not only need a site search solution, but it needs an answer engine capable of finding answers to your user questions.
- The importance of Answer Engine Optimization (AEO) is only going to continue to grow. Marketers really need to start leveraging tools that help them assess whether their content is structured in a way that facilitates the task of answer engines.