According to a study by Google, 41% of US adults, and more than half of US teens use voice search on a daily basis. More and more users are adopting this method of search as it offers an easy, hands-free alternative that’s often quicker than typing on a keyboard. A Google survey found that voice search is proving popular in the kitchen, where users ask their mobile device things such as “OK Google, how many ounces are in a gallon?” while keeping their screen crumb-free.

Voice search is also becoming more intelligent, with the latest iterations of Google voice search, Siri, Cortana and Alexa being better able to understand the user’s query, and it is important for search practitioners to prepare for the growing interest and use of voice search and address it in their search strategy.

What is voice search?

A voice search uses a combination of natural language processing (NLP) and text-to-speech technology to understand a user’s search request. This is then processed through their database, which aims to match the question with an answer for the user, rather than a search engine results page (SERP). You might have noticed similar answer box results happening within the SERPs when you search for intent- based questions, such as [what is voice search].

The role of the NLP technology is to determine the intent behind the user’s voice request, based on previous query histories and context behind the phrase. Apple’s Siri, Windows’ Cortana, Amazon’s

Alexa and other voice-activated search technologies follow a similar process, returning a direct result rather than a SERP.

When Siri and Google’s “OK Google” voice search were introduced in 2011, they did not function as well as expected – the accuracy of these tools to understanding a user’s query was as low as 62%. However, the latest iterations of these products in 2017 are much more accurate and thus easier for users to rely on as a useful, rather than a gimmicky search tool.

The growing interest in voice search to receive instant answers has been heightened by the ability of these tools to effectively answer voice queries. In the same way, the need to answer user queries to satisfy this growing interest has pushed leading tech firms to constantly improve their voice search and personal assistant tools to a point where they can accurately handle user queries.

With more than 60% of users searching on mobile devices, Google has already made a number of updates to their algorithm to address the importance of mobile search, creating a mobile-first index and assigning ranking weight to sites that are deemed ‘mobile-friendly,’ for example. According to Google representatives at a keynote in 2016, 20% of mobile searches are conducted using voice search, which emphasises the need to factor this into search strategies.

What does it mean for SEO?

There are approximately 3.5 billion Google searches happening every day, and if 60% of that is through a mobile device, of which 20% is a voice search, there are roughly 420 million voice searches happening every day. If a brand isn’t considering this as part of their search strategy, they could be missing out on huge amounts of potential traffic.

Voice search will not require SEO practitioners to overhaul their strategy, however, it will mean that some changes will need to be made to adapt to the changing way users interact with Google and other search engines. The intent behind a voice search will be different to that of text-based searches; users will use natural language, meaning long-tail keywords, e.g. question-based, or ‘how-to’ queries, will be more important than ever.

Tools such as Answerthepublic, StoryBase and Question Samurai are useful for exploring long-tail content ideas around a specific niche. This research can be used to create FAQ content to answer common questions users are searching using voice search around a specific brand/topic.

Searching using personal assistant tools such as Siri, Cortana and Alexa provide instant answers and not a SERP with a list of results. With this in mind, it’s important for SEOs to understand how these tools select instant answers to serve to users and adapt their strategy to increase visibility for their brands. Similarly, search practitioners should understand how Google’s own voice search functionality selects the results used to answer queries. For example, optimising informational content in a Q&A format that encourages Google to pull that through as an answer box result in SERPs may increase the likelihood of Google using that content in answering voice search queries.

Algorithm updates like Panda and Possum mean that less authoritative sites have a chance of competing for long-tail queries based on high quality, intent led on-page copy more so than ever in the local market.

Formerly, brands would compete for terms with high search volume, optimising landing pages for the most searched keywords and that was that. Nowadays, with Google’s semantic grouping of search terms and an eye for more informational search, we’re seeing search engines prioritise long-term and intent-based on-page copy instead, giving users exactly what they want, first time of asking.

What about paid search?

As voice search grows more prevalent, monetisation will follow. While the majority of current voice searches are informative and/or instructive, it is likely that we will see a rise in more commercial searches as adoption increases and users become more comfortable with the feature. This is similar to the trend that we have seen across the industry on mobile search; while it was initially thought of as a research platform, users are increasingly purchasing products and/or services through mobile devices.

With voice search, advertisers need to focus on targeting another syntax, moving from truncated keyword searches to conversational queries, for example, a typed search for “top phones 2017” may become “what are the best-rated phones of 2017” with a voice search. It’s no surprise that Google has already responded to this by broadening exact match queries by ignoring function words. Marketers can cast their nets wider to capture relevant searches that show similar intent allowing PPC to become more voice search friendly.

There’s also the possibility of a broadening availability of voice search to multiple platforms as the number of personal assistants grows. Samsung’s Bixby (replacing S Voice) has recently joined the ever- growing cast of voice-activated personal assistants. Amazon has already made suggestions earlier this year about paid voice search within Alexa, which could have implications for Google’s search hegemony.

Implications for advertisers

There are ethical considerations around ‘ad visibility’ – where do voice search providers such as Alexa and Siri draw the line between ‘recommendation’ and ‘promotion,’ and how visible is this to the user? Ultimately, these are still early days for paid voice search, which will undoubtedly continue to evolve as the technology does, posing new challenges for brands around visibility and the proliferation of platforms.

With the availability of devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, which are activated by voice search, does this pave the way for audio ads to be supported by AdWords?

It emerged over the past couple of weeks that Google Home was ending messages to users asking their device questions with a push to a call to action. For example, people asking about the new Beauty and the Beast movie received the message “By the way, Beauty and the Beast opens in theatres today.” The ethics of this, as explored above is debatable, but it will no doubt open the possibility of running radio style ads, targeted and tailored to an audience that has shown some form of intent.

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