How to adapt your SEO and website for voice searches

At Google’s I/O Developer Conference in May 2016, Google chief executive (CEO), Sundar Pichai, used his keynote speech to highlight the extent to which voice search and natural language processing (NLP) are driving the search engine’s evolution, especially now that one in five searches on the Google android app in the US are voice queries.

It isn’t just Google who are seeing a big upturn in voice searches. In 2015, Bing accounted that 25% of searches via the Windows 10 search bar are voice triggered.

Voice search is a technology that uses speech recognition/NLP and artificial intelligence to allow users to search by speaking a query rather than typing it into a search bar. Digital assistants such as Siri, Cortana, Google Now, Alexa and Google Assistant all allow users to speak voice commands and questions to search and operate devices and apps.

One impressive stat that I read recently is that, in 2015, voice search rose from a ‘statistical zero’ to 10% of all searches globally. Now, in 2016, as shown by Sundar Pichai, 20% of all mobile searches on Google are voice triggered, which means that approximately 10 billion voice searches are performed every month.

According to figures from MindMeld in October 2015, 60% of mobile users have only started using voice search in the past 12 months and 40% of mobile users have switched to voice searches in the last six months.

A study by Northstar Research found that 55% of teens and 41% of adults use voice search every day, whether to make a call, ask for directions, send a text, or get homework help. Some 56% of adults admit that using voice search makes them feel more ‘tech savvy’.

In the same study, the five most common reasons for adopting voice search were:

  1. It’s the future
  2. It’s cool
  3. It’s safer
  4. For multi-tasking
  5. Because it makes them more efficient

Research from Thrive Analytics back in 2014 found that 38% of smartphone users who were early adopters of mobile digital assistants were in the 54-plus age bracket, showing that the convenience of voice search appeals across generations.

Voice search is also a valuable tool for people with limited mobility using voice assisted technologies.

There’s little doubt that voice search is on the rise.

Convenient searching, anywhere and any when

The almost-overnight growth of voice search makes sense. With so many of us using our mobile phones when we’re out and about, voice queries are the hassle- and hands-free way to search as we move from A to B. Mobile voice searches are apparently three times more likely to be for local information than a text search because of this.

With so many cars having a ‘Car Play’ function for voice instructions, as well as games consoles and smart home hubs responding to voice queries and commands, voice searches are poised to become the way many of us search the internet (some predict they will account for 50% of searches by 2020). After all, it’s easier, quicker and far more convenient to talk than to type.

The rise of sophisticated digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Windows’ Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, Google Now, and Google Assistant – with the ability to understand natural language searches and to apply context – means that voice searches are more reliable than ever before. Some digital assistants are even capable of understanding long, multi-part or highly specific questions. They also understand follow-up questions without the need to restate the context. In other words, they recognise that a cluster of questions from you may all be around the same topic or search intent.

Somewhat amusingly, the Northstar Research study found that there are three things that voice search can’t do yet that the majority of us wish for: order a pizza, find the TV remote, and direct us to our lost keys! Maybe Google is working on this as I type ?

The rise of voice search coupled with the evolution of Google is impacting on business websites in a number of significant ways.

For a start, voice search is changing the language people use to search. We have all got used to text searches using a keyboard, which tend to follow a specific format:

  • Broad keyword search term (e.g. SEO tips) + a clarifying search term (e.g. for beginners) and/or location (e.g. Devon)

If we’re searching for a product rather than a service, we will follow a similar format:

  • Broad keyword search term (e.g. ladies red dress) + one or more clarifying search terms (e.g. size 12, evening wear)

With written queries, we’re conditioned to make our searches as short as possible, e.g. ‘Coffee shop, Newton Abbot’. However, what Google highlighted at the I/O Developer’s Conference is that when we use the voice search facility we’re far more likely to use natural language, even if that means using more words, by stating a command or asking a question, such as:

  • Where is the nearest coffee shop?
  • What’s the weather today?
  • Give me directions home
  • How to cook pasta
  • Open YouTube
  • What does RSVP mean?
  • How does voice search affect websites and SEO?

If you think about the ‘Who, what, when, why, where and how’ questions we typically use to seek information verbally, this gives you a good steer on what people might ask search engines when using voice search.

By asking questions, we are better able to communicate the intentions behind a search and give Google a context to our query. For example, it’s far easier to return relevant answers to the question, “What is the best Rome holiday package?” than to the broad query “Rome holiday”.

Do note that this doesn’t mean we should ignore keywords – 80% of searches still currently come via a keyboard. Where you can help your SEO is to consider words and phrases that mean the same as your keywords, as well as questions people might ask that are connected to your keywords.

Local searches

People are far less likely to state a location with voice searches as it doesn’t sound natural, unless they’re looking for information about somewhere that’s unfamiliar, such as ‘Show me popular hotels in Rome’ or ‘What’s the weather like in Rome?’.

As I discussed in a recent blog about how to ace your local SEO, Google is otherwise sophisticated enough to identify your location and return local search results for nearby products, services and businesses.

SEO experts the world over agree that voice searches will continue to grow in popularity, which means that any business with a website needs to consider how to best adapt their SEO strategy to capitalise on this growth.

In my experience, the following techniques should make your website voice search-friendly:

  1. Humanise your content with a natural voice

If your website is written with conventional keyword searches in mind, some of the copy may feel unnatural to the reader. I would strongly recommend reviewing your copy to check that the tone sounds natural and conversational rather than keyword-focused.

As we’ve explored, answering those typical ‘Who, want, when, why, where and how’ questions mentioned above will help to give Google valuable content to return in response to voice queries.

In many ways, voice search could be a liberating force for change, freeing businesses from obsessing over keywords (although keywords still matter) and allowing them to create a human, conversational tone with their potential and existing customers. As I always say, if you concentrate on providing a good experience for the customer, including bags of relevant information, you can’t go far wrong.

If you’re not sure what tone of voice your content should use, try listening to your customer’s conversational speech. Are there phrases that they use regularly to describe what they’re looking for or any problems they’re having? You could ask them to fill out a short customer satisfaction survey to see if any words come up time and again.

Another tactic is to try using voice search yourself, asking the kinds of questions you would associate with your business, and see what Google returns in the search results. If your competitors are performing better in voice searches, what are they doing differently?

  1. Implement the Schema Markup

Yet again, Schema Markup comes to the fore as a website ‘must-have’ for 2016 and beyond. By applying Schema Markup to as many pages of your website as possible, you can help to give Google a deeper context to the information provided. As Google is constantly seeking to develop search artificial intelligence (AI) that understands context and delivers appropriate results, Schema Markup is a fantastic tool for aiding voice searches.

  1. Add FAQs to your website

FAQs on websites lend themselves perfectly to voice searches. If you can match the questions you feature to those most commonly asked in searches, you can help Google to quickly return a highly targeted and informative answer – and speed is often of the essence with voice searches. This works well if you sell products or services.

What questions do you customers most commonly ask?

It’s worth looking at the Google Search Console information for your website to see if there are any questions in your most common searches.

A travel company, for example, might want to feature FAQs such as:

  • What is the cost for air fare to Rome?
  • What’s the weather like in Rome in the summer?
  • What’s the best holiday package for Rome?
  • How much does it cost to fly to Rome?
  • How do I get to Rome?
  • When is the best time to go to Rome?
  • When does my flight leave?
  • Where is the best hotel to stay near the Sistine Chapel?

Something to consider is that the type of question a person asks can tell you a lot about how far they are into the buying journey. Questions that begin with ‘What’ – see the examples above – may reflect an early interest; if, for example, someone is asking about what the weather’s like in another country or what the cost of travelling is, they may be trying to scope out their options.

How’ questions generally indicate a slightly warmer interest. A question such as ‘How do I get to Rome?’ suggests that the person has moved on to making concrete plans for travelling.

When’ questions are associated with even more intent. Someone who wants to know when it’s best to travel or when they will arrive is typically much closer to buying.

Finally, most people find that ‘where’ questions bring the highest likelihood of action. Questions such as ‘Where is the nearest café?’ or ‘Where is the Trevi Fountain?’ (to use our Roman holiday example) suggest that the searcher is poised to buy or is physically in the vicinity.

Being aware of this ‘What, how, when, where’ approach can help you to formulate FAQs that are appropriate for different touchpoints on your customers’ brand journey.

  1. Check your directory listings and Google for Business page

As we’ve touched on above, voice searches are particularly relevant to local businesses. In my recent how to ace your local SEO blog, I explored the extent to which many of us are now by-passing websites by accessing the information we need straight from the results pages. We use Google to find directions, give us phone numbers, opening times and much more.

With this in mind, I would make it a priority to check that your Google My Business page is up-to-date and that your business is listed correctly and consistently on any local website directories.

Do you use voice searches?

If you do, what motivates you? If you have yet to try voice searches, what’s holding you back? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic in the comments below.

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