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The future of voice search and what it means for your small business

By Alexandra Gavril - July 24, 2017

Imagine being able to buy movie tickets, find a local coffee shop, order pizza or a rental car… all with a simple verbal command. That’s the future of voice technology and it might not take too long to get there.

Voice search is growing faster than typed search, according to the keynote speech given by Behshad Behzadi, Principal Engineer at Google Zurich, at SMX West in March. Timothy Tuttle, the voice interface specialist at MindMeld, also revealed that in 2015 alone voice search rose from “statistical zero” to 10% of all searches globally. That’s an estimated 50 billion searches per month. In 2016, 41% of US adults were using voice search on a daily basis. Statistics like these are only going to increase further as search engines, apps and developers respond to this trend.

The allure of voice search is undeniable – it’s fast, it’s smart, it’s hands-free and it also lets you multi-task.

But what does this all mean for your small business? Why should you care about voice search and how can it impact your business? Read on as we tell you more about voice search and how you can capitalise on it to grow your business.

But before we get into the implications of voice search, let’s do a quick run through what it is and how it works.

What is voice search?

google microphone

Voice search refers to your smartphone or desktop computer that has a digital assistant or an entry point that uses voice, like Google’s microphone, Google Home, Amazon Echo, Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana and more. These voice-controlled AIs are the medium through which we interact with voice search and carry out natural language queries.

Think of it this way: you’re talking to your smartphone or desktop using a voice-controlled AI. With a simple phrase, the voice-activated software uses natural language processing and text-to-speech to understand your search intent. Based on your query history and the context behind the phrase, the software then matches your question to an answer, which is then returned to you, rather than a search result as you see with Google, Yahoo! and Bing.

How voice queries are changing search

So how are voice queries and digital assistants like Siri and Cortana changing the way users search? Voice search is not just about voice recognition, but also voice understanding. It responds to natural phrases by interpreting the meaning and also the context behind the words you’re using.

Think about it. You don’t really type the way you speak, do you? When you type, you might run a search like “weather Paris” while when speaking you’re more likely to ask the complete question, “What’s the weather like in Paris?”.

Here’s another example. Say you’re looking for vacation deals in Paris. When you type, your query would be something like “Paris vacation deals”. When you speak, you might ask your digital assistant “Show me the best vacation deals to Paris for under £500”.

You can tell by the search query exactly what the user is looking for, down to the budget and an intent to buy.

So it’s no longer about matching the keywords in a query. Search engines are looking to understand the meaning and intent behind a query so they can deliver the best results. Google does this with Hummingbird and RankBrain.

Here’s a quick overview:

  • Hummingbird is a search algorithm that uses Google’s Knowledge Graph to better understand the user’s intent when searching and to offer them the most relevant results. This update is designed to interpret naturally phrased search queries such as “Where can I wash my car?” and deliver relevant results, without forcing the user to slip back into awkward keyword-based phrasing. Read more about Hummingbird and how to create content for users instead of search engines.
  • RankBrain is Google’s machine-learning artificial intelligence system that’s used to process and refine its search results, and find the right meaning and context behind ambiguous keywords. While Hummingbird matches a query with content on the web, RankBrain extracts the meaning from a query so Google’s algorithms can deliver the most relevant results. RankBrain also plays a vital role in helping digital assistants return a more accurate result out of voice searches. Read our post to learn more about RankBrain, Google’s third most important ranking factor, and what it means for your small business.

So do we still need keyword research?

Now you might be thinking: if search engines are getting better at understanding what users are searching for, even when they’re using ambiguous keywords like “car wash” that reveal little about preferences, budget or intent, then do keywords still matter? Or is keyword research just a waste of time?

Keyword research is essential if you want to understand what content needs to go on a specific page before creating it and which keywords to use to optimise it so it shows up in the search engine results when people are searching for your business.

But instead of using keywords verbatim, try to think about all the different words that someone might use to search for your business.

This brings us back to voice search.

Imagine you’re in Paris and want to go to a coffee shop. So you ask Siri where to get some café au lait in Paris. Siri won’t just show you results with “coffee shops in Paris”. It will filter the results based on:

  • Your location, as you probably want to go to a nearby coffee shop, and not one across town.
  • Positive reviews from other people as you likely want to go to a great coffee shop.
  • The number of check-ins on social media, as this reflects on the popularity and reputation of that place.

So in the era of voice search, your content has to do much more than just incorporate a bunch of keywords. It has to provide great content that answers specific questions, and it also needs to be supported by social signals that show you’re credible and appreciated.

How will this impact local search?

Mobile voice searches are three times more likely to be local than text, so optimising for local search and mobile will also help you to rank for many voice searches. Often, voice queries include the phrases “near me” or “nearest”, showing that the user is looking for a local business.

This means you need to pay more attention to including keywords in your content that are relevant to your local searcher. In this article published on Moz.com, Purna Virji, Senior PPC Training Manager at Microsoft, gives some useful tips on how to optimise for the local searcher:

  • Are there landmarks you need to call out, such as “in old city”, close to a museum or any other significant place that can be a clue for your searcher?
  • What are the local places of interest that matter to your business?
  • How do people describe your neighbourhood in conversational tone?

How to optimise your website for voice search

It’s clear that context and conversational search will become more important as voice search continues to evolve. So how does that change your SEO strategy and what are some effective ways to optimise your site for voice search, considering that’s the future of SEO?

Here’s what you should do:

1)  Make sure your site is mobile-friendly

If you don’t have a mobile-friendly site, then there’s little point in optimising your site for voice. Learn how to get a mobile-friendly site using this guide, then look at voice search optimisation.

2) Target featured snippets

If a voice search returns a result which includes a featured snippet – those boxes of information that appear above the main search results – then that snippet is read aloud. This gives your brand a huge authority boost. So try to make sure you’re getting those all-important featured snippets. (The rest of these tips  will help you do that.)

3) Focus on long-tail keywords

Consider the natural phrases used in voice search. It’s no longer about “car wash” but about “Where is the nearest car wash?”. You need to focus more on conversational, long-tail search terms and create content that answers your prospects’ questions. So, re-evaluate your content to ensure you’re focusing on natural phrases and sentence structures, and on the meaning behind a query rather than a specific keyword.

4) Use schema markup to provide context

Schema is a markup language – a HTML add-on that helps search engines understand the context of your content. The more information and context you provide to search engines, the better they’ll be able to understand your content, and the more relevant you’ll be in specific queries made through voice search. Check out this guide on how to use schema markup.

5) Optimise your site’s microdata

XML sitemaps, location data and other micro-data are essential for search engines to be able to provide quick answers to user’s queries. Adding this information is vital, considering so many people use voice search to get directions to a specific place. So if you want your business to be found through voice-activated search, don’t skip this step.

6) Add FAQs

Voice search users are looking for quick answers, which makes FAQ content crucial in helping the search engines identify   quick answers to popular questions. Now, when asking a question, voice searches usually begin with “Who,” “What,” “Where,” “When,” “Why,” and “How”. Make sure you use the adverbs when creating questions for your FAQs page.

What’s next?

Specifically, we should be seeing the introduction of voice search stats into Google Analytics some time in the near future.

More generally, voice search is the future of SEO so you can’t afford to ignore this trend. It’s time to stop thinking linearly about only text-based queries, and start thinking about long-tail keywords and conversational queries, which help give context and useful data about the user’s intent.

Are you ready for more voice search?