Voice search. Should marketers care about this, or are all the pronouncements about voice search being a ‘game-changer’ overblown?
In this comprehensive guide to voice search and SEO, we’ll dig into the following questions:
Unlike other guides out there, we’re going beyond the basics today. I’m not just going to tell you to use long tail keywords, or register your business in Google My Business (although you should do both of those!).
I also don’t want you to have to read about what voice search is, what devices are out there, etc. if you’re already familiar with it. If you want to get straight to how to optimize for it, you can click right here.
With that now out of the way, let’s get started!
Voice search is, literally, using your voice to search for things via a compatible device such as a smartphone or smart home device. The searcher speaks to the device, and the device fulfills the command or answers the question.
For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to focus on question-based search since that will be of most interest and value to businesses.
Voice search burst into the mainstream in 2011 with the launch of Apple’s Siri, on the iPhone 4. In 2015, the Amazon Echo became the first mainstream smart home device. From there, a number of competitors have entered the voice search market (and more on them in a bit).
Before we move onto why SEOs should be looking at voice search, it’s important we all have a baseline understanding of how the technology even works.
Without getting too deep into the technical details of voice search, digital voice assistants do the following:
Kudos to this Quora answer that explains it better than I could; check out the full answer here.
How voice search works is obviously more complex than this, and there is a lot of machine-learning going on so that these programs better understand natural language and true searcher intent. These programs are incredibly sophisticated and are improving tremendously.
For example, according to Bruce Clay back in 2016, the “speech recognition word error rate is 8 percent.” It’s likely this number is even lower now.
This partly explains why voice search is growing so fast. But there’s a lot of reasons for that, so let’s see what they are.
If you’re like me, you used to be firmly against voice search. Sure, it had its uses, but it was often frustrating to use and the quality of the answers was very poor.
That’s not the case anymore.
The main statistic people throw around regarding voice search is this one from Google in 2016, where it was said that 20% of queries on the Google mobile app and on Android devices are voice searches.
That’s obviously a huge number, and you might be thinking to yourself “I need to start optimizing for voice search right now!” However, this doesn’t give us enough information to make informed marketing decisions for ourselves and/or our clients.
Let’s take the weather, for example. The search term ‘weather’ and all of its variations accounts for tens, if not hundreds of millions of searches every month, and yet most businesses have no interest in trying to rank for that keyword.
That said, searches for the weather and similar types of keywords could account for a significant chunk of that 20%. If that’s true, maybe there is less opportunity than we think.
I dug in a little deeper to see what the real opportunity is out there for SEOs, and found some great stats, courtesy of Branded3. The most interesting ones are below:
While these are just projections, the fact that so many different firms are projecting massive growth in this field signals to me that savvy marketers should at least start familiarizing themselves with how to optimize for voice search.
Another thing to point out is that there is a whole generation out there that has and is growing up with digital assistants in their lives. As technology improves and people get more comfortable with the technology, it just makes sense that voice search will continue to grow. After all, most people can speak more than 3x faster than they can type.
So how do we start getting our feet wet? The first step is to identify who the major players in voice search are, and more importantly, what is powering their results.
The major players in the digital voice assistant market in the US are as follows:
Currently, Google is the market leader, followed by Apple, Samsung, Amazon, and Microsoft. Below are some projections of digital assistant install bases over the next 4 years.
Google Assistant finds results through Google Search, as you might expect. Typically, results will be pulled from the top organic listing, whether that be a Quick Answer, Local Pack result, or a traditional website. Google Home will often verbalize answers, but can also send source links to the Google Home companion app on your smartphone or device.
Siri relies on Apple Maps when it comes to local results, as this experiment shows. Up until recently other queries were answered through information from Bing, but in September of 2017 Siri switched to Google. The main takeaway here is that for local businesses, it’s key that you have your business featured in Apple Maps.
Samsung’s Bixby lacks the ability to search for information like its competitors do. Once that functionality is added, we’ll have to find out what its data source is.
Amazon’s smart speaker devices (like Alexa and Echo) are projected to have about 70% of the smart speaker market in 2017, which is a significant lead. However, because Alexa is restricted to these devices, their presence in the overall voice search market is much lower. Alexa also performs much worse than Google Home when it comes to answering more complicated questions. Alexa mostly draws from its own database of knowledge, but also relies upon Bing for answering questions.
Lastly, Cortana’s information is powered by Microsoft’s own search engine, Bing. While many are quick to dismiss Bing (and therefore Cortana), it’s always a good idea to check in on Bing regularly. Depending on your website and/or niche, a decent amount of traffic could be coming from Bing, and therefore, Cortana.
In summary, the majority of digital assistants out there use Google as their source of information, but Bing shouldn’t be ignored either. Luckily for us SEOs, we’re already optimizing websites for those search engines so we are in familiar territory.
Still though, I haven’t completely answered the question of why marketers should care about voice search SEO in 2018.
We’ve already talked about how digital assistants are projected to grow in the near future, dramatically expanding the size of the market out there. We’ve talked about how as the technology improves and as people get more comfortable with the tech, usage will grow.
But while all of those reasons are important, the main reason why you should care about voice search is because voice search is a winner takes all game.
Think about it; when you ask your digital assistant a question, does it provide you with a list of 10 websites to choose from, a couple of ads, and a local 3 pack?
No. You get one result, one answer, from one data source. Unlike traditional SEO, being ranked position 2 or 3 isn’t going to drive much, if any, traffic.
Now, some queries on some devices provide multiple results. For example if I ask Siri for an apple pie recipe, she’ll provide me with a number of options. However, that's not the case though for devices like Google Home, or for questions with one answer, so the point still stands.
Voice search is going to make SEO much more competitive as businesses try to ensure they show up first. This is particularly important for local business.
Here are a couple of key stats regarding voice search and how it applies to local search (source):
As we can see, people who use voice search are much more likely to be searching for local businesses, and the results served up are much more likely to be a local result.
That’s why local businesses in particular need to be preparing and optimizing for voice search. The question is, how do we do that?
Let’s quickly bullet out the main strategies we’ll be covering, and then dive into more detail:
Before we dive into strategies, we should hear what Google has to say first.
In early 2018, Google unveiled the dimensions by which their Voice Search Quality team evaluates results from Google Assistant. Those dimensions are:
You can view the entire official guidelines in PDF form, right here.
If you remember nothing else, at least remember those core four dimensions. We’ll cover these topics in more depth below, so keep reading!
I define long tail keywords as keywords that are 3 or more search terms a user submits in a single query.
For example, ‘what is the best Italian restaurant near me’ is a long tail keyword. If you were to use a keyword tool, it would likely say the search volume is 0 or ‘N/A’. However, that says more about the limitation of keyword tools than it does the importance of long tail keywords.
Long tail keywords matter because voice search tends to be more conversational, and more and more people are phrasing their questions in complete sentences. This is very different than user behavior on desktop or mobile though, where people search using with only a word or 2.
Because of this, local businesses should write more conversationally in their content so that they can best match the keywords people are likely searching for that could bring the searcher to your business.
Once you’ve found those keywords, search for them yourself in Google and see what kind of results turn up. If you’re finding that the types of results aren’t similar to anything on your website, it’s a good sign that you need to create it. If you do have a similar page, check out your standard SEO elements like titles, meta descriptions, headers, and the copy itself. There’s very likely some opportunities to work in the keyword.
Pro Tip: Something I do a lot is use questions as my headers. That way, Google sees that exact question people are asking on your page, accompanied by the answer. This is a very effective way of improving rankings for question-based keywords.
If you haven’t already, go check out the guide to Quick Answer optimization I wrote. If you’re entirely unfamiliar with what Quick Answers are, here’s my definition:
“Google Quick Answers are the boxes of information that sometimes appear at the top of the search engine results page (SERP) for certain queries, and are supposed to provide searchers with the information or answers they are looking for right on the SERP. Most of the time these answers are pulled from a particular website, which is displayed at the bottom of the Quick Answer Box.”
Why is this important for voice search? Our studies have shown that for the most part, digital assistants will pull information from Quick Answers on Google. Therefore if you rank for the Quick Answer you are not only the top organic result, you are also the result that will be called upon for voice search questions.
How do you rank for Quick Answers? Again, I definitely recommend checking out the guide, but here are the highlights:
One important note: voice assistants tend to just read out a snippet of the Quick Answer or content from the Quick Answer page. Therefore, it’s important that somewhere near the start of the page you answer the main question in a single sentence or two, using exact match keywords and headers. Otherwise, the voice search answer could end up being nonsensical.
Pro Tip: Use keyword tools like BrightEdge and Ahrefs to see which keywords display Quick Answers in their results. Not all keywords and questions trigger Quick Answers!
To elaborate a bit on that final point, let’s briefly discuss schema. Schema markup is code you add to your website or page that provides search engines with more information and context about the content.
For example, while Google can crawl an Ecommerce product page, it may not understand each element of the product such as the price or in-stock status like a human would.
That’s where schema markup comes into play. Instead of leaving Google to guess that the t-shirt you’re selling is $12, you can specify that using schema. Google then sometimes rewards you by highlighting that information in the SERPs for your listing.
The reason schema is valuable for Quick Answers and voice search is because if search engines can understand your content better, your chances of ranking higher also increase.
Two really valuable schema types are Question schema and FAQ schema. Use these schema types on your content targeting Quick Answers to really boost your chances of earning that top spot (often called ‘position 0’). Below is an example of JSON formatted Question schema that validates in Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool:
If you want to learn more about schema, you can check out my guide here.
Pro Tip: Use custom HTML tags in Google Tag Manager to implement schema markup on any page, and validate it with the Structured Data Testing Tool. No dev work required!
Google My Business is a free platform on Google where you can manage your local business. You can provide business information such as your hours, phone number, and address. When you search for your business in Google Maps, the information will displayed will be pulled in from Google My Business.
Google My Business profiles are also what rank in Local 3 Packs, like when you search for a keyword such as ‘dentist near me.’
While there is a lot that goes into local SEO, having a fleshed out, accurate Google My Business profile with plenty of positive reviews is a key element and will significantly impact your local rankings. As a result, make sure your local business is claimed on Google and that you are actively acquiring reviews from customers.
If you aren’t showing up in the Local 3 Pack, voice search devices most likely will not select you when people search for things near them.
Pro Tip: Use a tool like Moz Local to manage your listings across all major local directories.
FAQ pages are a great way of ranking better for Quick Answers and showing up in voice search. Why?
It’s the perfect place to incorporate your long tail keyword research from earlier by structuring questions and answers around them. Find out what people are looking for, write down those questions, and then answer them clearly and succinctly.
That last word is key: succinctly. If the answer to the question is simple, you don’t need to write 3 paragraphs about it. Indeed, voice assistants are looking for direct answers for their users, so if your answer is spread across over several sentences, you’re not going to be selected as the voice search result. Unlike this guide you’re currently reading, keep things short and sweet!
FAs a reminder, don’t forget to markup your FAQ pages with QA page schema.
Pro Tip: Don’t just use keyword research for FAQ pages. Talk to your customers and potential customers and see what their questions are. Reading existing product reviews is a great place to find things that you could be answering in an FAQ.
In case you haven’t heard of it, Google has stated that because mobile search is now the majority of searches on its platform, it will start crawling and determining rankings for searches based off of the mobile versions of websites.
This means that if your desktop and mobile experiences are significantly different, you could see a big change in your website’s keyword rankings.
How does mobile friendliness relate to voice search? Well for one, voice assistants are still most widely used on smartphones, so if a user is given a link to your site by their voice assistant, you want to know that they will have a good experience on the site.
More important though is the fact that keyword rankings and things like Quick Answers will now be determined by mobile-versions of websites. If, for example, your mobile website has less textual content than your desktop version, when Google crawls your website to assess the quality of your content, you will likely be much less competitive. And as I pointed out earlier, when it comes to voice search, you are invisible if you’re not at the top.
If you already have a responsive website (and you should), you’re probably already fine. If you use dynamic serving or separate URLs though, you’ll want to conduct a mobile SEO audit to flag any potential issues. You can read more about mobile SEO best practices in this guide.
Pro Tip: Use Google’s free Mobile-Friendly Test to check if your website is mobile friendly, and use the Mobile Usability report in Google Search Console to see common mobile issues affecting your site.
Content marketing is such a key part of any digital marketing campaign, and it should also be a key part of your voice search strategy.
As you have likely seen from your current SEO campaigns, it’s very unlikely that your product, category, or service pages rank for question keywords. And yet, most voice search queries are questions. So, how can your brand take advantage of this knowledge?
Use content initiatives to create content that answers those questions!
Your content can take a number of forms, from blog posts and videos to guides and how to's, plus much more. When it comes to ranking for questions, just keep in mind that you will need at least some textual content to rank highly and for those Quick Answers.
Any piece of content can be accompanied by crawlable text. Have a video? Post the transcript. Create an infographic? Write an intro, or make the text crawlable. Featured on a podcast? Write a summary of the major talking points and provide time stamps. There’s always something.
Pro Tip: When trying to rank for question terms with content, don’t skimp out on your competitor search. Check out the SERPs and see what type and format of content is being used currently as the Quick Answer. Also consider using tools like Buzzsumo or Ahrefs Content Explorer to see if the existing content helps achieve other marketing goals like acquiring social buzz and backlinks.
At the time of this guide’s launch, there is no way to see how much traffic you’re currently getting from voice search, and what queries are bringing in that traffic. Google says they are looking into adding that data to Search Console, but that could be a ways out.
So, what’s a digital marketer to do in the meantime?
This requires some guesswork, but we can use Google Search Console to at least get some information. You’re going to want to do the following:
From here, what I like to do is sort my queries by lowest impressions, and then use conditional formatting to highlight cells with the five Ws (who, where, when, what, why). I also highlight cells with more 3 or more terms.
With that done, I now have a plausible list of voice search queries that lead people to my website or at least lead to an impression (like in the Google Home app). From this point, take a look at the pages on your site that would rank for those queries and see if there are any optimizations you can make to further improve visibility!
If you’ve made it to the end of this guide, you undoubtedly understand just how important voice search is becoming for SEOs, and how you can get ahead of your competitors by using the voice search optimization strategies outlined above.
I hesitate to call 2018 ‘the year of voice search,’ but I do feel comfortable calling 2018 ‘the year where you should at least start thinking and testing things out with voice search.’
Regardless, best of luck out there, and if this all seems like it’s a bit much, you can always contact Wpromote and one of our SEO experts can handle this all for you. Happy optimizing!