The Search industry is well accustomed to rumour and speculation about the latest new tactic that is going to send you to the top of the search results and bring a steady supply of new traffic to your site.
As marketers (agency or client side), we often need to make a judgement call on what strategy and tactics will work best for the project in question. No two businesses are the same, and there are no guarantees that what works for one will work for the other.
Voice search is one of those hot topics in the search industry now. It’s been bubbling away in the background for the last few years, but the extra focus that’s been placed on it by giants of the technology world, such as Amazon and Google with their Voice Assistant devices, has brought it to the fore.
Are we to believe the hype, or will voice search burn brightly and then fade away as another rumour in the search industry?
To find out, let’s look at what we know about voice search so far and what the experts are predicting (plus some tips on how you can optimise your content for voice search).
The more things change, the more they stay the same
The fundamentals of SEO haven’t changed that much over the years – too many to mention specifically, but great content that aligns with your audience's needs, good on-page and off-page optimisation, supported by a good backlink profile and you’re well on your way.
Other tactics have had their day in the sun and been put out to pasture, rightly or wrongly, by the search engine overlords. That’s a discussion for another day, although many of the fundamentals of traditional SEO mentioned above are transferrable to voice search as well. More on that later.
In its relatively short lifespan, the most profound change we have seen in the search industry has been the introduction of mobile. Mobile changed the game from searchers being dependent on being in front of a computer to searching anywhere, for anything and at any time.
It changed the relationship between searchers and brands online, and changed the very fabric of how search engines work (and continues to do so).
Changes like that don’t come around too often – perhaps once every 5 or 10 years, which is an incredibly long time in the search / technology space.
So, where does voice search sit on the scale of change and does it have the potential to create a similar impact as mobile?
Voice search isn’t a new thing anymore. As far back as 2016, Google reported that 20% of mobile searches were already being carried out using voice.
However, if it reaches the lofty predictions that many experts in the field have set for it over the next few years, then it has the potential to leave a huge footprint on how we search for information and interact with brands online.
The headline prediction is that by 2020, 50% of all searches online will be carried out using voice search. That’s something to sit up and take notice of.
While there is a lot of crossover between important ranking factors for traditional SEO and voice SEO, there are some key differences that can give you a vital edge over competitors.
As a relatively new space in search, and one that is predicted to grow considerably, brands and marketers need to ask themselves how they can optimise their content for voice search.
Voice search also creates a unique scenario in which there can only be one winner. The chosen result will be read aloud to the searcher – they don’t have a screen to display multiple results. Being first, and prominent in areas like featured snippets, is where the gold lies regarding voice search.
In the words of Ricky Bobby... If you ain't first, you're last!
How to optimise your content for voice search?
1. The format and layout of your content – answering questions
By its nature, voice search is conversational and with it brings a multitude of how, why, what, where and when queries.
When identifying suitable answers for voice search, search engines want to find the response to the searchers query as early and as easily as possible within your content. If it isn’t possible to answer the query easily at the beginning of your content, do so at the beginning of a paragraph or sentence.
It does not need any supporting ‘waffle’ or un-necessary detail. If you are providing an answer to a question within your content, make it as detailed, but concise, as possible to fully answer the query.
2. Content that can be used as a conversational response
It may seem obvious, but the content you provide should make sense when spoken aloud. Not all written responses present as well in a spoken format.
Featured snippets displayed in desktop and mobile search results also correlate positively with responses that are provided in voice search. That is likely to be the most obvious starting point for brands – identify featured snippets that you compete for (or win) already and optimise for voice search, or identify content opportunities in your niche that produce featured snippets and target the most relevant.
One caveat is that many featured snippets in desktop and mobile search uses data from tables to display results on-screen. This becomes an issue with voice search however, as it is significantly more difficult for a search engine to take the data from a table and turn it into a conversational response for a searcher.
Featured Snippets with tables are great for screens – not so much for results in voice search
Your strategy to target the needs of these channels needs to reflect the unique challenges they present.
3. Schema Markup gives search engines a helping hand
Truth be told, search engines do not want to spend time crawling all your HTML and deciphering what your content means.
They would much rather reference the schema markup you have implemented on your pages and get an instant overview of the content on your page. As an SEO, marketer or website owner, anything that helps search engines understand, and potentially rank, your content better should be grabbed with both hands.
Surprisingly, not everyone takes search engines up on that offer, and so they are left to crawl your pages and work out the meaning of your content through the keywords and topics discussed within it. All things being equal, which is never the case, you are much better with it than without it.
In a recent post, which I highly recommend reading, on Search Engine Journal, Dawn Anderson discussed how Google uses its knowledge graph and schema findings first to look for an answer for voice search, before checking the rest of the content on the web if no satisfactory result is found.
If there were any doubts previously about the implementation of schema markup for your content, voice search may be the final push you need to start rolling out that change.
4. The fundamentals of traditional SEO are still as important
Positioning your content to succeed in voice search still depends heavily on many of the factors that are important for traditional SEO performance.
If you don’t rank well, or at all, for the queries you are providing answers to in search results, you will struggle to make an impact in voice search.
Developing and implementing a sustainable and long-term SEO strategy will build a solid foundation to grow your desktop & mobile organic traffic, while opening the opportunity to add voice search into that mix.
5. Test, test and test again
There are no guarantees in search. With an algorithm that changes as often as Google’s does, what works today, may not work tomorrow.
Test different content types, analyse what works currently for you or your competitors and when you find something that works, don’t stop. Keep improving your content, add new links, new citations and send the right signals to search engines that they’ve made the right choice in choosing your content.
Despite it already being in play for the past few years, voice search is still a relatively unknown quantity for most marketers and brands in 2018. The lack of clarity and data available from search engines regarding voice queries also presents challenges for SEO’s. I expect that situation to change in the next 6-12 months, although Google is volatile at the best of times with the data it chooses to share.
However, those that have turned their attention and content towards voice will have a distinct advantage over their competitors as voice continues to grow in the years ahead.
Voice search is not without its challenges. While informational and conversational queries are easily fulfilled by voice, transactional searches present a tougher scenario when a screen isn’t involved. People will generally trust what they can see and in some instances, it’s difficult to imagine a screen not being part of the purchasing journey. Even more so when it comes to entering your card details or if the searcher wants to shop around and look at different options.
If there is one front-runner that may have a competitive advantage over others (not that it needs another), it may be Amazon. They are already heavily invested in voice and have a pretty firm grip on the ecommerce space as well.
The journey from initial query to purchase is already laid out and fully controlled by one company.
Searcher: Alexa – What is the latest Call of Duty game?
Alexa: The Latest Call of Duty game is Call of Duty WWII.
Searcher: Is it in stock?
Searcher: OK, buy it.
Seamless, right? You can order whatever you need without getting off your sofa, or even lifting your phone.
Amazon offer a direct path from voice search to purchase
At its core, voice search is about saving humans time and effort. Throughout history, that has been central to inventions or technology that have stood the test of time.
As the popularity of voice assistants and voice enabled devices continues to grow, patterns and behaviours around search will change with it.
With change comes opportunity to gain (or lose) ground within your niche and the competition that resides within it. With change on this scale, the stakes are even higher.