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March 3, 2015

How SEOs Should Deal with Direct Answers: Eric Enge, Bill Slawski and Ehren Reilly Discuss

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Direct answers — threat or opportunity? Three of digital marketing’s brightest minds — Eric Enge, Bill Slawski and Ehren Reilly — dig into this hot topic in today’s first SMX West session: “The Growth Of Direct Answers: How Should SEOs React?”

Enge, Ehrens and Slawski on Direct

Eric Enge: Results from Massive Direct Answer Study

Stone Temple Consulting conducted a study of 855,000 different search queries to see how many would generate a direct answer in search. All of the queries had some chance of generating a direct answer. How were the questions formulated?

  • 250,000 were from Google Suggest
  • 250,000 were from Bing Suggest
  • 355,000 were generated manually

Those latter 355,000 were based on historical events, television shows, famous people, books, restaurants, movies, fruits and vegetables – anything with a chance to generate a direct answer. For each one, Stone Temple Consulting fashioned questions around them — for example what would you want to know about the Eiffel tower? Who built it? When was it built?

The Results

  • 19.4 percent of the time Google responded with a direct answer. Enge points out that while this might not seem like a large number, two years ago there were zero direct answers. He estimates that last year, 4 percent of queries generated direct answers.
  • Bing generated direct answers 1.1 percent of the time.
  • 25 percent  of Google direct answers included titles.
  • More than 3,000 direct answers only partially answered a query.
  • More than 1,000 direct answer results came in the form of a table.
  • There were more than 6.000 “sliders.” (What’s a slider? Let’s say you search for something like “what time is it in Russia?” There are many time zones in Russia, so the direct answer is something that looks like a table but acts like a slide show displaying each result.)
  • More than 18,000 direct answer results appeared in the form of a list of instructions.
  • There were more than 45,000 results with rich answer boxes and a side bar.
  • There were 5,356 direct answers that populated with forms — such as the calories in pizza, etc.
  • There were 33 direct answers that contained charts.
  • There were 4,824 carousel results. Here, Enge points out that carousels are constantly changing — “They’re experimenting with them all the time.”
  • 25.3 percent of direct answer results did not include attribution and 72.7 percent did. “We only show the lyrics for songs for which we have the appropriate rights” — Google.

How, then, do Internet marketers proceed? Enge recommends not trying to make a living on public domain info. (Click to Tweet) Google will be displaying pubic domain info more and more in direct answers. Google may also license info — if it’s easily licensable by Google, it’s risky for you to count on this as a source of traffic.

Slawski: The Increasing Importance of Direct Answers

Slawski had mononucleosis in the sixth grade — he notes that we would have really appreciated having Google direct answers at that time to answer his questions about the illness!

He quotes Google: “Now we are increasingly able to provide direct answers — even if you’re speaking your question using voice search — which makes it quicker, easier and more natural to find what you’re looking for.”

He quotes Eric Schmidt: “In each case we’re trying to get you direct answers to your queries because it’s quicker and less hassle than the ten blue links Google used to show. This is especially important on mobile where screens are smaller and typing is harder.”

Slawski points out that Google Israel filed a patent aimed at “finding direct answers to natural language questions in November 2014.”

All this is evidence of Google’s commitment to increasing and strengthening direct answers from authoritative sources. What does Google view as authoritative sources? Those that are frequently selected in search results and consistently rank high in search results for queries dealing in the subject matter.

Ehren Reilly: How Content Sites Can Win with Direct Answers

Reilly says that if you think back to the last big thing that Google did, it was Panda. And when Panda comes up, people talk about it as a thin content issue. But Reilly contends that Panda is actually about quality. Content, he argues, can be high-quality but bite-sized. Ask a simple question, get a simple answer, success! But now … direct answers will snatch up those bite-sized bits. For example …

  • Ask what time is it in Moscow : no one wants a long article — just the answer.
  • Ask the exchange rate from dollars to rupees: again, no one wants a diatribe, just an answer.

Google decided it was unnecessary to send people off to publisher sites for queries such as these. Google will take care of it it in a direct answer.

Direct answers are reshaping what kinds of businesses are viable. Anything that has an easy answer is not a viable business. (Click to Tweet)

Types of sites that are threatened by direct answers:

  • Facts about celebrities
  • Metric conversions
  • Calories
  • Weather
  • Song lyrics

Is this a threat to a high-quality site? Yes. Google provides “spoiler alerts” — snippets of your best content — displayed right in the SERP.

Reilly manages SEO for Glassdoor. Recently, he saw salary direct answers starting to appear. Although Glassdoor ranks No. 1, direct answers from other sources were rising to the top via the direct answer. What was particularly frustrating was an article about a study Glassdoor appeared in the direct answer box rather than Glassdoor’s actual study.

We found that the article had a simple answer that had the answer for the query (Facebook software engineer salary” – Glassdoor didn’t have the natural language on its page that would warrant a direct answer.

So, they put the sentence on the page and now show up in the direct answer rather than the article.

The Solution

You can also look at direct answers in another way. Direct answers are a huge real estate opportunity that you can take advantage of. Get picked up as a direct answer by:

  • Doing basic SEO well.
  • Matching the formula. Every direct answer follows a formula — figure out the formula and structure your content accordingly. Create a sentence that answers specific queries.
  • Avoid unhelpful structure and markup.
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