Answer Engine Optimization is a subfield of Search Engine Optimization in which content marketers create content that provides direct answers to searchers’ specific questions. Although it’s an integral part of a content strategy it’s not a silver bullet. Think beyond keywords and consider user intent fracture. Structure content to lead with value and make sure your answers cover the whole buyer’s journey.
We don’t just search on our desktops anymore. Voice assistants, mobile devices, tablets, and wearables all aid us in our moments of informational need. It’s not about sifting through 10 blue links to find what we need.
We know what we want, and we want it now.
As consumer behaviors relative to search have changed, so too have the demands on content and SEO teams. When searchers ask questions, we want to be the ones who give the answers.
That’s why Answer Engine Optimization (AEO) has come into its own as a specific subfield of SEO and content strategy.
AEO seems straightforward enough, and the basics of it are. Still, it’s essential to understand how it fits into a broader content strategy and how you can be the source of information when your target audience asks its most burning questions.
AEO comes from Google’s evolution from a keyword-driven search engine to one that uses AI, machine learning, and NLG to parse search queries, understand the intent and context behind them, and serve content that matches the user’s intent.
Google’s increasingly sophisticated search technology mirrors changes in the way people search. With the rise of mobile and voice search, people started asking more and more complicated questions to Google, hoping to find the exact answer they were looking for.
Over time, as Google’s understanding of natural language and growth of its knowledge graph expanded, traditional ranking signals like the coveted backlink, the once-powerful meta tag, and stuffing exact match keywords into your title tag have declined in prominence. Authority, user intent, and topical relevance were on the ascent as ranking facilitators.
That’s not to say link building, technical SEO, and other SEO-related tasks don’t matter. They do. It’s just that authoritative, expert content that helps Google provide a correct answer for each query has become a focal point for improved ranking potential.
In fact, Google is taking this so seriously that it recently launched a Question Hub so people can write answers for questions directly in an interface that Google owns.
Some say that search engines are becoming answer engines. To a great extent, that’s true. But it might be a little reductive.
I’d like to venture that Google might be better described as a discovery engine.
No matter where you start on your path to doing something, learning something, or going somewhere, Google wants to help you by giving you the best content for your query so you can get to the next step and achieve whatever goal you have.
In many cases, that’s a matter of answering questions. As a content creator, you can build a formidable library of resources just by answering questions. AEO is an integral part of SEO, and as we’ll see, doing it right can be a significant source of authority, traffic, and reader engagement.
How the Rise of Mobile and Voice Search Influenced Answer Engine Optimization
Before tackling AEO in-depth, it helps to understand the context of how we got here.
Mobile and voice search irreversibly changed the nature of search engines. By 2019, 52.6 percent of web traffic was mobile, per data from Statista.
As consumer mobile devices became more ubiquitous, website owners had to consider fitting their online experiences to this new medium. Google and other search engines were no different.
Google had to think about how to best present search results to mobile users. This led to two significant constraints:
- Smaller screen sizes
- The mobile context
SERPs can’t be served on mobile in the same manner as they are on desktop – they need to be condensed. Beyond that, the mobile searcher’s context is generally vastly different from that of a desktop searcher.
Mobile searches tend to be highly location-based or utilitarian. According to eMarketer, 69 percent of consumers search for product reviews and information on their phones before purchasing.
In other cases, people search with a specific need in mind, and often, they’re asking specific questions. They want to know the “best restaurants near me” or “why is my boiler making a loud noise?”
In return, they don’t want to sift through search results on that tiny screen. They want relevant information delivered fast.
Voice search followed a similar and overlapping trajectory.
Additional research from Narvar showed that voice search played a role throughout consumers’ entire purchasing journey. Per their study, 51 percent of voice searchers use it to research products, 36 percent use it to add items to their shopping lists, and 17 percent used it to reorder items.
Voice search changed the relationship between searchers and search engines. When you ask a digital assistant a question, it can’t serve you ten blue links or multiple answers. That would be a bad user experience. With voice assistants acting as answer engines, they need to provide one definitive answer to your question.
If you ask Siri or Alexa, “How many ounces are in a cup?” you don’t want to be inundated with different sources. You just expect the one correct answer so you can get back to baking or cooking.
The inclusion of and emphasis on mobile and voice-friendly results has changed how SEO and content teams have to approach their question-focused content. As both devices gain traction among a broader consumer base, content teams will need to factor them in to improve discoverability and user experience.
How Does Answer Engine Optimization Fit Into SEO?
We know AEO is essential, but how can we implement it into our strategies to capture this traffic?
The first thing to know is that AEO isn’t meant to be a direct replacement for SEO. It’s also not a radically different practice.
The fundamental strategies and tactics you use for SEO will still have a lot of relevance in the work you do for AEO. Let’s look at how AEO can fit into some everyday SEO tasks.
Topic and Keyword Research
A great starting point for your answer engine optimization efforts would be to research a topic by looking for specific questions people ask.
There are a few ways to go about this. Of course, your Google Search Console dashboard is a great place to find questions for which your domain is already ranking in Google Search.
Keyword research tools like SEMrush and Ahrefs can also be a great place to surface questions about your topic. Simply search for a broad topic and sort for questions – both tools make it easy to extract questions from a list of keywords. You can also search for question modifiers like “what is,” “how-to,” and so on.
Additionally, you can use MarketMuse’s Questions application to find questions people are asking across the internet.
In this example, we ran “topic cluster” through our Questions application and found specific questions people want answers to.
We can answer these questions in an article all about topic clusters, as we already have, or break them out into articles designed to answer each specific question as we did with our article “How to Build a Comprehensive Topic Cluster.”
MarketMuse makes it easy to connect Questions research with actually executing on the piece. Use the Questions application to find relevant questions. Then run them through Research, Compete, and Optimize applications. You’ll find related topics to include in your answers, plus gaps in your competitors’ responses.
In 2019, Schema.org released new structured data specifically focused on FAQ, How-to, and Q&A questions.
By implementing this structured data on your pages, you could increase your chances of capturing Google’s rich results – Featured Snippets, People Also Ask, Knowledge Panels, etc. – and getting prominent placement on Google Assistant.
We won’t get into implementing this structured data here – Google’s documentation should suffice for that.
What’s important to remember is that if you’re focusing heavily on AEO, you’ll have to be sure to add these structured data types to the relevant pages. While recent research from Moz showed that Featured Snippets are declining, structured data is still vital for many other SERP features. If those are relevant to your goals, don’t forget them.
SERP Features and Intent Fracture
User intent is a vital part of AEO.
User intent, sometimes known as search intent or keyword intent, refers to the reason and goal of a user’s query on a search engine. For example, a person might want to learn more about a topic, find a nearby place, or buy products.
Sometimes the user intent is unified or explicit. This means that the user has a clear purpose, and the search result reflects that. Examples include searches like “What size hubcaps go on a 1972 Ford Pinto?” or “Thai restaurants near me.”
Sometimes the user intent is fractured. This is where a user’s query could have multiple goals. Google, in response, serves up content that fulfills many different purposes and even includes SERP features that help users hone their queries.
One example is “CRM software.” If you search this query, you get comparison pages, informational content, purchase pages for common CRM solutions. You also get SERP features like a Knowledge Panel, People Also Ask, and People Also Search For boxes.
The important thing to know about user intent is that it can be deceptive. Sometimes a SERP looks like it’s serving just one purpose. The results for “SEO software,” for example, show mostly comparison pages on sites like G2, Capterra, etc.
But just because Google favors one intent, it doesn’t mean your content should just try to serve that intent.
What does this have to do with AEO?
When answering questions, it’s important to understand if the question is an explicit or fractured intent query. If it’s the latter, how is it fractured?
“What is the sequel to ‘A New Hope?’” – that’s explicit intent. There’s one right answer.
“How do I start a garden?” – that’s fractured intent. There’s no one right answer to this, and the SERP shows it with a variety of features and different types of content. In this case, your content needs to account for the fracture by answering the question in-depth.
We’ll dive deeper into determining intent fracture in a bit. As a general rule of thumb, longer queries with precise questions tend to be explicit intent, while broad questions show fractured intent.
The idea of building authority on a topic, rather than just targeting keywords, has gained a lot of traction over the past few years. Any answer engine optimization effort has to take this into account.
It’s not just about link building. Links are important, but topical authority is more about breadth and depth of coverage on a topic. If you were covering a broad topic like “content marketing,” you would also cover related topics like blogging, SEO, content calendars, keyword research, and more.
Sites that build their topical authority by producing a wide breadth of in-depth content on a topic and its relevant subtopics are much more likely to succeed with answer engine optimization.
If you want to learn more about topical authority, check out this interview featuring our co-founder Jeff Coyle.
What to Keep in Mind Before You Take on Answer Engine Optimization
AEO is an integral part of a content strategy, but it’s not a silver bullet that will suddenly get you the results you need. Here are some things to keep in mind before you start on an AEO strategy.
Think Beyond Keywords
Don’t only use keywords/search volume as a basis for which questions you should answer. Your keyword and topic research will definitely yield some great questions that could capture significant traffic, but that’s not the only source of questions.
If your site has a chatbot, look through the chat logs to see which questions people continually ask about your products or company.
Listen to recordings of demos and discovery calls that your salespeople conduct to find what prospects want to know. Do the same with customer support teams to service the post-purchase side of the customer journey.
Dig through sites like Stack Overflow, Quora, Reddit, or industry-specific message boards to find what people want to know about their problems and potential solutions.
There’s a whole wide world of conversation happening outside of the keyword tools. Go find it, use it for inspiration, and combine it with a deep understanding of your target audience to create useful content.
Consider User Intent Fracture
There are several different ways to classify user intent. The most common are the following:
- Know Simple: The query has a straightforward answer usually presented in a knowledge card—example: The president of the United States.
- Know: The user wants in-depth information on the desired topic. Example: What is content strategy?
- Transactional: The intent is to perform some web-mediated activity. This includes queries that contain words like sign-up, download, buy, etc.
- Comparison: The user wants to compare two entities. Example: HubSpot vs. PipeDrive.
AEO typically falls into targeting Know and Know Simple queries. Being able to tell if a query is one or the other or has elements of both thanks to intent fracture is crucial.
Manually calculating intent fracture is laborious and time-consuming. One way to get it done for you is to use Project Cards within MarketMuse. There, you can find the intent fracture of any topic you add to your inventory.
Here’s the intent fracture for the question, “what is a topic cluster?”
We can see here that the primary user intent is “Know Simple.” People just want to get a straight answer to their question.
But look at the fracture here – 45 percent of the SERP is content that MarketMuse classifies as “Know.” This is similar to Know Simple but signifies that almost half the content on this topic goes deeper than just a simple answer.
If it was a 100% Know Simple query, we could get away with a short, basic answer.
In this case, we need to have a page that answers the core question upfront while exploring the topic in greater detail for those with the intent to learn more.
Hear from one of MarketMuse’s Machine Learning Research Engineers, Ahmed Dawod, on how we classify user intent at scale.
Structure Your Content To Lead With Value
As we mentioned above, you have two potential audiences with question-focused content.
- People who just want an answer
- People who want an answer and want to dive deeper into the topic.
Both users and search engines benefit from you giving away the answers upfront. Lead with the value, write clearly and without keyword stuffing, and let users decide if they want to continue once they get that initial answer. Even if you’re building a pillar page on a topic, frontload that value for skimmers and people who want quick answers.
Keep that in mind when you’re building a content brief for question content.
Answer Questions, But Cover the Whole Buyer’s Journey
Content that answers specific questions may perform well in search, as well as boost vanity metrics like how many Featured Snippets you’ve captured, but there’s more to content strategy than just answering questions.
Ultimately, you want your website visitors to take action, whether it’s downloading an asset, booking a demo, signing up for a trial, going to comparison pages, or any other desirable next step.
That’s why AEO should be seen as just a part of a broader SEO and content strategy. It’s not enough to have a site full of “they ask, we answer” type pages. To build authority and depth on a topic, you also need to have a strong foundation of content across all stages of your buyer’s journey.
That leads to another potential pitfall of AEO: focusing too much on answering questions that map to top-of-funnel search queries.
These can be great, but if you’re simply answering high-level questions and not thinking about how to pull those users down the funnel with other content types, you’ll have an AEO and SEO strategy that’s siloed from your business goals.
If you’re putting out a lot of question-focused content but aren’t seeing results, check that you’re taking a balanced approach and producing other types of content as well. Questions are part of building a content cluster, not the whole thing.
Write for Information Gain
When you’re answering questions, it’s also critical to find ways to write for information gain. When you’re creating question-focused content, you’re likely competing with several other domains that have answered the same question. How do you stand out?
It’s not a matter of being a straight-up contrarian and telling people they’re wrong. It’s also not about padding your answer with fluff.
It’s about frontloading the direct answer searchers need while also covering angles and ideas your competitors may not have thought of.
One way to do that quickly and efficiently is by using MarketMuse’s Compete application. Enter the question you want to answer in the “Enter topic” bar, and look at the Competitive Heatmap.
For example, here’s part of the Heatmap for the question, “What is a Content Brief?”
We can see here that if we read left to right, there’s a lot of red and yellow. That means most of the top-ranking pages aren’t covering these related topics. If we wanted to optimize our piece of content on the subject for information gain, we could include related topics like “Campaign goals,” “brand assets,” and “copywriters” in the narrative.
MarketMuse helps you identify topics to write about in a way that covers the entire buyer’s journey – from high-level, problem-focused questions to in-depth comparison guides. Our topic modeling technology makes it simple to take a topic that’s important to your business. Find the subtopics you need to cover to be comprehensive and write authoritatively on all of them.
Answer questions comprehensively, and then think about how they fit into a more comprehensive cluster. Make connections to other areas on the topic via internal links and CTAs, create different types of content, and think broadly about how you can answer not just the question the user initially asked but their next five questions.
If you’re unsure where to get started on your content strategy, check out our Content Strategy Crash Course.