Skip to Content

What is Answer Engine Optimization and How Can It Influence Your Content Strategy?

16 min read

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 all know how important Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is to content marketing and digital strategies. If you are reading this, chances are you have a content creator spending cycles using MarketMuse to optimize your blogpost. As consumer habits and search engine technologies change, Answer Engine Optimization (AEO) has evolved. AEO is a subset or adjunct of (SEO). And like SEO, there is a science as to how it works. 

To understand AEO requires a high-level understanding of how search engines work and what end-users are hoping to gain from them. 

How Search Engines Traditionally Worked

Since the beginning, users typed their search queries into the search bar. In turn, the search engine generated tons of search engine results pages (SERPs), with each page containing links. A person still had to choose a link, click on it, and read the page to find the answer. 

For example, if someone wanted to know the address of a business, you would type in your query and click on a (you think) has the answer you want. Let’s assume the landing page is the home page. From there, a user would look for addresses – which might be hidden under irrelevant words like About or Contact Us. After endless clicking around, the user might finally find the answer. 

The user experience is directly correlated to how much clicking around it took. Looking for a better user experience, Google’s algorithms work by associating the query – with the page most often selected. Of course, that is hard when user queries are only based on a couple of words.  More than half of all queries use only one or two words.  Another 43% use three to five words, 6% have six to nine words, and less than 1% have more than 10 words. 

But that is starting to change. Voice assistants like Siri and Alexa have encouraged people to speaking full sentences to ask questions. Information is retrieved using natural language processing (NLP) to parse voice commands, And while most people aren’t yet typing long queries, search engines are trying to anticipate the questions people might ask.

Providing the answer without people clicking requires an Answer Engine. This has created an adjunct area for digital marketers to consider: Answer Engine Optimization (AEO). 

What Is an Answer Engine

There are actually a couple types of answer engines. One that understands voice commands, such as assistants Siri and Alexa.  answer engine uses machine learning and natural language processing to both understand the user intent of the query – as well as to generate a concise answer.  Search engines like Google and Bing are large language models (LLMS) that have been trained on public data to generate answers. Generative AI (GenAI) is the catchall technology that is being used. 

By serving up the answer, people no longer need to click on anything. This is called zero-click. In some cases the answer is in a box (Knowledge Panel) on the page, or its a featured snippet, or in other cases, the answer is being generated in front of you. 

But wait. If a person doesn’t have to click through to a page any more, doesn’t that eliminate the need for SEO?

No, but it does mean you need to employ new digital marketing tactics.

How Does Answer Engine Optimization Differ From SEO?

AEO comes from Google’s evolution from keyword-driven search to one that uses machine learning and NLP to parse queries and serve content to match intent. Authority, user intent, and topical relevance are key ranking factors. 

Like SEO, AEO still requires content that reflects your expertise. The big difference is Google’s sophisticated search technology now mirrors the way people search. In many cases, that’s a matter of asking questions. As a content creator, you can build a 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. 

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 is crucial for improved ranking potential.

No matter where you start on your path to learning something, doing something, or buying something, Google wants to give you the best content for your query.

How Does Answer Engine Optimization Fit Into Traditional SEO?

The fundamental strategies and tactics you use for traditional 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.

Google Search Console showing list of queries with corresponding clicks and impressions.
Google Search Console

Keyword research tools like SEMrush, MarketMuse, and Ahrefs are great places to surface common 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.

Ahrefs keyword list showing keyword phrases that potentially qualify as questions.

Additionally, you can use MarketMuse Research to find questions people are asking across the internet.

We ran “topic cluster” through our Research application and found specific questions people want answers to.

MarketMuse Research Application

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.

Structured Data

In 2019, 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, refers to the reason and goal of a user’s query on a search engine. There are four different types of search intent: Informational, Navigational, Commercial, and Transactional. 

Sometimes the user intent is 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.”

Often though, the user intent is fractured, or imprecise. Google, in response, serves up content that fulfills many different purposes and even includes SERP features that help users hone their queries.

For example, search the query “CRM Software.” You will see comparison logos (commercial intent), informational content, purchase pages for common CRM solutions. There are also SERP features like: Knowledge Panel, People Also Ask, and People Also Search For.

I mentioned that user intent is imprecise. 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, doesn’t mean you can’t do something different. 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.

“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.

In general, long-tail queries with precise questions tend to be explicit intent, while broad questions show fractured intent. More on that in a bit.

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.

Building Authority

Building authority on a topic, versus just targeting keywords, has gained traction recently. Any answer engine optimization effort has to consider this.

Topic 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. Content strategists that build their topic authority in this way are much more likely to succeed with answer engine optimization.

MarketMuse co-founder Jeff Coyle speaks more on topical authority.

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 Questions, Not Keywords

Don’t only use keywords/search volume as a basis for which questions you should answer. Your topic research will yield some great questions that could capture significant traffic, but volume isn’t the only consideration. Remember, long-tail queries tend to be have explicit intent. So, less volume, but more likely to convert.

  • If your site has an AI chatbot, look through the logs to find common questions.
  • Listen to recordings of demos, discovery calls, and customer support calls to find what prospects want to know. (You should hear very precise questions during these). 
  • Dig through sites like Stack Overflow, Quora, Reddit, or industry-specific message boards to find problems and potential solutions.

There’s a whole wide world of conversations happening outside of the keyword tools. Listen in and combine 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?
  • Commercial : The user wants comparisons. Example: HubSpot vs. PipeDrive, or Best CRM systems
  • Transactional : This telegraphs clear intent to buy. This includes queries that contain words like price, sign-up, download, buy, etc.

AEO typically falls into targeting Know and Know Simple queries. 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?”

MarketMuse search intent breakdown showing percentage of search results according to four categories: info know simple, info know info comparison, and transactional
Search Intent Breakdown

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.

  1. People who just want an answer
  2. 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 front-loading 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?”

MarketMuse heat map plotting related term frequency usage with related topics on the Y axis, Top 20 URL's in the SERP on the Y axis.
MarketMuse Compete Heat Map

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 “content brief example” and “search intent” 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.

What you should do now

When you’re ready… here are 3 ways we can help you publish better content, faster:

  1. Book time with MarketMuse Schedule a live demo with one of our strategists to see how MarketMuse can help your team reach their content goals.
  2. If you’d like to learn how to create better content faster, visit our blog. It’s full of resources to help scale content.
  3. If you know another marketer who’d enjoy reading this page, share it with them via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

Camden is the Content Marketing Manager at MarketMuse. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Diane Burley has three decades experience creating high-impact content at scale. As a published author and seasoned technologist, she translates complex concepts into clear, engaging messaging that connects with audiences. She can help you build a content factory that drives results.