SEO: Optimizing For Voice Search

Three-year-old Jia picked up her mother’s phone, unlocked it, then went on to Google voice search and confidently said, “Pikachu video”. In an instant, several of the popular Pokemon character’s videos popped up on the screen. The world of search just opened up not only to people who don’t want to type but those who can’t. And since search is changing, it is but natural that optimization will have to change too. How much, when and how is what we are about to find out.

A lot of technology is about convenience. It works to make our life easy. Search allows us to find and connect with the things we seek out – be it businesses, products, services or just knowledge. From an optimization perspective, things seemed fairly easy a decade back. It meant we use a few keywords in the right places and things pretty much worked. With time, the algorithm grew intelligent enough to weed out those trying to game the system with keywords. And just as we figured that content and good links mattered the most, in came the smartphones which brought the shift to optimizing for mobile. As of today, optimizing for ‘search intent’ seems to be the most important factor in SEO. Historically, the way we optimize has changed when the medium for search changed. So it looks like optimization will undergo another change with voice search growing rapidly.

Siri, Cortana, Alexa and now Google’s assistant are leading the way in which we use voice search. In 2015, search using virtual assistants went from zero to 10% of the global search volume. As of today, because the medium is slowly gaining adoption, 58% of adults who use it feel they look ‘tech-savvy’ when using it.   Another interesting fact is that 28% of the people surveyed felt that voice search was more accurate than typed search. A Meeker’s report states that, as of May 2016, one in every five searches on Android devices is a voice search. Chinese market leader Baidu estimates that by 2020, 50% of searches will be over voice. Apple’s Siri handles more than 1 billion voice searches per week.

Here’s another perspective from Google’s viewpoint who constantly seems to modify itself by intuitively sensing user demand. With people moving away from keywords and more towards search similar to the language we speak, Google focussed on answering the question. In fact, Google is providing a direct answer result on about 19.5 percent of total search engine queries.
So, what does all this mean for us as digital marketers? How do we prepare ourselves for the future of search? We cover a lot of ground in this article – from what voice search is to what it can be and how we prepare for it.

Let’s get started.

What is Google Voice Search?

Voice search, like many of Google’s products, saw its origin in the Google labs. Introduced in 2010, it’s raw avatar allowed users to call a phone number. After receiving a recorded prompt of ‘Say your search keywords’, an open webpage would be updated with the results. This wasn’t a user-friendly solution but it gave Google the understanding of the potential of the medium.

Today, the voice search feature allows users to tap the microphone, speak a phrase or ask a question and directly be presented with the answers.

Are Voice Search Results Different From Typed Results?

Yes and no. A lot of results come out similar irrespective of how you search for it but with a few exceptions. If you search for directions to a place on mobile v/s desktop you may see slightly different results. But the differences are set to get widen in the future as the number of voice searches increase. But the fact remains that voice has brought a great degree of convenience to search.

Let us put this to a small test

We start by conducting a voice search for the query “Aishwarya Rai”, the Miss World 1994 winner and popular Bollywood actress.

Google immediately tells us that the Indian actress and model also goes by her married name Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Now that we’ve established the basics, we probe a little further to see how much Google understands if the question was complex.

We asked, “Which was her last movie?”. This confused Google a little and instead gave results on the 2016 movie ‘Her last will’. Hmm… scope for improvement.

But a lot of other queries came out fine. We asked, ‘What did she wear for Cannes last year?’ and the assistant said, ‘Check out these photos’ which had a few photos of her on the red carpet.

Other simple questions like ‘What is her age?’ and ‘Where was she born?’ were also answered accurately. Here, Google assumed that the ‘her’ we are referring to was still ‘Aishwarya Rai’ and interpreted the search query accordingly. This wouldn’t work in a desktop search. Go Google!

Incidentally, Cortana’s top voice search is “Who is Bill Gates?”. I think most people are expecting a joke for the answer. But you get a straight answer there. Instead, if you ask Cortana, “Who is your father?”, you’ll technically get a straight answer too!

How is Voice Being Used Actually?

So we may not typically be searching for Aishwarya Rai using voice, unless for the fun of it. What are people looking for? Turns out, teens and adults tend to use voice a bit differently.

People of all ages generally tend to ask practical questions like asking for directions or checking the time or even “near me” searches. But one-third of the teens tend to use voice search to get help with their homework. The places where voice search was used also differed a bit. Most teens (57%) used it with friends while most adults (36%) used it while watching TV. Other common places to use voice search was in the bathroom, while cooking or exercising.

Will Videos Be The Best Way To Capture Voice Search?

You’ll notice that many of many people are multi-tasking during voice search. They are driving, cooking or in the bathroom and probably require a hands-free experience. This could mean that people would eventually not want to ‘read’ the answers during an activity but hear it or watch it. So if voice search takes over, a video will probably become bigger than text.

Let’s Put The Stats Aside To See How To Actually Optimize For Voice Search

More ‘Human’ SEO

Gone are the keyword days of SEO when life was simple. It is time to take Google seriously and optimize for users first instead of machines. To optimize for voice search, you’ll have to think of what actual humans would speak during a voice search. Instead of picking disjoint words, pick up an actual phrase which may be longer like a question or statement.

According to this research by Microsoft, Cortana’s text queries were mostly two-word phrases while the voice queries at least had three words.

If you are a local travel company, you are probably using keywords like ‘Andaman vacation’ or ‘Andaman packages’. With voice, you’ll need to add in keywords like ‘Cost for Andaman package’ or ‘Andaman travel guide’. It is best to start incorporating this into your content right away.

Use Question Phrases

According to a study by Search Engine Land, question phrases saw a 61% year-on-year growth. Of these, the ‘who’ phrase is up by 134% and ‘how’ up by ‘81%’

When optimizing your site, think of what your customers would be asking for your product or service. What ‘who’ or ‘how’ phrase would they use to get you as the answer.

Keeping the above example, if you were to ask Google a question, it would probably be, “Who has the best Andaman vacation deal?” or “How can I get to Andaman by ship?”

Voice For Local SEO

For both adults and teens, navigational queries that used terms like ‘near me’, ‘nearby’ or ‘nearest’ remained on top for voice search. This means that voice will eventually have a huge impact on local businesses. In addition to this, optimizing the site for micro-data can be an advantage. Adding details like business hours, address, telephone number and user ratings can all go a long way in giving you a push on local search.

Being Mobile-Friendly is Mandatory

Being mobile first is not an option anymore. Did you know that more than 40% smartphone users started using voice search by the end of 2015. Making your web page mobile friendly is super important.

Run a quick mobile-friendliness test on your website to see where you stand.

If your site doesn’t meet Google’s standards, you’ll be given a set of non-specific actions to improve your site. There are a few parts to mobile-friendliness. The user interface, the tags, the code and the content. While the first three involves some amount of tech, navigation and content for mobile depend on the way you craft it. Here’s a quick guide to crafting mobile-friendly content. Chunking content with thoughtfully arranged subheads in the right flow will be the best way to create content for mobile.

Marketing to Who The Person is Than Their Behavior

Today, a search is all about ‘intent’. With the Hummingbird update, Google laid emphasis on a semantic search to understand the ‘why’ behind the search to quickly get people to the most relevant answer.
In addition to this, the way different people saw search results for the same query changed based on their personalized browsing behavior. Google started piecing together information based on the someone’s personal search preferences. It also started putting together data from multiple input points to see how the conversion funnel that started online finally converted offline.

But all this still looks like work in progress. Ultimately, search engines are trying to understand who we are so that advertisers can eventually granularly target users.

Voice and Machine Learning

Just like RankBrain has been learning from user searches and improvizing its algorithm, it is also likely that Google will learn to recognize voice commands with ‘natural language processing’. This means that, over time, Google will understand the unique characteristics of your speech, put this together with your browsing interests, shopping behavior, and personal information to comprehensively know details about you that your best friend currently knows. It may just know many secrets that your best friends don’t know either.

The Missing Data Link

Recently in December, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller put out a tweet asking webmasters why they were looking for separate voice data in the search console. While we know a lot of generic statistics about search, webmasters don’t know what people are saying to reach their website. This makes the optimization process more of a guess work for now.

With question phrases and long-form queries like “Does the Snowflakes cafe serve choco lava cake?” the optimization for websites will undergo a new set of changes. Webmasters want to be prepared for this but right now, all we can do is the best guess our approach. Maybe, with time, Google will share enough data for us to analyze trends and optimize.

For marketers, this has a much bigger implication that many aren’t even thinking about yet. The Actions on Google service allows you to build apps for the Google assistant. These apps will allow you to let your users take a simple action in a conversational interface – anything from turning the lights on to playing a game. If you are a company selling tickets, you can create an assistant app that will guide your users to buy tickets from you. Or you could help people order a pizza from your website using Google assistant! The possibilities are just beginning to take shape. But without the data linking to results, it is a little difficult for marketers to allocate budget to this new window for optimization.

The Impact of Voice On The IoT

Internet of Things will be the next big thing to get a push from voice search. You could literally be talking to your refrigerator, air conditioner and lighting system to work as per your command. You could command your wearable IoT to keep you warmer or send emails without having to touch your laptop. There are cool outcomes from voice becoming popular. We would love to wait and watch.

Optimizing For More Than Google

When Siri started out, she was using Bing to pull out search results. With a large number of iPhone users and Apple taking over Samsung as the biggest manufacturer of smartphones, webmasters suddenly were feeling compelled to optimize for Bing too. Luckily, Siri chose Google over Bing last September for text search. But Siri’s image search still comes from Bing. It is a wait and watches the game on the optimization front there.


Voice search is here to stay and become a big part of our future. It is better we start looking at optimization options right now so that it doesn’t catch us unaware of our content and SEO strategy.
If I were to have just one wish with voice search, it would be this – “OK Google, How do I optimize my website so that you like it?”. I hope Google pulls out a really specific answer with action points that I simply will follow to the T.

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