Voice controlled digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home are now present in 22% of UK households and this number is set to rise.
In addition, voice assistants on mobile devices such as Siri and Google Assistant are now present on most modern smartphones, giving even more users access to voice search.
Search engines need to accurately rank websites that users will find useful and informative and deliver the best information for their search query as quickly as possible.
User experience is one of the most important factors when it comes to SEO and voice search provides a much improved user experience for certain online actions such as fact finding.
As it becomes more widely used, search engines such as Google are expanding opportunities for SEOs to optimise for voice search so it’s something to consider within any SEO strategy to avoid missing out on this huge chunk of potential customers.
So, which areas are most likely to be impacted by voice search?
Does voice search mean you need to completely overhaul your SEO strategy and start from scratch? What does it mean for your website and content?
Here are just a few of the areas that relate to voice search and should therefore influence your overall SEO strategy.
Previously, Google relied solely on keywords for delivering search results.
These days it can think in terms of entities, topics and the relationships between them. Of course, it also relies on a variety of factors outside of keywords and topics.
This could include looking at a specific user’s previous searches or patterns of searches to identify the intent behind their search and deliver more relevant results.
In other words, Google is getting better at understanding the intent behind what users are searching for.
What do we mean?
If you searched ‘films leeds’ from your computer in Leeds, Google determines that you are probably looking at film times in the city, rather than films about Leeds or with that title.
Before the advent of semantic search, this search would have made sense either way, based on the keywords alone.
So Google might’ve hedged its bets and shown a mixed-intent serp, or it might have gone on relative volume and show the more popular interpretation.
Semantic search, however, knows that if you’re searching from Leeds, there’s a much higher chance that you’re looking for film times near your location.
The shift towards semantic search coincides with moves towards a better understanding of user intent and providing the content that addresses those needs.
As Google strengthens its ability to deal with semantics, searchers have been able to move towards using more conversational terms.
This means fully formed sentences, particularly in the form of questions.
Searching this way in the past would likely have shown you documents that feature those phrases heavily, but these would not necessarily be ones that best answer those questions.
A rise in conversational and semantic search has increased the number of long-tail keywords used when searching.
Short-tail keywords have already diminished in importance and conversational search is bound to decrease their prominence even further.
Discovering, and then answering, these conversational phrases and questions that people are asking about your products, services and brand is very important generally, but potentially vital for success in voice search.
They’re often lower in competition, making them easier to rank for and meaning your website can appear more often, a reasonably easy way to start building significant visibility and traffic.
It may not be the best converting traffic in the world but it’s not meant to be. We’re working on the top of the funnel here, something many brands neglect.
Would you rather your competitors have this traffic?
How has this changed the landscape of search results?
Featured snippets - position zero
Featured snippets, also known as position zero, are the search results that appear at the top of the SERPs and contain the answers to user questions without them having to click through.
Google extracts information from a page one result for the query and cites the source.
When answering voice search queries, Google Assistant often reads out featured snippets (though it can use other results too).
In fact, a recent study found that 87% of voice search answers stem from featured snippets.
Many of these boxes provide public domain information, such as how many ounces are in a pound, which Google answers via Instant Answers.
However, Featured Snippets are pulled from any website on page one of the results. Even better, Google gives brands credit for these on both regular and voice search.
Because you only have to make it to page one, instead of position one, featured snippets are more attainable.
If you’re already ranking on page one, you only need to make small tweaks, rather than completely overhaul your SEO strategy.
Featured snippets help people go, learn, buy or do something. Perform long-tail keyword research to find these questions and answer them in your content.
Make your content easy for Google to read and understand by framing the question in header tags, and then answering it quickly.
Tabular and bulleted information are also great formats for featured snippets.
I have seen it suggested that if you need to unseat the owner of a featured snippet, emulating the format they used for their answer could improve your chances markedly. Don’t copy the content of course!
The importance of local search
97% of consumers use search for online reviews of local businesses. Whilst brand search is important, plenty of customers aren’t looking for a specific business, they often search for the ‘best [type of business]’.
Directory and review sites rule these searches so it’s important to think of them as search engines in their own right.
Having an optimised Google My Business profile is practically required to appear in local search.
You’ll also want to support this with (as available) citations from national directories, niche national directories, local directories and niche local directories.
The more complete and consistent these listing are, with photos, positive reviews, and owner responses, the more likely you are to show in the map pack.
If you’re showing in the map pack you stand a better chance of being included in query responses for ‘[type of business] near me’.
For example, some voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, use third-party review sites to supplement their information.
Alexa is able to be more than just an Amazon Shopping assistant because it uses thousands of other databases to answer people’s queries, such as Yelp for local businesses.
This optimisation is important because 22% of people use voice search for finding local information and “near me” searches have increased more than 130% year on year.
For the most part a sensible approach to your ‘standard’ SEO will benefit voice search without needing further specific considerations in this area. Though as ever in SEO this is all subject to change.
Topics > Keywords
You no longer need to pump up your keyword density by constantly mentioning and rephrasing a core keyword, highlighted in bold text.
What you need to do now is to think about the bigger picture of a keyword; make sure you’re thoroughly covering the topic. Bring in the supporting ideas, related keywords and reference information.
You can be much broader and more informative as Google better understands the overall meaning (and has done for some time) of content.
As Google can now understand the broader meaning of a query, it now has the ability to handle much more complicated queries.
This has lead to more detailed phrasing and directly asking questions (which brings us to the next point).
Answer these questions!
There’s no shortage of ways to find out what these are. You’ll know many yourself of course but in addition to this some questions have high enough volumes to register with keyword research tools and then there’s People Also Ask entities to explore.
Answer these questions and answer more of them than your competitors whilst answering them in a more detailed and better way.
Copying Answer formats
If you’re looking to get a specific answer box position from a competitor it’s worth trying this.
Take your original content that answers this question and emulate the competitor’s format and layout. Clearly Google thinks this is a useful way of presenting the information for users and with your improved content you’ve a solid shot at taking that space.
We commonly recommend schema markup for all sorts of pages to describe the objects on them.
Although we’ve mentioned that Google is much better at understanding these things via semantic search we want to make the process as straightforward as possible and remove the guesswork and any potential chances for misunderstanding.
This supports your overall ranking, regardless of search medium.
However, for voice search there is growing support for schema that describes speakable actions.
Markup the elements of your page that are most relevant for assistants to replicate - for more information read Google’s support information.
This is currently available for US devices set to English but I’d say it’s worth implementing now to be ready for further rollout.
So, is voice search going to change the world?
Not yet and certainly not suddenly. I think we’d all need to get a lot more used to talking at our computers, it’s one thing to use voice search to answer a contested piece of trivia amongst friends or to get your assistant to skip a song while you’re driving but we’re a long way from seeing legions of people walking around muttering into their handsets!
That said, until we’re interfaced directly with our phones, voice search is here to stay as part of the mix and I’d rather have that visibility, traffic and awareness over a competitor.
So optimise for it now and it’s win-win if it does become the leading search method in the future.