One True Answer and the declining relevance of search and SEO

A few nights ago, my wife asked me to bring her an apple. “There are Envies in the crisper in the refrigerator,” she told me.

“There are Honeycrisps in the bowl on the counter,” I said. I don’t put apples in the refrigerator because grocery stores don’t. But this entirely forgettable exchange led me to ask Google Assistant, “Should I be refrigerating apples?”

It was just a passing question, nothing I would have sat down and Googled. The ease of a single long-press of my Android phone’s home button and asking the question the same way I would an agriculture worker at a farmer’s market let me satisfy this passing curiosity in an instant.

Google Assistant answered in her pleasant yet authoritative voice: “Here’s a summary from Farmers’ Almanac. Apples, pears. You can refrigerate these fruits, but don’t need to. The cold air inside the refrigerator tends to break down their crisp texture. But if you prefer your fruit cold, go ahead and refrigerate.”

The answer also appeared on my smartphone screen under the heading, “18 Foods You Don’t Need To Refrigerate — Farmers’ Almanac.” There was a link to Farmers’ Almanac.

From 10 search result choices to one

And that was it. No top 10 results. A “Search” button linked to more traditional results, but I wonder how many people tap it when One True Answer has already been spoken to them. For those who get the information through a Google Home smart speaker, there is no invitation to explore other sources and assess the different answers. The One True Answer is, indeed, the One True Answer.

To complicate matters, the snippet Google produces (or reads to you via Google Assistant and Google Home) is not always the same One True Answer. I re-queried Google Assistant about refrigerating apples. This time the One True Answer came from Still Tasty, informing me that refrigerating apples immediately after purchase will usually keep them fresh and crisp for one to two months.

Neither Farmers’ Almanac nor Still Tasty dished up wrong answers. But they’re noticeably different. If I want my apples to stay crisp, I would leave them in the bowl on the counter unless I also needed to keep them fresh for six weeks, in which case I wouldn’t, but Google pushed each of those facts as parts of the One True Answer to separate queries.

SEO participation trophies

As conversation increasingly becomes the common interface to information, optimizing for search will decline in relevance. If your content is not the One True Answer, nobody will see it. Ranking number two on a search engine results page will be a little like getting a participation trophy in little league.

This growing problem is even an on-screen issue. Google recently introduced what it calls a “featured snipped,” boxed content that appears at the top of the search engine results page, selected (by algorithm) from the typical 10-item listing. The problem, as articulated by Danny Sullivan in a SearchEngineLand post, is that the One True Answer (a term Sullivan coined) may not only be incorrect, it could spread conspiracy theories and politically-motivated propaganda.

For example, as Sullivan notes, if you type “presidents in the ku klux klan,” the One True Answer lists four presidents — McKinley, Wilson, Harding, and Truman — even though there is no evidence to support the claim. Couple this with Google’s autocomplete feature and you can enter the words “is obama;” one of the results: “is obama planning a coup.” The One True Answer says yes, he is.

Sullivan writes, “Sure, if you scroll a bit further down, you’ll see an ABC News story debunking the rumor. That doesn’t take away from the fact that with all of Google’s search algorithms and machine learning, it decided that some ridiculous conspiracy mongering should be given an enhanced spot.”

The marketer’s One True Answer dilemma

Google seems to have addressed that particular problem, which Sullivan demonstrated on March 5 with a video in which he asked the same question of his Google Home and got the same results. When I tried to duplicate it this morning, Google Assistant merely said, “Here’s the top search result,” and showed me a post titled, “Goole’s featured snippets are worse than fake news,” from something called “The Outline,” which (like Sullivan’s post) reported on the problem. (Or, it could be that so much has been written about the problem that those reports now occupy the top search results.)

Incidentally, I have the Amazon Echo, not Google Home, so I’m not sure how that answer was presented via the smart speaker.

Sullivan suggests that Google could just shut off its snippets, but that would reduce the edge google Home currently has over Amazon’s Echo, which unhelpfully told me, “Hmm. I’m not sure what you meant by that question,” when I asked if I should refrigerate apples. According to Sullivan, “Google will likely tolerate the occasional bad attention for its problematic One True Answers for what it considers the greater good to its users and its competitive standing in keeping them.”

If so, marketers will continue to be faced with the SEO dilemma. It’s not a big issue at this moment with the vast majority of searches still taking place on devices that produce top-10 results pages. The shift to the conversation interface is coming, though. Gartner predicts that “by 2020, the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse.” (For some reason, 2020 sounds a lot farther off than less than three years.) Brands that got good at making sure their content made it into the top search results will have a far more difficult task when One True Answer is all people hear — and that answer could be wrong, even dangerously wrong.

It could also be right, which might be equally problematic for companies. I asked Google Assistant if ExxonMobil is a big polluter. The One True Answer was PolluterWatch’s ExxonMobil listing, which ranked the company #2 in historic greenhouse gas emissions. I’m sure that will make ExxonMobil none too happy. Will they be able to work some kind of black-hat SEO magic to get voice a more favorable One True Answer? When our searches produced a list of 10 options, at least we could see at a glance that there were varying views. When querying a smart speaker, we’ll not only get just the One True Answer, we’re bound to ask a lot more questions because it’s just so damn easy.

One solution for businesses is to create and market a “skill” for the Alexa ecosystem or an “Action” for the Google Home. Good Housekeeping and Tide have both created Alexa skills to help you remove dozens of different kinds of stains. If you enable the Tide skill and six months later stain your carpet with hair dye, odds are you’ll remember the Tide skill was available. Likewise, if you carry a CapitalOne credit card and enabled the skill, you’ll get used to asking, “Alexa, ask CapitalOne how much I spent at Starbucks this week?”

Skills and Actions to the rescue…or not

On the other hand, as marketing consultant and author Shelly Palmer noted in a video, asking Alexa to ask Church Cal what the homily is for this week means remembering that Church Cal was the skill you enabled. If you use it every week, that’s not a big deal, but if it occurs to you six months after you enabled it, you might struggle to remember the name of the service. Tide faces much less of a challenge than Church Cal does in getting people to find the skill in the first place and remember it’s enabled thereafter.

Retention is also an issue. Only 3% of people who activate an Alexa Skill or Google Home Action keep using them after two weeks, according to a report from VoiceLabs, compared to 13% for Android apps and 11% for iOS apps. I suspect that’s because there was little useful or memorable about the most of the skills marketers have hastened to create so far. While you may make regular use of the WebMD skill, you probably won’t keep using “Nerdy Pickup Lines” (example: “Is your name WiFi? Cause I’m feeling a connection.”)

There’s little time — 33 months, if Gartner’s prediction is right — for marketers and communicators to prepare for the shift to conversational computing when we’ll all be talking to our smart speakers, smartphones, cars, and other objects and getting spoken responses (including One True Answers). Nobody will want to enable a brand’s skill just so a company can advertise to them. Like Tide helping you get rid of stains or CapitalOne letting you get information from your account, your skill needs to be useful (or entertaining). You need to figure out how you’ll overcome the One True Answer dilemma, both — by increasing the likelihood that people will hear your answer — and by overcoming wrong or inflammatory answers they might hear instead that could lead people to believe misinformation and besmirch your brand.

Eventually, with advances in Artificial Intelligence, the conversational interface will get dramatically better. Until then, these are issues to grapple with. Even if you haven’t even considered how your company might take advantage of smart speakers, odds are they’re already having an impact on your brand’s marketing messages and its reputation.