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Epic #SEOisAEO series: Getting to Grips with AEO: Answer Engines are here to stay




Jason Barnard: This is the first episode in the Epic series, Answer Engine Optimisation (the future of SEO). Today's guests are Andy Drinkwater, Barry Schwartz, Craig Campbell. I'm your host, Jason Barnard, I'm really pleased to be here.

I'll give a short presentation. And then I'll ask the experts to expand on that and really dig down.

Answer Engines and Search engines - are they so different?


Jason Barnard: Search engines and answer engines - maybe they're not so very different. My viewpoint is that we have search, which is the traditional results, the famous 10 blue links. It's a uniformat set of results where we get to choose which of the 10 we feel is the most appropriate for us.

Then we move over to answer on devices like the Google Dot where we ask a question and it simply isn’t possible to do anything except give a single answer.

And then we have a mix. Like the Echo show where you ask a question and not only can it answer like the Google Dot, but it can also show you a selection of options in a similar manner to search.

So we're not throwing the whole lot out the window and moving completely from search to answers. It's going to be a mix. We're going to have some answers, some search.

AEO is taking SEO into a new realm

Jason Barnard: I think it's really important to stress that when somebody searches on Google or Bing or even Alexa, they're asking a question to which they need an answer or a problem for which they want a solution. Ideally, these machines will bring you straight to the solution. The aim has always been to bring you an answer, but up until recently, the reality has been giving you a choice.


So the situation now is that with the capacity to give answers, SEO is expanding into a wider world with more platforms, more devices, more players in the market, and more opportunities. The SEO opportunities, i.e. the 10 blue links will still exist but they will coexist with new opportunities created by answer engines.


Whether it's search engines or answer engines we have a three-step process:

  1. Understanding the question. Whether typed or voice, Google or Alexa and Bing are trying to understand the question that is being asked, the intent of the user.

  2. Understanding the available answers. That's crawling the web, pulling the information in, indexing it, sorting it, and trying to understand it, so that they know what the potential answers are.

  3. Providing the best answers. That's ranking. In the world of search engines, that's simply putting the blue links up. In the world of answer engines, it becomes much more complex because you have just one answer, plus you have a question of format. Can you provide the answer in the format required by the device: voice assistant or in-car device or whatever?

Old-school SEO - Search engines seem childish

Jason Barnard: In old-school SEO that same three-step process applied. We have understanding the question. It was just incredibly simple. What keywords does the user type? That seems kind of childish these days. Then you had understanding the available answers. Once again, it was keywords - what keywords are in the page? That also seems incredibly simplistic these days. Lastly, we have ranking a selection of possible answers. Now that was possibly the most complicated part of the whole process - manually coded algorithms using keywords and links.


Very quick word on that, keywords is basic understanding, and links are basic credibility. And we'll see later on that in answer engine optimization I'm fairly obsessed with the idea of understanding and credibility. In truth, old SEO was exactly the same - they were trying to understand, they just did it in a very simplistic manner. And they were trying to decide on credibility - once again very simplistic (using links). We've got the 10 blue links and only one format that we're aiming at. So as SEOs you're saying, "Okay, I want to be on that list. But I only need to optimize for one specific format - the blue link.”

New-school SEO - Conversational search & the Star Trek Machine

Jason Barnard: New-school AEO. This is where we're going to start talking to the experts. SERP results have become much more complex. There are lots of different opportunities for being present. And multiple “answers”. Google is obsessed by the Star Trek machine and their idea is, like that machine, to have a conversational relationship with their users - dialogue, answer questions immediately… sometimes to the point at which they answer a question before you even thought of it. These platforms and devices, are driving Google to provide a single answer in order to create that “Star Trek” conversational search.


If you look right on the right-hand side you can see that we have a computer, so we still have the screen, we still have typed search, and so we will still have SEO and the 10 blue links. But also the additional opportunities AEO brings, i.e. having the answer box or the knowledge panel. And then as you move across we have devices that are providing answers. They can really only provide answers. So Google, Bing, Alexa and Apple are pushing more and more towards this idea of answers so that's where we're going. Once again, answer engines are simply expanding on what we already had in search engines.

Google’s view: Understanding the question


Jason Barnard: Google understanding the question. Andy, here we're looking at user intent, whether it's typed or voice search.

QUESTION #1 - Google: What are the keys to understanding user intent?

Andy Drinkwater: In terms of user intent I don't think things have actually changed an awful lot, just some aspects of user intent. If you take an example of what user intent actually is, if you are looking for, for example, a new camera, and you search in Google and you put, "Which is the best super-zoom camera?" That automatically shows there's some intent with regards to the actual search. It's not just random words you're putting together, you actually want to know something so you're showing some kind of intent. The key to understand user intent is knowing what people are looking for.

You've got to put some sort of thought into what user intent is. We were chatting earlier and one of the other examples was if somebody searches for Morrison's, they're looking for is a local supermarket. They're not looking for the head office. Context is huge as we all know. It far outstrips any other areas with regards to answering questions because there are different variations and different variants of context as well.

If somebody searches for apple, are they looking for Apple the company or are they looking for apple the fruit? Google will deliver different results based on the strength of context that can indicate the intent. Context is king. I know that's something a lot of people like and something you [Jason] particularly believe in. User intent is ultimately the purpose behind the search. So why is somebody doing a particular search?

Jason Barnard: Great answer. Context is king. I love that phrase because it turns “content is king” on its head. It's a little bit cheeky. So how is Google understanding the intent? It's getting lots of different signals to understand the context that will give more meaning to the words.

Google’s view: Understanding the available answers


Jason Barnard: How does Google get to grips today with understanding available answers? It's not just keywords, it's much, much more than that. In a chaotic web this is a phenomenal challenge for Google and for anybody else that wishes to understand the web. I know Amazon have got a knowledge graph as well and Microsoft too.

QUESTION #2 - Google: How are the answer engines going about understanding a chaotic web?

Craig Campbell: They're going to use schema, HTML5, and machine learning, and obviously for Google to just crawl through standard websites looking for content it's going to get confused so that's where schema markup and all that kind of stuff comes into play. We've seen it coming out over the past few years. People going for knowledge graphs and so on, and it's working pretty well. The technology's developing all the time and the machine learning is developing and becoming cleverer. I know a lot of people say Google's not as clever as it may seem and just feed it all this kind of stuff and that's right to a certain degree, but I think it's a bit harsh when they have a lot of technology going on in the background now and that is what's going to help establish what those answers are and provide the right results for people.

On top of that from my research, credibility comes into it as well. So I think that would also play a factor in whether you get your answers featured or not because you've got to be seen as a trusted source. I think a combination of what Andy said, plus schema and everything else, along with being a trusted source and providing good answers and getting good click-throughs and so on is only going to help you position yourself there.

Jason Barnard: Sure. What I heard there, that machine learning really stands out. That is the big leap forward and that is thanks to big data, BigQuery and so on. Over the last few years, machine learning and structured data have meant that a chaotic web that Google and other machines had trouble understanding is becoming clearer

We all build websites in very different ways, so actually trying to sort through the content, figure out what the meaning is, is a major task. So here we have a big change and we're going to talk about machine learning and structured data later on in the series and look at that in much more detail.

Google’s view: Choosing the best answer


Jason Barnard: On to the next one which also touches on the idea that you just mentioned. Credibility. Google is going to tend to want to push forward the answer it feels is most credible. Barry, when it's choosing the answer the algorithms are trying to rank the best...

QUESTION #3 - Is it realistic to think that Google can identify the best answer?

Barry Schwartz: No. I think Google themselves even says they try but they fail a lot and they just try to get better and better every day. So it's not like Google would even say they do rank the top result or the answer to be the best. Of course, there are different types of answers. One is like math answers. There are specific factual answers, weather answers. Those are factual. But when it comes to featured snippets and position zero, whatever you want to call it, those results change all the time. Google even swaps in multiple variations of featured snippets and best answers depending on the context. And sometimes Google can't figure out if the context is based off personalization and they recently said that they don't use so much personalization around the person who is searching.

So until Google really fully understands that person and the context around the search and then fully understands what the best results are out there, it's never going to be the single best answer

But Google is definitely striving to return the best answer otherwise a company like Microsoft, Bing, Alexa, even Apple, have a place where they could actually overtake Google to providing the best answer engine.

Jason Barnard: Thanks! I really like the answer. For once somebody's saying Google doesn't pretend to have the best answer. It's striving to get the best answer. And in Seo Round Table I've seen a lot of very aggressive threads where people get really upset about Google not being as good as it should be which I find a little bit unfair. Google's doing its best. It's doing better than anybody else at the moment which is why a lot of us use it, and that's a nice interesting point as well. In Europe, we tend to think only Google but in America, you have 30% Bing and I tend to forget that because my clients, being European, only have 5% traffic from Bing.

Barry Schwartz: It's the same in the US. You look at anybody's analytics in the US it's like 90-something per cent Google. So I'm not really sure where Bing comes up with that...

Jason Barnard: Oh! Okay. I kind of just believed it. Thank you. I'm now not going to believe it any more.

Marketer’s approach: Understanding the question

Jason Barnard: We've looked at Google’s viewpoint. Let’s look at this from a marketer's approach. Andy, Google seems to be dealing with understanding the question just fine.

QUESTION #4 - Marketers: Why should marketers worry about user intent?

Andy Drinkwater: Let's go back a step, back to some of the user intent, because user intent, I think that a lot of sites still let themselves down when it comes to this. There is no point in just trying to answer a generic question on a particular subject. You've got to be a little bit more thorough and some of the recent algorithm updates are pointing more towards Google looking at the whole E-A-T ethos. The expertise, the authority, and the trust. If you're getting this wrong, you'll probably know fairly quickly because you'll not be ranking.

You need to be ranking based on the context and the intent of the search. So you need to be answering questions. People, the vast majority of the time, will do a search but what they're actually doing is they're asking a question.

You've got to understand from the user's point of view what is it they're actually looking for? What is the whole intent of the search? What is the context around the search itself? And if you're just trying to rank for something and you're not putting any research into, or any time, or any thought into the content that's actually on the site itself, then you're not going to be doing yourself any favors at all. You've got to know what it is that people are actually searching for. Without that, it's folly at the end of the day. You're just going to be chasing your tail constantly. So definitely, definitely put time and effort into that.  

Jason Barnard: Yeah, I have a lot of clients who say I want to rank for this keyword, or that keyword or rather “that query” (I prefer to say queries now, not keywords, to get out of the fixation on “keyword”). And then I explain to them there's no point because you don't actually answer the question or solve the problem.

So Google, Bing and Alexa are aiming to solve a problem or answer a question and I think that's vital.

Andy Drinkwater: Yes, absolutely, and I think different platforms make a difference there as well. For example, you're not going to go onto Alexa and say, I know we've discussed this, "Find me an SEO consultant" or "Research this person." It's not going to happen. So you've got to understand that each platform also has its own place as well.

Jason Barnard: Yup. And that idea of platforms is coming up in a question very soon [in the following episode].

Marketer’s approach: Communicating the answers

Jason Barnard: Craig, my clients often say to me, "I know my offer. It's really simple. Here's what I do. It's really obvious." And they don't understand that the web is chaotic and their website is not as well-organized as they seem to think it is.

QUESTION #5 - Marketers: How can I help Google understand MY answers?

Craig Campbell: It goes back to Schema, HTML5, accessibility, great site structure, and obviously the content that's on your page. It's got to be clear and concise and to the point. Here is what you want it to do - show Google what your answer is. It's not rocket science, you've just got to use the technology out there to give Google the answer and, as I said earlier, there are other parts to that in terms of building up your authority and trust with Google. I would love to claim this next tip as my own but my friend Arnout Hellemans shared it. You can build that trust with Wikinews and Wikidata with the right references. You want to be using other little tricks to make sure Google trusts the answers you're giving. I think that's key over and above the schema and HTML and all that kind of stuff.

Jason Barnard: I really like the phrase “it's not rocket science” - it really isn't. It's all incredibly simple. We’ve got the tools. It's HTML5, it's schema markup. Put that in place so it explains it in a language or in a manner that the machines can easily digest.

Also, you came up with the same comment as Andy. E-A-T. Expertise, authority and trust. We have Marie Haynes on in the third episode - she's got an awful lot to say about it. I'm really keen to hear.

Craig Campbell: Yeah, I think that's obviously the biggest part. And it's the same with SEO. SEO's not that hard as long as you've got the right content in place, the right links, and stuff. None of this is rocket science. Knowing what to implement and where is the key.

Marketer’s approach: Being the “best” and adapting to device specifics

Jason Barnard: This one's for Barry. Whether Google does succeed in giving the best answer or gets very close to it, what opportunities do we have for today and in the future?

QUESTION #6 - Marketers: What opportunities are there today, and for the future?

Barry Schwartz: Right, so the most obvious that you see when you type in a query into Google are those featured snippets, the position zeroes, that you don't even need to be ranked number one in the core search results to be in that featured snippet box at the top. So that's an opportunity for today for core search. But those featured snippets are what Google pulls when you do a search using Google Assistant over voice search or you're talking to your Google Home device and I assume when you talk to Android Auto when you're driving around in your car. Plus these visual displays, smart TVs, the Google Home with a screen on it. We have the Alexa device that has the screen on it as well. We have smart watches. We have all these different types of devices and how information gets portrayed and shown on those is very interesting.

Google just recently came out with speakable markup which I had to deploy on a couple of sites just to play around with it. And it's pretty cool. You just talk to your Google device and it will actually read off an article. And then it says, go to your Google app to go ahead and consume more of that information. To get more of that information, you have a link to that article which people probably never go back to.

So the opportunity for now and the future is not clear. I think what you'll see a lot here is that Google's going to trial a lot of things, remove a lot of features. Google's constantly removing all these types of features like authorship and stuff like that. But you as an SEO and a marketer you need to be on top of this stuff in order to test out and see what Google's direction is.

Keep trying things. Don't be afraid to fail. And those failures will make you better at figuring out what those opportunities are.

Jason Barnard: Great stuff. I like the point that Google tries a lot of stuff, it comes and it goes, with what you're doing on Search Engine Round Table, Barry, you see things come and go, you can see how much turnover there is. And also, I was reading an article the other day about trying and failing. If you don't fail you're never going to learn. I agree, you've got to give it a go.

The players in Understanding the query


Jason Barnard: We have Google and Bing for typed search. And then we have Microsoft, Alexa, Apple and Google for the spoken query. Here's a question for Andy again. We have four major players in understanding the question

QUESTION #7: Is Google losing its place anytime soon?

Andy Drinkwater: No, is my view on this. Google's got the size behind it, it's got the data behind it. I don't think in terms of what Google are doing they're going to be losing out to anybody else at the moment. But I do think that you'll probably see some side-steps as well. If you look at who's leading things in terms of voice shopping, probably Amazon. I know I've got an Alexa at home and I've seen how easy it is to actually purchase something on Amazon via Alexa itself.

Google are the dominant player at the moment. They've got all of the data, so they're not going to be knocked off the top spot if indeed they are on the top spot for voice search. I don't have the data to hand to say that yes they are the number one for everything but I don't think Google have anything major to worry about in terms of the competition.

It's all very new still. There's going to be an awful lot of new testing coming into play as well. And we see the devices expanding as well and they're getting better -  we've got them with screens. That, to me, gives another nice edge to voice search. It takes things to the next level.

So where are things going to go next? There are too many unknowns at the moment to say for sure but, no, I can't see Google losing their place anytime soon.

Players Providing the answer


Jason Barnard: Not as simple as it at first appears. Just look at who's supplying answers to Alexa when they don't have the sources of information, and then look at Google who don't have a shopping solution, the field is actually pretty complicated.

So, Craig, it's a confusing list of players. All those logos vying for a place in understanding and presenting the best available answer...

QUESTION #8: Considering the confusing list of players - what are the short and long-term opportunities?

Craig Campbell: I think short-term commercial opportunities Google My Business and Yelp for local would be the most immediate and obvious answers. Amazon for purchases is another one. But I think in terms of opportunities and who are supplying the answers, I think longer term, Amazon is going to play a major role. They're dominating with purchases and have a hell of a lot of data and will be able to provide some input into the answers.

But personally, I don't think Google will allow other people to run their purchase answer system. I think they will come out with something themselves and obviously, they are very quiet on that front just now but I think they need to get a start and make it work just now.

Looking at who answers are being outsourced is one key just now. That gives us an opportunity to get a headstart and try and figure out how to make the most of the system but I think opportunities are kind of short-term. Long term I don't know how it will all transpire. I think Amazon has got a big part to play in it.

Jason Barnard: Great. So basically Google has got all the answers except shopping and Amazon have got none of the answers except shopping.

Craig Campbell: It would make sense for the two of them to amalgamate ... And work on something together and they may or they may not. So this will be interesting.

Jason Barnard: Yeah, it will be really interesting. And Barry just pointed out that the head of Google went to Apple a year ago. Maybe the game is going to change and Apple are going to make a comeback. Barry?

Barry Schwartz: Yeah, the head of Google Search, who took over after the old head of Google Search left, specialized specifically in AI and using machine learning to improve Google Search left a year ago. He was also very prominent in the voice search and the answers stuff. He left for Apple, obviously to help improve Siri. We'll see how that plays out but obviously, Google is way, way ahead of everybody else at this point.

Episode conclusions

Jason Barnard: Thank you. A quick conclusion from me.

I like the idea that search engines are kind of vertical and answer engines are kind of horizontal. With a search engine, you type in and it gives you a list. A vertical list that you can scroll down and choose. But just one format of result - the blue link. With an answer engine, however, whether it's typed or voice, the playing field is much more horizontal, i.e. you need to optimize for different formats so that you can be present on all these different devices.

Here are some considerations for businesses and marketers…

  1. Can you answer the question?

  2. Is your answer in a suitable format?

  3. Can you feed that answer to the service (Google, Alexa, Bing) i.e. through Yelp, Google, Bing or whatever?

  1. Ensure the service understands you. Whichever service that might be.

  2. Ensure the service sees you as the most credible. That was the E-A-T idea that Craig mentioned.

  3. Provide the content in a format they need. Otherwise, you can never be presented as the best answer because they cannot present you if the format is wrong.

Big last question for Barry.

QUESTION #9: Considering this seismic shift in SEO - should we panic?

Barry Schwartz: Sure, yes, everybody should panic! No, like I said before you should try to blow these things up. Have fun with it, it's new, you'll learn a lot. I wouldn't panic. It's still so new and still so early. I’m not sure you have to worry too much about ranking so well in the answer boxes but it's a fun opportunity for SEOs to explore something beyond the 10 blue links, beyond simple e-commerce, beyond simple analytics. This is going to be a fun time I believe. And already is a fun time for a lot of SEOs. So don't panic. Instead, have fun with it and enjoy it.

Jason Barnard: I like that. That's a great answer - “have fun with it” - definitely something I can relate to.

Thank you to Andy, Barry and Craig for coming along and giving us your insights. It's been really, really enjoyable talking to you and I really appreciate what you all brought to the table. I hope all the audience have taken something away from this webinar.


And I really hope you'll join me for episode two, next Tuesday [11th September], same time. “Voice Search is Changing the Game”. I’ll welcome Dawn Anderson, Juliana Turnbull, and Eric Enge - and that is going to be just as good.