The Evolution of Voice Search

Voice search has been around since the early 2000s, even though it hasn’t been widely adopted until now. A lesser-known feature on mobile devices as well as mobile applications and Apple’s Siri assistant, voice search is starting to challenge mobile keyboards and text inputs as a preferred method of information discovery and retrieval. Here’s why:

  • More Google searches now come from mobile than desktop — roughly 65% of all Google searches happen on mobile devices.
  • Google launched voice typing in 2012  in an attempt to make search more convenient on Android smartphones (the iPhone version was recently updated as well). 
  • In October 2014, they introduced the ability for users to speak their queries instead of typing them, making it easier to use search while you’re on the go.
  • Google Now — a service originally intended to anticipate your needs and give you useful information before you search for anything — was updated with voice search in 2013  with an expansion of its Knowledge Graph. This allowed users to speak their queries (e.g., “how do I make apple pie?”) and receive audio-based answers not only from Google’s database but with information gleaned from the user’s past searches as well (e.g., “According to Bon Appetit, it takes 40 minutes”).
  • One month later (in November 2013 ), Siri was updated with hands-free functionality — allowing users to command their iPhones with voice commands for the first time. It is now activated whenever you say, “Hey Siri” to your phone, whereas before it only activated when plugged in.
  • Voice search is on the rise as a preferred method of information discovery and retrieval
  • In May 2015, Google announced voice search had more than doubled since last year.  In total, 20% of all searches are now done exclusively with voice — that’s a staggering figure considering it was less than 5% just a few years ago!
  • In 2021, 50% of all searches will be voice searches, according to research from Ad Age.

Impact of Voice Search in SEO in 2021

Voice search is a technology that enables you to speak an action or request and receive a response. It’s a simple concept but it has the power to change the way we use computers, send messages, make purchases via e-commerce sites, and more. It also changes the rules of SEO. While “regular” SEO still works fine on voice platforms, Google does not say it will be irrelevant for long.

In 2019, 20% of searches on mobile devices will be done by voice. In 2021, 30% of all searches will be from voice search, according to Cognito Media. That means if your website does not have a rich set of content about your business and what you offer, it will have a hard time being found.

It’s important to note that voice search is not the same as text-based search, although there are many similarities. For example, the user can speak or type their query into Google Assistant or Siri. With text-based searches, users only have the option of speaking their questions in Google Assistant. The technology behind voice search has become so popular that even Amazon Alexa now allows text input for queries, along with its ability to provide audible responses. [3]

What about SEO? What should webmasters do? Search engine optimization (SEO) is still necessary for your content to appear when users conduct voice search queries through sites like Google Home and Amazon Echo. But how does it work?

The SEO Basics That Still Work

We all know Google has said that keywords are not the most important thing for voice search optimization. However, did you know they are still considered to be pretty good at ranking pages on topics relevant to users’ searches? [4] The same rules of keyword research, analyzing your competition, optimizing your website structure and content all still apply. Ensure you have a good mix of keywords in the text on your site relevant to what you are targeting. For example, if I have a travel blog I might write an article about visiting multiple destinations within Italy. If I were using voice search while traveling in Rome, I might say something like “Where is somewhere I can get good pizza around here?” While this may not be the most accurate way to ask about where I can find good pizza, it suggests that relevant keywords are still helpful for voice search optimization.

Voice & Conversational Search: Top Challenges & How to Overcome Them Speaking 

  • While speaking your search (or “voice typing”) seems like an intuitive way to communicate, users’ voices are filled with personal details that make it difficult to search engines to properly analyze intent.
  • Speakers often insert “us” and “ahs” when they speak; naturally, these kinds of non-verbal cues aren’t captured in written text (see image above). Additionally, many people pace their words differently when speaking than when typing. As a result, the search engines struggle with word pronunciations, inflection changes, speed variations, and sentence structure.
  • Understanding the Speaker’s Tone, Emotion & Intent The search engines have become adept at understanding user intent based on written searches. By comparison, voice searches are riddled with ambiguities that make it difficult to understand the speaker’s intent.
  • Speakers’ inflection changes depending on their mood or how they phrase their words, which can lead to misinterpretations by the search engine.
  • Nonverbal clues like background noise, music playing in the room, other people talking near them, etc., can affect a speaker’s tone and may prevent the search engine from getting an accurate read on their emotional state (e.g., bored vs. excited).  Accurately discerning these qualities is important because they provide context that can help the search engine better understand why they’re asking this particular question in the first place.
  • Search engines also struggle with understanding vocalized pauses (e.g., “umm,” “ahh”). These non-verbal clues are often used when people speak to gather their thoughts before speaking or to give structure to their conversation but aren’t necessary for written text.  Eliminating these cues is important because using too many of them can make it sound like you are unsure about what you are saying, or that there is more than one possible answer for the given question (making it difficult for Google to properly interpret your query). This could result in a poor user experience and a drop in click-through rates if it’s not handled correctly.

Unstructured Text and Varying Acronyms

Speakers often give search engines clues about their intent by way of acronyms (e.g., CD for “Compact Disc,” C/C++ for “C with C Plus Plus”). But these acronyms can be tricky to interpret because they evolve quickly and aren’t as straightforward as the use of standard English grammar would imply; some acronyms are used once and then never again and some change meaning depending on who is speaking (i.e., journalists vs. techies). Additionally, abbreviations like URLs (e.g., http://www) or email addresses (e.g., user@domain) don’t carry any semantic value — they’re keys to open up a world of possibilities rather than clues as to the user’s intent.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to voice search challenges, and we’ll be digging into some more detail in future blog posts. For now, if you’d like to learn more about this topic or discuss how your business can leverage these changes, drop us a line. And if you haven’t done so already, activate voice search on your device and see what happens! Google:

5 Strategies for Voice Search Optimization Success

1) Utilize Location Context – Your content must be accessible from any location-specific keywords (e.g., “Italian restaurant Seattle”).  From there, you can further optimize by including location-specific information in your copy (e.g., “Seattle’s finest Italian restaurant,” “make a reservation”) and links to relevant pages on your site (e.g., Seattle Menus, Seattle Location).

2) Optimize for Mobile – Because it’s becoming harder for mobile users to type their queries, the search engines will be prioritizing reputable sources of content that users can access directly from their phones.  As such, optimizing your mobile experience is key: make sure your site is mobile responsive and includes an easy way for mobile visitors to call or find directions. 

3) Improve Site Loading Speed – Reports show that around 40% of mobile users abandon sites that take more than 4 seconds to load.  If your site is taking too long to load, you need to find a way to make it faster.  This could be done by reducing server response times (i.e., improving your website’s code) or using caching plugins like W3 Total Cache. 

4) Optimize for Voice Convenience – Make sure that voice search users can get the information they are looking for with minimal clicks and keystrokes by utilizing rich snippets.  You can also use Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper tool to help you understand how the search engine parses through content on your site (or any other page). 

5) Continue Optimizing Metadata Tags & Semantic Markup – This optimization should be embedded in all of the above.  The semantic markup you’ve embedded in your site for standard search should be readable by voice-search-powered engines. This includes Schema Markup, Facebook Open Graph, and Twitter Cards.

If you don’t have a website yet or would like to make sure it is up to par with the latest SEO standards, Send us a quote.

Up until recently, Google has been able to answer 99% of users’ questions using only data from structured content sources such as eCommerce product pages, news articles, and local business listings.  This information is fairly easy to interpret because it follows a mostly uniform structure that makes sense to both people and search engines alike. more people turn to voice search and ask their phone about nearby restaurants or movie times, and Google and Siri and Alexa and Cortana (and others!) will need to understand what people mean when they say it.