30 Jan 2012

Did Siri Really Kill SEO?

When Apple released the iPhone 4S in November of 2011, one of the biggest splashes was made by its new intelligent speech-recognition user interface, known as Siri. It was only a beta product, imperfect, but it was still impressive in its functionality. It required no “learning” process to use. It simply worked out of the box. More or less.

Some folks dismissed Siri as a mere party trick feature. Others, including some in the search engine optimization (SEO) community, declared it to be the death knell of SEO. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Given this blog is not about party tricks, let’s examine what the advent of Siri means to web search and SEO.


What does Siri do?

First, though, a little background. Siri, a third-party technology acquired by Apple in 2010, requires either an active WiFi or 3G data connection to work. Why? Because the iPhone itself does not power Siri’s responses. The behind-the-scenes horsepower for interpreting speech and returning the desired results or requested action comes from major server resources owned by Apple. The iPhone is merely an intermediary. And in fact, so is Siri. More on that in a moment.

What Siri can do (at least as of this writing) is interesting. It can perform the following tasks for you:

  • Place telephone and FaceTime calls
  • Play music (as long as you have the song in your music library)
  • Send outgoing and read incoming texts
  • Send email
  • Check your calendar
  • Set up meetings
  • Set reminders
  • Set alarms
  • Set timers
  • Look up information from contacts
  • Use Find My Friends
  • Create a note
  • Ask for the time in a different location
  • Ask for a location of a place (shows a static Google Map with Yelp ratings)
  • Ask for driving directions, even showing traffic data (shows an interactive Google Map)
  • Ask for a stock closing price (uses Yahoo!)
  • Ask about the weather (uses Yahoo!)
  • Search the web (uses Google by default; Bing, Yahoo! and Wikipedia results can be requested)
  • Ask specific questions (such as math, measurement conversion, currency exchange and much more; uses Wolfram|Alpha)
  • Make a wise crack (ask it to “open the pod bay doors” – repeatedly!)

Note, however, that while it can perform tasks using some built-in apps, it can’t simply open any specific app, even those built in to IOS 5! As a result, it can’t perform tasks such as sending tweets on Twitter, reading posts in Facebook, and the like. Siri supports several languages, but only partially. As of today, it understands US English, UK English, Australian English, French and German (but not Spanish!). But, more interestingly, it cannot look for any businesses outside of the US, and for people inside the US, you must be configured for US English only. This limitation also applies to maps and traffic queries as well.

The bottom line is that Siri is popular now and, by all appearances, will continue to be so. Its functionality will likely continue to grow as well, and all of this will contribute to the fast growth of the mobile search platform.


So what’s the big deal about SEO?

Many bloggers and industry pundits have decried that SEO (or at least local SEO) is now dead, thanks to Siri. To that I say, “Balderdash” (I would say something stronger, but this is a professional blog). Why am I dismissive of these industry Nostradamuses ? Read on.

Part of Siri’s user popularity is due to the fact that it (usually) provides direct answers rather than a list of links containing answers (although open ended questions leading to search engine queries still provide the standard 10 blue links). The value of direct answers has not been lost on the search engines themselves. Long before Siri was released in IOS 5, both Bing and Google created Instant Answers in their search engine results pages (SERPs). But in Bing and Google, you still have the rest of the SERP to examine.

Not so with Siri results. If you ask Siri, “What is the stock price of Apple?”, Siri gives you one closing bell answer. “What’s the weather for tonight?” You get one forecast. You can even ask “How do you calculate the circumference of a circle?” and get one answer. Truth be told, you really don’t need a full SERP for these types of queries.

But what if you ask Siri an open ended question, such as “What is the best local sushi restaurant?” The resulting restaurant listings (or those concerning any local business) come from Yelp. And if you ask, “How do you drive there?”, that result comes from Google Maps. And asking, “How do you drive a stick shift?” results in a standard Google mobile SERP. You can even tell Siri to “Search Bing for ‘How do you drive a stick shift’” to see a Bing mobile SERP.

The argument for the death of SEO is that Apple is filtering the results for you. You don’t get to choose which answer is best – Apple does that for you. But go back and review the last half-dozen tasks Siri can perform from the earlier list (excepting the wise cracks). The information provided by Siri comes from known Internet data feeds. It’s true that Apple has selected which data feeds to use to provide you with the direct answer. But these feeds include modern targets of online business optimization via SEO.


Local SEO is important, and Yelp is King (for today)

For those who erroneously believe that SEO in 2012 is limited to keywords in <title> tags and submitting links to directories, yeah, I can see why they are panicking. But rest assured, professional SEO now goes far beyond basic, on-page elements. It also covers consistently used business profile data across local search venues, a targeted social media presence, and more.

Of course, having an optimized business profile in Yelp is more important than ever. To get directions to a place from Siri, the place has to be listed in Yelp. But it goes beyond that. If you ask for the closest sushi restaurant, you’ll get Yelp data sorted by distance from your location. But if you ask Siri to find the best sushi restaurant, Siri uses Yelp ratings as the sort factor. If you’re not actively monitoring and managing your Yelp business listing (among other local search venues), you are likely already ceding business to your local competitors.

Developing a comprehensive Google Places profile is important as well. If someone uses Siri to search for your information about your business, your comprehensive Google Places profile will likely be at the top of the SERP. Your accurate business address will enable Google Maps to send people to your door.

And frankly, keyword optimization remains an important SEO factor with Siri searches, as getting in the top 10 listing in a Google SERP will still be important when SERPs are shown (especially when above the “fold” really means positions 1 or 2) . Besides, human speech requests are now search queries, and that opens potential new keyword opportunities. As proof of concept, try using Siri to search for an open ended informational web search and phrase it in multiple ways. You’ll likely find that each request produces different SERP results (I saw this in my testing). Spoken words are still query keywords, and keywords (and their order) still matter in search. Think about which keywords you target, especially in the long tail. Casual speech is typically not as well-formed or formal as written text, and you want to be discoverable for as many possible relevant queries as possible.


What else in Siri matters for search marketing?

The Pay Per Click (PPC) story is still being written as we speak. In my testing, I noted that it was pretty hard to get Siri to show a SERP with PPC ads. Anytime you wanted information about products or services for sale, local businesses, or the like, you got ad-free Yelp results rather than Google SERPs. This diminishes the impact of buying search ads to help drive business, at least on mobile devices. If you work at it, you can get Siri to generate SERPs with PPC ads on the top (not on the side, however), but it was harder than I expected it to be.

Technically, if Google decides that Siri queries are costing it money by not showing SERPs with the full complement of PPC ads in response to popular queries, it could easily decide to block queries from the Apple user agent that runs Siri. At that point, Apple would need to decide whether it can afford to have Google block all iPhone users from accessing its deep, massive search index (including maps) that it depends on now. Then again, can Google strategically afford to abandon providing search services to such a fast-growing market segment as the iPhone? Something’s gotta give.

Some have suggested that Apple will simply become a search engine itself. These folks claim Apple could buy Yelp and other data feeds in order to stop relying on third-party data sources. I frankly find that idea to be absurd. The notion that Apple could become a search engine is simply unfounded. Even if Apple could buy Yelp or some equivalent data sources, such an acquisition does not a search engine make. Apple has no algorithm for ranking content (the Yelp data feed does that for them, as do search engine queries, and the remaining data feeds are single response feeds). Relevance is key to successful search results, and Apple has no known relevance algorithm for ranking content pages, not to mention a search crawler and an indexing engine.

Besides, Apple has always staked its flag in the ground of providing the best possible user experience. Losing access to the Google index and simply relying on secondary or tertiary data feed for Siri searches will certainly degrade the iPhone user experience and disappoint its users to no end. And if Android was the smartphone you needed to buy to access Google data, the potential loss of marketshare threat to the iPhone platform would be even more real for Apple than it is already. On the other hand, Google has to be careful about cavalierly blocking the iPhone platform due to anti-trust concerns. It’s all a big mess.

In the end, we’ll get some sort of agreement to work this out. But in the meantime, we as SEOs and webmasters need to do smart optimization for our online business presences. We need to increase investment in local SEO (not only in Yelp, but Google Places and others – who knows which data feed Apple will adopt next when they expand the Siri functionality?). We also need to continue to develop mobile-friendly websites. And lastly, we need to work on keyword targeting that specifically addresses spoken-word, long tail terms.


Long Live SEO

Is SEO a waste of time, money and effort, now that Siri is here? No. Mobile is indeed becoming a dominant platform for Internet searches. But as you saw in the Siri task list above, Apple is not curating the data feeds it uses, nor are they mysteriously sourced. We know from where they are getting their data.

Ultimately, Siri is not a search engine. It’s just another search interface. SEO can and will adapt to the challenges posed by Siri and all mobile searches just as it always has in the ever-changing search landscape. This work has become even more important when building a discoverable brand on the web, especially when you use interface agents like Siri. SEO is not dead – far from it. In fact, it’s now more important than ever to being found on the web, regardless of the user interface used to search.