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The future of user intent? Listen to the voice

User intent is a hot topic right now for SEO and content marketing. But with AI, voice recognition and other disruptive technologies entering the mainstream, how can businesses ensure that they continue to serve up great content that meets the needs of their online audience?

First a recap. At its most fundamental level, user intent is about directing an end-user towards web content that matches their need as closely as possible. Search keywords are important, but user intent goes one step further, trying to understand the context of a query and so better serve up pages that are genuinely useful.

Most SEO professionals talk about three types of intent:

Go (or navigational): Where the user wants to reach a particular website

Know (informational): Finding information, typically related to a keyword

Do (transactional): Usually related to buying something online

User intent is also the bridge between SEO and content. On the one hand it requires copywriters and designers to create pages that answer specific needs. On the other, there’s an opportunity for content to shine, most often when we talk about ‘surprising and delighting’ visitors.

The downside? In the past we’ve seen content providers ‘grey-hat’ the system. A classic example comes from sports where people frequently request the start time of an event, or how to watch the game online.

Instead of providing a one- or a two-line answer, online newspapers would bury the relevant information within a page stuffed with key-word rich content and ads. Getting to the top of a simple results page meant plenty of traffic for the publisher, but little satisfaction for a user looking for the nearest sports bar.

Google’s response comes in the form of more user-friendly serps (search engine results pages). New features include Rich Answers, the call out box at the top of the results page that responds to a direct question.

You’ll also see knowledge panels to the right of the main results, top image results and vertical search which runs along the top of the page and contains different formats including web pages, video, and images.

The structure of a results page will vary, depending on intent. Enter, a ‘know’ question such as ‘what is the time in Chicago’ and you’ll get an aforementioned Rich Answer followed by a list of related questions under the heading, ‘People also ask’.

As simple question returns a ‘Rich Answer’ at the top of the results page

But simply enter ‘Chicago’ and Google pulls together an eclectic mix of pages, including highly recommended activities in the city generated by Google review scores.

Results page layout is also determined by your device. ‘Chicago’ on a smartphone returns more travel related content with headings and other context even more targeted at visitors rather than researchers.

Less precise searches return more eclectic content

Crying out for emotional content

So far, so SEO. But for content teams this stuff is crucial. As Google refines its algorithms and search engine results pages, so marketing teams need to refine their content.

As a starting point, look at how your keywords influence page results and reverse engineer this research into your content calendar.

Do you need more video content? (probably), are top ten lists still popular? (yes), shorter paragraphs so that Google can extract your copy as answers to common questions (definitely).

I’ve heard some content managers gripe that this is just another example of the search engine tail wagging the marketing dog. But I don’t agree. Rather than just keywords, Google search results offer more detailed insights into the needs of visitors especially the structural elements that can propel an article up the page.

Looking further ahead, we need to look at a broader definition of user intent, one that embraces voice recognition. For example, a company called Webempath claims that its algorithm can recognize emotion by ‘analyzing the physical properties of your voice’.  

Affectiva, a spin off from MIT, can determine anger in a voice in less than 1.5 seconds, meaning that it is almost as fast as a human being hearing the same sound. Another startup called Cogito uses AI to listen to military veterans with PTSD and then recommends whether they need help or not.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon has also invested heavily in this technology. In an interview with VentureBeat, Amazon Alexa senior applied science manager, Chao Wang, says that “emotion can be described directly by numerical values along three dimensions: valence, which is talking about the positivity [or negativity] of the emotion, activation, which is the energy of the emotion, and then the dominance, which is the controlling impact of the emotion.”

In short, Alexa will soon be able to detect the fundamental emotions in your voice: Anger, disgust, happiness, fear, sadness and surprise. Useful for the above-mentioned military and emergency services, but problematic when it comes to households, or the workplace for that matter.

But let’s examine a few scenarios anyway. What if Alexa could tell that you needed a day off or a holiday from the sound of your voice? Or that you sounded like you needed cheering up?

What if it knows you are happy (research shows you are much more likely to part with your cash when you are smiling)?

Put it another way, if a connected heart monitor can be used for remote diagnosis, why not use voice recognition to assess your state of mind?

Ok, in 2019 it all sounds a bit sinister, but I think that the concept of emotion-driven user intent is still critical to content managers as well as SEO professionals. And that’s great news for any creative. All of us – copywriters, designers, videographers – understand the push-pull dynamics of emotional content.

If nothing else, the potential of voice recognition and emotion detection reminds us that at the end of the day, we’re responding to human needs, not just keywords and algorithms.

And long may that continue.


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