A recent Google research paper on Long Form Question Answering illustrates how difficult it is to answer questions that need longer and nuanced answers. While the researchers were able to improve the state of the art of this kind of question answering, they also admitted that their results needed significant improvements.
I read this research paper last month when it was published and have been wanting to share it because it focuses on solving a shortcoming in search that isn’t discussed much at all.
I hope you find it as fascinating as I did!
What Search Engines Get Right
This research centers on Long Form Open-Domain Question Answering, an area that Natural Language processing continues to see improvements.
What search engines are good at is called, Factoid Open-domain Question Answering or simply Open-domain Question Answering.
Open Domain Question Answering is a task wherein an algorithm responds with an answer to a question in natural language.
What color is the sky? The sky is blue.
Long Form Question Answering (LFQA)
The research paper states that Long-form Question Answering (LFQA) is important but a challenge and that progress in being able to achieve this kind of question answering is not as far along as Open-domain Question Answering.
According to the research paper:
“Open-domain long-form question answering (LFQA) is a fundamental challenge in natural language processing (NLP) that involves retrieving documents relevant to a given question and using them to generate an elaborate paragraph-length answer.
While there has been remarkable recent progress in factoid open-domain question answering (QA), where a short phrase or entity is enough to answer a question, much less work has been done in the area of long-form question answering.
LFQA is nevertheless an important task, especially because it provides a testbed to measure the factuality of generative text models. But, are current benchmarks and evaluation metrics really suitable for making progress on LFQA?”
Search Engine Question Answering
Question answering by search engines typically consists of a searcher asking a question and the search engine returning a relatively short text of information.
Questions like “What’s the phone number of XYZ store?” is an example of a typical question that search engines are good at answering, especially because the answer is objective and not subjective.
Long Form Question Answering is harder because the questions demand answers in the form of paragraphs, not short texts.
Facebook is also working on long form question answering and came up with interesting solutions like using a question and answer subreddit called Explain Like I’m 5 (a dataset called ELI5). Facebook also admits that there more work to do. (Introducing Long-form Question Answering)
Examples of Long Form Questions
Once you read these examples of long form questions it’s going to be clearer how we’ve been trained by search engines to ask a limited set of queries. It might even seem shocking how almost infantile our questions are compared to long form questions.
The Google research paper offers these examples of long form questions:
- What goes on in those tall tower buildings owned by major banks?
- What exactly is fire, in detail? How can light and heat come from something we can’t really touch?
- Why do Britain and other English empire countries still bow to monarchs? What real purpose does the queen serve?
Facebook offers these examples of long form questions:
- Why are some restaurants better than others if they serve basically the same food?
- What are the differences between bodies of water like lakes, rivers, and seas?
- Why do we feel more jet lagged when traveling east?
Are Searchers Trained to Ask Short Questions for Factoids?
Google (and Bing) have a difficult time answering these long form types of questions. This may impact their ability to surface content that provides complex answers for complex questions.
Maybe people don’t ask these questions because they’ve been trained not to because of the poor responses. But if search engines were able to answer these kinds of questions then people would begin to ask them.
It’s a whole wide world of questions and answers that are missing from our search experience.
If I shorten the phrase “Why are some restaurants better than others if they serve basically the same food?” to “Why are some restaurants better than others?” Google and Bing still fail to provide an adequate answer.
The top Google search result for that question comes from the (HTTP insecure) blog of a Canadian Indian.
Google cites this section of the Indian restaurant in the SERP:
“People pay for the overall experience and not just the food and that is why some restaurants charge much more than others. Restaurant customers expect the prices to reflect the type of food, level of service and the overall atmosphere of the restaurant.”
What if the person had Popeye’s Fried Chicken versus KFC in mind when they asked that question?
There’s a certain amount of subjectivity that can creep into answering these kinds of questions that demands a long and coherent answer.
I can’t help thinking that there’s a better answer out there somewhere. But Google and Bing are unable to surface that kind of content.
Google Uses Signals to Identify High Quality Content
In a How Search Works explainer that Google published in September 2020, Google admits that it does not use the content itself to identify if it is reliable or trustworthy.
Google explains that it uses signals in a blog post titled, “How Google Delivers Reliable Information in Search.”
“…when it comes to high-quality, trustworthy information… We often can’t tell from the words or images alone if something is exaggerated, incorrect, low-quality or otherwise unhelpful.
Instead, search engines largely understand the quality of content through what are commonly called “signals.” You can think of these as clues about the characteristics of a page that align with what humans might interpret as high quality or reliable.
For example, the number of quality pages that link to a particular page is a signal that a page may be a trusted source of information on a topic.”
Unfortunately, that part of Google’s algorithm is unable to provide a correct answer to these kinds of long form questions.
And that’s an interesting and important fact to understand because it helps to be aware of what the limits are to search technology today.
What About Passage Ranking?
Passage Ranking is about ranking long web pages that contain the short answers for normal short queries needing an objective answer.
Martin Splitt used the example of finding a relevant answer about tomatoes in a web page that is mostly about gardening in general.
Passage ranking cannot solve the hard questions that Google currently cannot answer.
Both Google and Bing generally fail to answer LFQA type queries because this is an area that search engines still need to improve.
Hurdles to Progress
The research paper itself acknowledges that shortcoming in the title:
“Hurdles to Progress in Long-form Question Answering“
The research paper concludes by stating that its approach to solving this task “achieves state of the art performance” but that there are still issues to resolve and more research that needs to be done.
This is how the paper concludes:
“We present a “retrieval augmented” generation system that achieves state of the art performance on the ELI5 long-form question answering dataset. However, an in-depth analysis reveals several issues not only with our model, but also with the ELI5 dataset & evaluation metrics. We hope that the community works towards solving these issues so that we can climb the right hills and make meaningful progress.”
Questions and Speculation
It’s not possible to provide a definitive answer but one has to wonder if there are web pages out there that are missing out on traffic because both Google and Bing are not able to surface their long form content in answer to long form questions.
Also, some publisher mistakenly overwrite their articles in a quest to be authoritative. Is it possible that those publishers are over-writing themselves out of search traffic from queries that demand shorter answers since search engines can’t deliver nuanced answers available in longer documents?
There’s no way of knowing these answers for certain.
But one thing this research paper makes clear is that long-form question answering is a shortcoming in search engines today.
Google AI Blog Post
Progress and Challenges in Long-Form Open-Domain Question Answering
PDF Version of Research Paper
Hurdles to Progress in Long-form Question Answering
Facebook Web Page About LFQA
Introducing Long-form Question Answering
How to Write For Google
Are you writing your SEO content based on the latest best practice tips?
I originally wrote this SEO copywriting checklist in 2012—my, how things have changed. Today, Google stresses quality content even more than before, conversational copy is critical, and there are revised SEO writing “rules.”
I’ve updated the list to reflect these changes and to provide additional information.
As a side note, I would argue that there’s no such thing as “writing for Google.” Yes, there are certain things you should do to make the Google gods happy. However, your most important goal should be writing clear, compelling, standout copy that tells a story.
I’m keeping the old headline in the hopes that I can convert some of the “write for Google” people to do things the right way.
Whether you’re an in-house SEO content writer, a DIY business owner, or a freelance SEO copywriter, this 27-point checklist will help you write engaging, Google-happy content—every time.
Items to review before you start your SEO writing project
– Do you have enough information about your target reader?
Your copy will pack a powerful one-two punch if your content is laser-focused on your target reader. Ask your client or supervisor for a customer/reader persona document outlining your target readers’ specific characteristics. If the client doesn’t have a customer persona document, be prepared to spend an hour or more asking detailed questions.
Here’s more information on customer personas.
– Writing a sales page? Did you interview the client?
It’s essential to interview new clients and to learn more about their company, USP, and competition. Don’t forget to ask about industry buzzwords that should appear in the content.
Not sure what questions to ask to get the copywriting ball rolling? Here’s a list of 56 questions you can start with today.
– Writing a blog post? Get topic ideas from smart sources
When you’re blogging, it’s tempting to write about whatever strikes your fancy. The challenge is, what interests you may not interest your readers. If you want to make sure you’re writing must-read content, sites like Quora, LinkedIn, Google Trends, and BuzzSumo can help spark some ideas.
– Did you use Google for competitive intelligence ideas?
Check out the sites positioning in the top-10 and look for common characteristics. How long are competing articles? Do the articles link out to authoritative sources? Are there videos or infographics? Do the articles include quotes from industry experts? Your job is to write an essay that’s better than what’s already appearing in the top-10 — so let the competition be your guide.
– Did you conduct keyphrase research?
Yes, keyphrase research (and content optimization) is still a crucial SEO step. If you don’t give Google some keyphrase “cues,” your page probably won’t position the way you want.
Use a keyphrase research tool and find possible keyphrases for your page or post. As a hint: if you are tightly focusing on a topic, long-tail keyphrases are your best bet. Here’s more information about why long-tail keyphrases are so important.
If you are researching B2B keyphrases, know that the “traditional” keyphrase research steps may not apply. Here’s more information about what to do if B2B keyphrase research doesn’t work.
– What is your per-page keyphrase focus?
Writers are no longer forced to include the exact-match keyphrase over and over again. (Hurray!) Today, we can focus on a keyphrase theme that matches the search intent and weave in multiple related keyphrases.
– Did you expand your keyphrase research to include synonyms and close variants?
Don’t be afraid to include keyphrase synonyms and close variants on your page. Doing so opens up your positioning opportunities, makes your copy better, and is much easier to write!
Are you wondering if you should include your keyphrases as you write the copy — or edit them in later? It’s up to you! Here are the pros and cons of both processes.
— Do your keyphrases match the search intent?
Remember that Google is “the decider” when it comes to search intent. If you’re writing a sales page — and your desired keyphrase pulls up informational blog posts in Google – your sales page probably won’t position.
— Writing a blog post? Does your Title/headline work for SEO, social, and your readers?
Yes, you want your headline to be compelling, but you also want it to be keyphrase rich. Always include your main page keyphrase (or a close variant) in your Title and work in other keyphrases if they “fit.”
– Did you include keyphrase-rich subheadlines?
Subheadlines are an excellent way to visually break up your text, making it easy for readers to quick-scan your benefits and information. Additionally, just like with the H1 headline, adding a keyphrase to your subheadlines can (slightly) help reinforce keyphrase relevancy.
As a hint, sometimes, you can write a question-oriented subheadline and slip the keyphrase in more easily. Here’s more information about why answering questions is a powerful SEO content play.
– Is your Title “clickable” and compelling?
Remember, the search engine results page is your first opportunity for conversion. Focusing too much on what you think Google “wants” may take away your Title’s conversion power.
Consider how you can create an enticing Title that “gets the click” over the other search result listings. You have about 59 characters (with spaces) to work with, so writing tight is essential.
– Does the meta description fit the intent of the page?
Yes, writers should create a meta description for every page. Why? Because they tell the reader what the landing page is about and help increase SERP conversions. Try experimenting with different calls-to-actions at the end, such as “learn more” or “apply now.” You never know what will entice your readers to click!
– Is your content written in a conversational style?
With voice search gaining prominence, copy that’s written in a conversational style is even more critical.
Read your copy out loud and hear how it sounds. Does it flow? Or does it sound too formal? If you’re writing for a regulated industry, such as finance, legal, or healthcare, you may not be able to push the conversational envelope too much. Otherwise, write like you talk.
Here’s how to explain why conversational content is so important.
–Is your copy laser-focused on your audience?
A big mistake some writers make is creating copy that appeals to “everyone” rather than their specific target reader. Writing sales and blog pages that are laser-focused on your audience will boost your conversions and keep readers checking out your copy longer. Here’s how one company does it.
Plus, you don’t receive special “Google points” for writing long content. Even short copy can position if it fully answers the searcher’s query. Your readers don’t want to wade through 1,500 words to find something that can be explained in 300 words.
Items to review after you’ve written the page
– Did you use too many keyphrases?
Remember, there is no such thing as keyword density. If your content sounds keyphrase-heavy and stilted, reduce the keyphrase usage and focus more on your readers’ experience. Your page doesn’t receive bonus points for exact-matching your keyphrase multiple times. If your page sounds keyphrase stuffed when you read it out loud, dial back your keyphrase usage.
– Did you edit your content?
Resist the urge to upload your content as soon as you write it. Put it away and come back to it after a few hours (or even the next day.) Discover why editing your Web writing is so very important. Also, don’t think that adding typos will help your page position. They won’t.
– Is the content interesting to read?
Yes, it’s OK if your copy has a little personality. Here’s more information about working with your page’s tone and feel and how to avoid the “yawn response.” Plus, know that even FAQ pages can help with conversions — and yes, even position.
– Are your sentences and paragraphs easy to read?
Vary your sentence structure so you have a combination of longer and shorter sentences. If you find your sentences creeping over 30 or so words, edit them down and make them punchier. Your writing will have more impact if you do.
Plus, long paragraphs without much white space are hard to read off a computer monitor – and even harder to read on a smartphone. Split up your long paragraphs into shorter ones. Please.
– Are you forcing your reader onto a “dead end” page?
“Dead-end” pages (pages that don’t link out to related pages) can stop your readers dead in their tracks and hurt your conversion goals.
Want to avoid this? Read more about “dead-end” Web pages.
– Does the content provide the reader with valuable information?
Google warns against sites with “thin,” low-quality content that’s poorly written. In fact, according to Google, spelling errors are a bigger boo-boo than broken HTML. Make sure your final draft is typo-free, written well, and thoroughly answers the searcher’s query.
Want to know what Google considers quality content — directly from Google? Here are Google’s Quality Raters guidelines for more information.
– Did you use bullet points where appropriate?
If you find yourself writing a list-like sentence, use bullet points instead. Your readers will thank you, and the items will be much easier to read.
Plus, you can write your bullet points in a way that makes your benefit statements pop, front and center. Here’s how Nike does it.
– Is the primary CTA (call-to-action) clear–and is it easy to take action?
What action do you want your readers to take? Do you want them to contact you? Buy something? Sign up for your newsletter? Make sure you’re telling your reader what you want them to do, and make taking action easy. If you force people to answer multiple questions just to fill out a “contact us” form, you run the risk of people bailing out.
Here’s a list of seven CTA techniques that work.
– Do you have a secondary CTA (such as a newsletter signup or downloading a white paper?)
Do you want readers to sign up for your newsletter or learn about related products? Don’t bury your “sign up for our newsletter” button in the footer text. Instead, test different CTA locations (for instance, try including a newsletter signup link at the bottom of every blog post) and see where you get the most conversions.
– Does the page include too many choices?
It’s important to keep your reader focused on your primary and secondary CTAs. If your page lists too many choices (for example, a large, scrolling page of products), consider eliminating all “unnecessary” options that don’t support your primary call-to-action. Too many choices may force your readers into not taking any action at all.
– Did you include benefit statements?
People make purchase decisions based on what’s in it for them (yes, even your B2B buyers.) Highly specific benefit statements will help your page convert like crazy. Don’t forget to include a benefit statement in your Title (whenever possible) like “free shipping” or “sale.” Seeing this on the search results page will catch your readers’ eyes, tempting them to click the link and check out your site.
– Do you have vertical-specific testimonials?
It’s incredible how many great sales pages are testimonial-free. Testimonials are a must for any site, as they offer third-party proof that your product or service is superior. Plus, your testimonials can help you write better, more benefit-driven sales pages and fantastic comparison-review pages.
Here’s a way to make your testimonials more powerful.
And finally — the most important question:
– Does your content stand out and genuinely deserve a top position?
SEO writing is more than shoving keyphrases into the content. If you want to be rewarded by Google (and your readers), your content must stand out — not be a carbon copy of the current top-10 results. Take a hard look at your content and compare it against what’s currently positioning. Have you fully answered the searcher’s query? Did you weave in other value-added resources, such as expert quotes, links to external and internal resources (such as FAQ pages), videos, and graphics?
If so, congratulations! You’ve done your job.
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