Ever since the very first search engines in the 1990s, searching the web has been something you do with a keyboard.
But over the last two years or so, that’s beginning to change. And that’s a huge development in the world of SEO, and for technology in general.
Voice recognition capabilities have become incredibly accurate. This means that you can do a Google or Bing search by simply asking your smartphone or another device, verbally. Once confined to the realm of sci-fi, we now have devices that can respond to spoken questions.
Earlier this year, venerable business publication Forbes proclaimed that 2017 would be “The Year of Voice Search.” Perhaps that was hyperbole, but it’s actually not too far off. Voice search is taking off in a really big way, and it’s happening fast.
People use apps like Siri, Cortana, and Google Now — as well as smart home devices like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home — to perform voice searches. The ongoing rise of voice search is something that’s going to be incredibly important for SEO.
Not only will we continue to optimise for traditional text-based searches, but now, we must also consider optimising for voice search.
You might even find yourself saying “OK, Google” to your Android phone on a daily basis, activating voice search. It’s an intuitive and convenient new way to search the web.
Voice search isn’t all that new, technically speaking, but it was only recently that it reached the level of sophistication that we enjoy today. Back in the ‘90s, the leading company for voice recognition software was Dragon.
Their first product, Dragon Dictate, debuted in 1990. It cost over £7,000. By 2001, Dragon’s products were more affordable and widely used, but they still had about 80% accuracy. Individual users also had to train the program.
In the early 2010s, Siri and Google Now started to take off. Google Voice Search was introduced in 2010, and originally, you had to call a phone number in order to use it.
At this point, voice recognition software has gone from a pricey niche product with a lot of flaws, to something that’s both ubiquitous and highly accurate. Google Voice Search is central to Google Now, and it faces off with competitors like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.
This marks a big technological development. It’s also affecting consumer search behavior, as people use voice search more often.
Google Voice Search is the function that allows you to search via a spoken command, as well as by typing. It’s available on both desktop browsers and mobile devices. To activate it, all the user needs to do is say “OK, Google,” then ask their question.
In 2016, voice searches made up 10% of all internet searches. That percentage is projected to continue to grow, as voice search becomes more and more accurate and usable. Google Voice went from an 80% accuracy rate in 2013, to a current accuracy rate of over 95%.
So how does voice search actually differ from text searches? One of the biggest differences tends to be in the way that people word things. For example, you might type “best plumber Kent” into Google, but if you’re using Google Now on your phone, you’re not going to speak that particular string of words. It’s not grammatically sound.
People speak naturally when they conduct a voice search, so their wording is quite conversational in nature. This leads to queries that are longer, and in many cases, a bit more nuanced.
It’s the difference between “toilet repair near me” in a text search, versus saying “my toilet is leaking and I need a plumber” to your smartphone.
On top of this, voice-activated assistants like Siri on an iPhone, or Alexa in someone’s home, can actually kind of “skip over” a traditional Google search completely.
Instead of typing “order pizza online Pizza Hut” into Google, you can actually just have Google Now or Siri orders you a pizza from Pizza Hut or another pizza chain.
This marks a significant change in the way people go about buying products and services through the internet.
So what can businesses do to succeed in this new voice search landscape? Here are a few factors that may be worth focusing on.
- Naturalistic keyword phrases. As I mentioned, people tend to speak naturally when conducting a voice search. This is especially true of younger people who are “digital natives.” So, this could mean you might want to optimise for relatively long keyword phrases that reflect the patterns of natural speech. In addition to optimising for “widgets,” you might also want to optimise for longer, more voice-friendly keywords, like “cheapest place to buy widgets.”
- Question keywords. This is another manifestation of the fact that people tend to speak naturally for voice searches. People are usually more likely to do a search in the form of a question on voice search than traditional search. On their laptop, someone might type “President of France.” But if they’re using voice, they’re probably going to ask, “Who is the President of France?” These keywords in question format are something that you can try to optimize for.
- More specific search intent. One of the great things about the “natural” structure of voice search queries is that they often indicate a pretty clear search intent. You can optimise for valuable question phrases. For example, if you own an Indian restaurant that offers takeaway, you could optimise for searches like “Where can I get Indian takeaway nearby?” Unlike text searches, voice searches tend to include “filler words” like “the,” “for,” and “in,” which people may omit in a text search.
- Used for local search. Local searches are the context in which people are the most likely to use voice search instead of typing something into Google. If they need to call a plumber to fix something, or they want to order takeaway, there’s a good chance they’re going to use their smartphone’s voice search feature. This means that for local businesses, in particular, adapting to voice search is going to be very, very important in the near future.
- Used for quick answers. People also tend to use voice search when they need a quick, simple answer to a question — rather than in situations where they’re looking for long, in-depth text content. This can mean they may not want to click through to your website — instead, they want to get their answer in Google’s answer box or click a “call now” button. This actually has a very large impact on rankings for third party sites, like Yelp or TripAdvisor. Keeping your NAP (name, address, phone number) and third party listings up to date is going to become even more important for local brick and mortar businesses.
The rise of voice search is also complicated, from an SEO perspective, by the fact that a lot of these searches are being made in a way that doesn’t even involve a screen. Home-based “personal assistants,” like Alexa and Google Home, have become increasingly popular. Smartphone voice searches can also deliver an audio response, meaning the consumer doesn’t even need to look at a traditional SERP (search engine results page).
Experts are predicting that by 2021, a full 30% of searches may be carried out without the use of a screen. Many of these searches will consist of questions people ask Alexa or similar products.
Voice search is still a pretty new thing, and no one’s entirely sure how it’s going to affect SEO yet. We haven’t yet established a definite, tried-and-true set of strategies that are guaranteed to make sure a website ranks in voice searches.
But as we’ve mentioned, there are some factors that are unique to voice search, as opposed to text search.
The rise of voice search doesn’t mean you’re going to have to suddenly overhaul your entire approach to SEO. But it might be wise to start making a few small changes here and there, to gradually adapt as voice searches become more common.
For example, the natural language people use to conduct voice searches means that longtail keywords are even more important now. This is especially true of keywords in the form of a question. You can use tools like Answer the Public to get an idea of the kinds of questions your audience might be asking.
These naturally spoken questions will become increasingly common, as voice search becomes more widespread. It will also be important to start thinking about exactly how people refer to your product or your service in everyday speech. The way people speak isn’t always identical with the way they write, especially when it comes to searching the web.
So what are some actionable steps you can take?
- If you’re a local business, make sure your site is optimised, and that your name, address, and phone number are consistent across multiple third party sites (Yelp, TripAdvisor, local directories, etc.)
- For local businesses, it will become even more important to focus on “near me” queries, as this type of phrasing is quite common in voice searches.
- Create content that focuses on answering questions.
- Optimise for Google Featured Snippets. When Siri or Google Now answer a spoken question, they’ll say something like “According to [name of website].” This is a great opportunity to reinforce brand awareness.
- Add relevant schema markup. This part is a little bit technical, but it’s basically a way to let Google know exactly what your site is about. For example, it can make sure the search engine “knows” that your site is about Madonna the artist, not the religious figure.
- Make sure your website is truly mobile-friendly. This means it loads fast on a smartphone, and also that it provides a good user experience on mobile devices.
As voice search becomes more and more common, especially for local queries, it will become an increasingly central focus for effective SEO strategies. We’re on the cusp of some pretty big changes in consumer search behavior.
Elements like the ability to search without ever looking at a screen, and the ability to bypass a traditional Google search to order something directly from a smartphone or home assistant, are also poised to have a significant effect on the way people use search engines.
It’s not clear yet exactly what the future may hold, but one thing’s for sure: voice search is here to stay.
If you’re not quite sure how to optimise effectively for voice searches, feel free to reach out to me anytime at Finetune Digital. I’m always happy to give a quick consultation that will point you in the right direction.