How voice search is changing SEO - and what to do about it

All articles | Strategy
Published Oct 08, 2019 | Written by Katie Hughes

Voice search is growing at a rapid pace. By 2020, 50% of all search queries will be initiated by voice.

This trend is hardly surprising. Voice search is fast (3.7 times faster than typing) and convenient. Plus, with the best systems now operating with 95-97% accuracy, it’s becoming increasingly reliable.

Most smartphones are equipped with some form of voice-assisted search function, such as Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. At home, smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home are becoming integrated into family life.

As we lead busier lives than ever before, voice search is increasingly becoming part of our daily routine. The stats back it up too - 41% of adults and 55% of teenagers use voice search more than once a day.

But inevitably, all of this is having an impact on SEO.

The difference between voice search and traditional search

Traditionally, the way Google works has been pretty simple. You type in a query and are presented with thousands of answers to your question. You know the first few search results are likely to be the most accurate and relevant, so you select one of those. Perhaps you click through to another if you’re dissatisfied with the answer you first land on.

But voice search technologies provide you with one single answer to your question - therefore saving you time and the hassle of having to root around for the most helpful answer.

We can see how Google is trying to replicate this on the web too. The answer to your question will now often come up before you’ve even finished typing it. Try typing “Who’s the prime minister of Australia?” or "What's the capital of Peru?" into Google - your answer will appear right there in the search box.

In an article for Wired, James Vlahos writes, “The move toward one-shot answers has been just slow enough to obscure its own most important consequence: killing off the internet as we know it. The conventional web, with all of its tedious pages and links, is giving way to the conversational web, in which chatty AIs reign supreme.”

But what impact is this having on the companies wanting to be found online?

How voice search works

Before we can answer that question, it pays to understand how voice search works. Where do Alexa, Siri and other AIs get their answers from?

Here's how it works with Alexa. When you ask Alexa a question, the device, e.g. Amazon Echo, records your voice and sends that over the internet to Amazon’s Alexa Voice Services (AVS), which translates the recording into commands it understands. Then, the system sends the relevant output back to your device in an audio file, which is what you hear.

As Alexa is primed to respond with just one single answer, the emphasis is on providing 100% accuracy. Alexa will not deliver an answer to a voice search query unless it has been proven accurate, and this is why you’ll sometimes hear her say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know that one.”

Of course, accurate and relevant don't always mean the same thing... which is why you sometimes get answers that although technically correct, aren't quite what you were looking for!

Though we can’t ever be sure of the exact formulas used by these voice search technologies, we do know that in the pursuit of accurate and relevant responses, they will only report the top results from Google (in other words - the most accurate and reputable sources).

This makes being at the top of the search engine results pages even more important than ever.

How to optimise for voice search

Businesses who’ve worked hard to master the art of SEO to make them appear higher in the search rankings now need to be implementing a quite different strategy. Here are some of our top tips on how to optimise for voice search.

1. Make sure your details are accurate

First, make sure your details are correct. 22% of voice search queries are looking for location-based content, and 58% of people use voice search to find local businesses. Common questions might be, “Where’s the nearest Thai restaurant?”, “What films are playing at the cinema tonight?”, or “Find plumbers in my local area”. So make sure your phone number is prominently displayed on your website and that your address is up to date to ensure you can be easily found.

2. Aim for the featured snippet

More than 40% of all voice search answers are pulled from featured snippets, so that coveted “position zero” is what you should be aiming for. Featured snippets are the selected search results that sit, inside a box, at the very top of the first page of organic results and immediately below the ads. They are the answers Google believes offer the quickest and most accurate value for searchers. Take a look at our blog post from last year for tips on how to make your content snippet-worthy.

3. Consider the language of voice search queries

Understanding the nuances of how people use voice search can also help give you a steer on how to optimise your content. Where as you might type "solicitors near me" into Google, voice queries use more conversational language, e.g. "Who is the best solicitor in my area?"

Therefore getting yourself to the top of the search engine page results is no longer just about using the right keywords. Instead, businesses need to be cognisant of this shift in language and consider using question phrases - who, what, how, when, where - in their content.

4. Give importance to Q&A type content

With voice search queries often question-based, you need to ensure you're answering as many questions relevant to your business as possible to raise your chances of ranking higher for them. Don't just limit it to Q&As about your products and services though - think broader too, about the kinds of questions your buyer personas will be asking.

5. Use structured data

Finally, one for your web team. Structured data, or schema markup, is a form of HTML data you can embed into your website's code to allow it to become more easily discovered by search engines and help voice searchers find your content more easily.

What to take away from this...

There’s no way around it - voice search is changing SEO, and it’s up to businesses and marketers to adapt. Though despite the new challenges, the goal of SEO remains the same. To convince Alexa, Siri and the like to use your content in their answers to voice search queries, you still need to be aiming for that top spot in the search engine results pages.

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Published by Katie Hughes October 8, 2019
Katie Hughes