Okay, Google … How Can I Optimize for Voice Search?

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We’re still light years away from “Beam me up, Scotty!” However, Star Trek was on track all along – personal communicators imagined in the 1960s became the flip phones of the 1990s. Portable computer pads (Star Trek: TNG) are today’s tablets. And voice-activated computers, of course, are now built into every mobile device.

Siri or Google Assistant may lack the charm of Star Trek’s computer. However, speech recognition technology is constantly evolving. One day, very soon, the query you speak will result in the answer you asked for 100% of the time! And if you own a business, hopefully your web property will be the top answer.       

From a business point of view, you should already be preparing for the day when most searches are done through voice. It’s not that search engines rank queries differently with voice. It’s more as to how you structure your data and content that’s important.

Before we focus on how to optimize for voice, let’s quickly see what the main players are, when customers may frequently use voice search, and how queries are structured.

Voice Search Assistants

More and more digital assistants are being developed, both for mobile phones and smart speakers. Here are the main ones in the marketplace:

  • Siri by Apple. The first mobile voice assistant and still the most popular as of October 2020. Supporting 20 languages, Siri is embedded in most Apple devices.
  • Google Assistant.  “OK Google” is not as catchy as “Hey Siri.” But, keep in mind that as of June 2020, Android’s share worldwide is 74% against Apple’s iOS at just under 25%.
  • Amazon Alexa. You need an Amazon account to use Alexa, which is claimed to be the best for device compatibility. It sources search engine information from Bing.
  • Braina. This is a third-party app that’s compatible with Android, iOS and Windows 10. Its multi-functional AI software is recommended for PCs. There’s a free trial version.
  • Microsoft Cortana.  This was once Microsoft’s answer to Alexa. It’s since been “repurposed” elsewhere.
  • Bixby by Samsung. Second to Apple in device sales in the U.S. is Samsung, which developed its own digital assistant. Bixby is more of a device control assistant. But, it could very well evolve into a search assistant in the future.

How and Why Do People Use Voice Search?

  1. Convenience and ease are the primary reasons why most voice searches are done on smartphones. Also, typing on devices can be cumbersome for many.  
  2. There’s often some urgency and immediacy when people use voice. They may be searching for local information like “Where’s the nearest auto mechanic?
  3. People who are tied up with other tasks like driving can check for the news, sports scores or ask about a brand using voice activation. It could also be a query about your product or business.
  4. Shoppers can check for alternatives at other stores when browsing for products.

What this means is that most voice searches will be done via mobile outside the home, and via smart speakers within the home. Queries tend to be related to more time-sensitive information, like the weather, asking for directions and checking the news.

Somebody who types in a search is likely doing research, while a voice query is more likely a visitor who wants instant results right now.

Most importantly, queries are more conversational. Usually, a typed-in search is shorthand, such as “weather New York”. For voice search queries, it is usually the entire sentence. “Hey Google, what is the weather like in New York?” This distinction is important when presenting your content.

SEO and Google Voice Search Optimization

Voice searches are usually in the form of a question. (No allusion to the game show Jeopardy intended.) This is the natural and default tendency people use when they speak to a smartphone or smart speaker.

Queries are also conversational. People use natural language as though they’re talking to a real person.

Google is actively evolving voice search from simply “recognizing” search patterns to “understanding” spoken queries. The biggest take-away is that the spoken language is very different from the written language, as anybody learning English as a second language can attest to.

What this means is, when somebody does a voice search on their phone, what does the voice assistant return? For instance, let’s imagine this query:

OK Google, what is the best time to post on Instagram?

Spoken on a mobile phone or a screenless device like Google Home, the assistant will speak through a Google search result (and say the website name or brand it comes from).

However, which search result is chosen? Let’s look at the result via a typed-in desktop search:

This is the mobile voice search result, spoken out:

Google is looking for a concise, short and easily readable answer from a high authority page. Remember that voice assistants (Alexa, Siri, Google and others) want to speak in short, quick sentences.

Be Conversational

Another major factor is to write in a more conversational tone. Write as if you are talking to a friend or customer.

Read the sentences in the examples from the actual example above:

This was the old sentence from two years ago (the page was around position 5):

In 2018, the majority of social media managers said that lunch time from 11am-1pm was their best time to post on Instagram, followed by evenings from 7-9pm.”

New sentence in 2020 (the page is #1 and is the answer in voice search):

Generally, the best times to post on Instagram are lunchtime (11am – 1pm) and evenings (7-9pm).

Read these statements out loud right now. If a friend or co-worker asked you this exact question, which version would you answer with? Most likely it would be the second one. Google believes this too.

Other Voice SEO Factors

Along with this, here are some other factors to keep in mind for voice search:

Voice Queries are longer

Voice queries are usually a bit longer than keyboard searches. A verbal question often starts with what, how, when, where and even why. Does your content have the appropriate answers in a conversational tone?

Pay attention to how people speak, and incorporate that into your content. So, if you are trying to rank for “best baby stroller”, make sure you have conversational sentences in your content.

Typed search: “best baby stroller

Voice search: “What’s the best baby stroller out there?

Include the text “So, what is the best baby stroller out there today?” in your first or second paragraph. That way you will cover both the typed in search and the likely conversational voice search.

Location-related queries

More than a third of today’s voice searches are location-related, such as “Where’s the nearest pharmacy?” This is significant if you provide products or services locally.

If you are a small business with a physical location, make sure you have a Google My Business account with all your information and your map location accurate and updated.

Content Organization

Numbered lists and content in point form are very popular formats. Repeat the question in writing for your target query as a sub-heading. Then immediately provide a short and direct answer to that question in a single paragraph of around 25 to 40 words. The exact average looks to be around 29 words.

After this paragraph, provide more information as backup, such as elaborating on it, using data, images and video.

Have a list of questions on your website

Anticipating questions is an excellent way to serve voice searches. Where can you post these? The best place is an FAQ page on your website.

Brainstorm on the most probable queries about your brand or product. Remember, your tone should remain casual, informal, relaxed and friendly.

Not sure which questions to list? Use Google Search Console to find out what types of queries are bringing people to your online assets. This will help you discover the most popular queries for your business or product.

Right now, there’s no way to determine if questions are typed or voiced, but optimize for both.

Conversational Commerce

Buying and selling stuff has traditionally always been through speaking. When you go to buy a new car, the salesperson isn’t going to hand you a manual listing the benefits!

They will have a conversation with you, expressing the features, the benefits, and how this car will make your life better.

While writing your content on your ecom product pages, imagine being in front of a potential customer or a friend. What would you say to them about this product? Write that down in short, easy sentences.

Make sure your website is mobile-friendly

Since over 50% of queries are asked on smartphones, voice search is just another reason your website should be mobile-friendly. This trend is only going up.

Voice Search Trends

Adobe conducted a study on voice assistant usage. Here is a partial list of the top tasks as of early 2019:

  • 74% Playing Music
  • 66% Weather Forecast
  • 58% Alarms / Reminders
  • 58% Asking Fun Questions
  • 44% Checking the News
  • 42% Online Search (Note that this is down from 47% in 2018)
  • 40% Basic Research
  • 37% Making Calls
  • 36% Asking for Directions

Here’s a few more trends going on right now in the world of voice:

Forty-two percent of internet users worldwide have conducted a voice search within the past month. Thirty-two percent of them used a mobile device.

According to Think Google, 72% of voice-activated speaker owners use these devices daily.

This report states that as of January 2020, one third of all Americans (close to 90 million) own a smart speaker, an increase from 66 million from the beginning of 2019. That’s a jump of 32%.

Perficient conducted a survey this year and found that a bit over half of respondents would likely search via voice on their smartphones. Their research also reveals that a majority of voice searches are done at home (around 62%).

Most of the time, people verbally search when alone or in informal situations like dining with friends at a restaurant. Privacy (and maybe a bit of embarrassment talking out loud to an assistant in a public place while alone) are still considerations.  

Voice search technology still has a long way to go. The biggest frustration right now is when devices can’t understand queries. Worse, they’re given wrong answers. These are the two significant reasons why people continue to type in their queries.

Is voice search the next big thing? I don’t know the answer, but I would suggest being prepared for its growth. Lay the foundations necessary by researching the most obvious questions for your business. Follow that up with shorter, more conversational text. This way you are prepared for both typed and voice search queries, and your business will continue to be ahead of the competition.

Now to just make my voice companion sound completely like Samuel L. Jackson!

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