As a close partner with Local SEO platform Yext, Blue Moon sent a small army to their recent ONWARD19 conference in New York City. I was lucky enough to be one of those people to talk to other SEO professionals, go to workshops, and learn from thought leaders.

Here are some of my takeaways from my experience at the conference this year:

Site Search & Answers

A theme of the conference this year was The Future of Search, and Yext CEO Howard Lerman kicked off the conference with a keynote speech about exactly that. He chronicled the history of brands on the internet, from its infancy—when users engaged directly with a brand without going through a search engine—to modern-day, where many users can answer their questions using Google’s Knowledge Graph, Google Maps, or some other search engine feature.

Lerman predicted that the future of search would end up looking something like the beginning again, with users relying more heavily on a brand’s internal search bar than a larger search engine. The example he gave was that users wouldn’t be searching “how many calories are in a Big Mac” in Google, but instead going directly to the McDonald’s website, using their site search.

While I have some skepticism about the degree to which future users will be ignoring search engines in favor of internal site search, his keynote did highlight the fact that most internal site search is close to useless. Along those lines, ONWARD19 was the perfect occasion for Yext to announce their new offering: Yext Answers.

Yext Answers helps brands turn their existing data (whether it’s product data, content assets, etc.) into a Knowledge Graph of structured data, then streamlines the internal site search experience to be more useful, leveraging Natural Language Processing to understand users’ questions. I will say that I’m excited to see what Answers is capable of doing in the real world.

Intent, Not Keywords

Another strong motif seen throughout the conference, from a variety of speakers, was the need to focus on user intent, rather than keywords. It was an idea repeated by execs at Yext, SEMrush, and former engineers from Bing and Google.

While keywords give SEOs something concrete and quasi-scientific to rely on, they really only tell a part of a given story. Focusing on intent reveals that users are trying to accomplish a goal, and they are asking a series of questions along the way. These questions will become even more apparent in the future, as younger searchers grow up with Natural Language Processing and never have the need to learn to “speak keyword” to the search bar.

So how do we as SEOs optimize for intent? A good place to start would be your user personas. Who are you actually targeting, and what are their needs, pain points, values, etc.? Having a clear sense of your specific audience and their desires will help you create content that meets their needs before they even start searching for them.

Does this mean the end of keyword research? Probably not. It’s still valuable to use keyword research as a way to discover how searchers phrase certain things and to understand the relative popularity of different topics.

Own Your Knowledge Graph

Google has been building its Knowledge Graph for years in order to better understand and answer complex queries. They have also been encouraging and incentivizing brands to contribute to that knowledge graph through structured data by awarding rich snippets and higher rankings in the SERPs.

Yext Answers helps streamline the process of turning your brand’s data into your own Knowledge Graph, but it’s not necessarily the only way to do that. Implementing structured data on your site helps search engines better understand and index your content, and is the first step towards building your own Knowledge Graph.

Once you’ve built your brand’s Knowledge Graph, you can harness it to improve user experience both in search engines and in your internal site search. You are the expert in your data, and it’s important to use that expertise to structure and describe your data in a way that is useful to others.

From SEO to SPI

One of my favorite talks came from Conductor Co-Founder Stephan Bajaio and was titled “Put the Shiny Object Down.” Bajaio offered a refreshing take on voice search, in an industry that easily gets wrapped up in the hype of new technology. While voice search is an important development, he asserted, we as a society are still visual beings who more often prefer to type than to speak. Additionally, our typing and reading comprehension speeds are much faster than our speech, making voice search inefficient in many cases.

Once he’d set aside the idea that voice search was the future of SEO, Bajaio moved onto his vision of SEO’s fate: the transition from Search Engine Optimization to Search Presence Intelligence, or SPI. For Bajaio, SPI elevates the concept of search beyond simply being a “rank jockey.”

SPI is intended to sit in the middle of your organization and optimize the way your business uses search engine data in order to become a better business. It is less focused on improving rankings, and more focused on improving business practices, using the SERPs as a data source for making those kinds of decisions.

As an example, your brand could see that the SERPs for a lot of their priority keyword themes are displaying videos, and then use that data to create helpful video content targeted at their customer personas. Or, you could use the SERPs to identify which publishers have content ranking highly for your search terms, and then bid for display advertising on those sites, increasing brand awareness for qualified searchers. Neither of these would be possible in a traditional siloed SEO role. However, SEOs are the most familiar with search engine data and the most capable of using it to drive business practices.

Attending conferences like this keep our SEO skills sharp and we always enjoy connecting with other industry experts. Were you at ONWARD19? If so, what was your favorite takeaway?