Voice search isn’t going anywhere.
In fact, it’s only expanding – into our homes, cars, watches, and wearables.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the impact voice search has on marketing, as well as break down the differences between the top virtual assistants and providers on the market.
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The Impact of Voice Search on Marketing
The days of optimizing for text only are over.
Though traditional searches will remain a huge part of marketing and SEO, no one can deny the growing influence that voice has on the way we search.
As of January 2018, there were an estimated 1 billion voice searches per month, and by 2020 its predicted that 50% of searches will be done by voice.
A lot of that is due to the easy accessibility of digital assistants – they live in our phones, our cars, our watches, and living rooms.
It makes searching on the go – and without a keyboard on hand – as easy as talking to the person next to you.
As such, it’s not hard to see why 40% of adults now use voice search once per day.
But it’s not just the devices that people use that’s changing, it’s the way they search in general, and the rise of voice search means major things for marketing and SEO.
Think about how you would phrase a traditional text phrase. I’m willing to bet a proper sentence doesn’t come to mind.
Instead, when we’re typing a search query, we tend to focus on keywords, with little attention paid to grammar or sentence structure.
So you’ll usually get something like “auto shop san francisco ca.”
That’s a totally acceptable search query, and as such, most marketers optimize their content to align specifically with those keywords.
Now think about how you ask something out loud. Rarely do you go up to another person and demand “auto shop san francisco ca.”
Instead, conversation rules apply, meaning you’d come out with something more like “where’s the [best, cheapest, closest] auto shop in San Francisco, CA?”
That distinction between how queries are phrased in text form vs. talking form is extremely important when it comes to SEO for voice search.
Because users are speaking their searches out loud, they’re using natural, conversational language, usually in question form.
And due to that shift, search engines have been relying less on keywords on more on Natural Language Processing to return relevant results.
For those unfamiliar, Natural Language Processing is a form of AI that helps computers process and understand human language – and it’s getting more accurate and sophisticated every day.
For marketers, this new trend in searching means adopting strategy less focused on keywords and more focused on adopting a conversational tone, optimizing for longer search queries, and incorporating quick, easy answers to those queries in their copy.
Voice Search Devices
Now that we know a little more about how voice search will change how we optimize for SEO, let’s talk about the specific devices we’ll be optimizing for.
Your major players out there are Google, Amazon, and Apple, and each comes with a set of devices and features for voice searchers to play with.
All of these also come with their own digital personal assistants, which are AI-powered, software-based systems designed to help users complete tasks via voice.
And, no surprise here, these devices are extremely popular.
By 2017, 13% of all households in the United States owned a smart speaker. And by 2022, that number is expected to rise to 55%.
Naturally, those devices are powered by software and what we call their “assistants”, personal helpers that live inside your phones, smart speakers, etc. As of now, the major players are:
- Google Actions
- Amazon Alexa
- Apple Siri
- Microsoft Cortana
These assistants are able to seamlessly perform searches and actions requested via voice.
Voice Search With Google
Google Assistant is the voice on the other end of all your Google devices. You know, the one that answers to “Hey, Google”?
It can control over 2,000 home devices, give quick answers to (any) question, and on your phone, give you information on commute times and travel information.
There are few limits to what Google Assistant can help you with. At home, it can play music, play your favorite show on Netflix or dim your lights.
On the go, it can provide you with directions, traffic delays, and shuffle your playlists.
And anywhere in between, it can provide answers to your questions (hint: that’s where SEO comes in).
And as time goes on, you can expect to see more and more of the Assitant.
The latest news is the addition of a mic to Google.com on Android phones.
While users were already able to perform voice searches, the biggest change here is that now they’ll be able to hear a spoken result inside the Google app.
Again, it’s not exactly a new phenomenon in voice search – after all, people have been interacting with smartphones via voice for years.
The key takeaway here, as pointed out by Search Engine Land, is that it signifies push to bring the Assistant to the forefront of all searches, and bring a more integrated experience to search across devices.
For marketers, this means an increased emphasis on voice search SEO as the powerhouse Google attempts to bring voice even more mainstream.
Also of note, research shows that Google Assitant is the smartest of all digital personal assistants.
Androids are the smartphones powered by Google, which come fully loaded with Google Assistant.
You’re likely pretty familiar with these. They perform any actions the Assistant can complete on the go, and with each new unveiling, they get smarter and smarter.
The latest, the Pixel 3, was unveiled at Google’s “Made By Google” event, and introduces the following new AI features:
- Built-in call screening, which uses AI to identify and block possible spam calls
- Duplex AI. This is a big one, and can make phone calls on your behalf for specifics tasks like making a dinner reservation or hair appointment.
Essentially, Google Actions (and their various counterparts) are the apps of voice search.
They’re powered through Google, and allow third-party to design their own uses specifically for Google Assistant.
So, if food delivery extraordinaire UberEats wanted a way for customers to easily order food via their voice assistant, they’d build an Action.
Or, if fitness website wanted to deliver easy workouts of the days to its readers, it could build an Action users could activate via voice.
As with your mobile apps, the options are almost endless.
The cool thing here is that powered entirely through voice, and allow users to have a conversation-like experience with your brand.
Even cooler? Because Actions are powered by AI, the more conversations they have with users, the smarter they’ll get.
All of this represents a world of opportunity for marketers. But the truth is..it’s still too to tell exactly what kind of effect Actions and the like will have on digital marketing.
What we can tell is that based on how technology has evolved, they’re likely to stick around.
The evolution from app, to chatbot, to Actions proves that users want a more streamlined way to communicate with brands – without having to pick up a phone or type out an email.
Most telling, of course, is the continuing rise in popularity of voice search.
As people begin to search the web differently (via voice), brands need a different way to reach and communicate with their audience. Google Actions represent that.
And the thing about Actions is that they’re appropriate for almost any kind of business. Because Google remains the dominant force in the search world, building Actions inside it will likely return the best results for your business.
If you’re interested in learning more about Actions, Google provides multiple in-depth guides to help you get started with Actions and build your Conversation flow.
You can build them through Google’s dedicated console, which lets you build conversations through its DialogFlow.
A few best practices if you do decide to experiment with Actions:
- Plan for variations. Users will ask questions in different ways, so try to plan conversation variations that cater to all possible queries.
- Include a Help section. Remember, these are new to users too. Include a Help command that will lead users to more resources.
- Personalize the experience. Program in user preferences (zip code, time zone, name, etc.) so you can offer them a more personalized experience and save them from repeating the information in the future.
Google Home and Google HomeHub
At home, Google Assistant is probably stored in your Google Home or Google Home Hub.
First came Google Home, Google’s initial offering in the smart speaker space.
The speaker offers a small, unobtrusive design and is designed to help with any tasks around the house – which means it can control over 5,000 smart home devices, turn on your Spotify list, queue up your Netflix playlist, plan your grocery lists, and dial up the delivery guy.
Of course, that’s on top of its built-in ability to answer questions and perform web searches.
More recently, Google introduced the Google Home Hub.
The Home Hub is a 7” Smart Display, which means it’s a display-mounted speaker. It comes with all the usual smart speaker capablities, but with the addition of access Google, YouTube, Google Photos, Calendar, Maps, and more.
Voice Search With Amazon
Alexa is Amazon’s equivalent to Google’s Assistant.
It’s the voice on the other end of your Amazon-powered speaker, and the one that will help you answer questions and complete tasks.
Technically speaking, it’s Amazon’s cloud-based, voice recognition system and natural language processing system.
Fun fact: the name Alexa was chosen in large part due to the “x” sound; it’s a less common sound, meaning Alexa is less likely to be activated accidentally.
Naturally, it’s extremely smart technology, though it doesn’t seem to know quite as much as Google Assistant. Seems about right, considering Google’s large ownership of the internet.
Alexa also comes with the ability to shop and track orders inside Amazon. Ask her to order a product, add a product to your cart, reorder a product, or track an existing order. You can also turn on delivery notifications to be alerted when packages arrive.
But, like all virtual assistants, Alexa doesn’t operate on its own. It needs a device to be housed in.
Amazon Echo is its smart speaker.
The Echo was the first of its kind, introduced back in November 2014 and originally only available to Prime members.
As you can imagine, this was pretty big news back in the day, way before smart speakers were staples in most homes.
Like the Google Home, Amazon Echo can perform a variety of tasks, from setting alarms, controlling lights and smart home features, and connecting you via voice to the internet to answer questions and get information.
Amazon also comes with a range of Smart Displays (Echo Dot, Echo Show, etc.) that contain display features.
The big difference between Amazon’s Smart Displays and Google’s Home Hub is that they come with the ability to make phone calls.
Perhaps Amazon’s biggest advantage in the voice search and smart speaker space is its Skills.
Similar to Google Actions, Skills are Amazon’s version of voice apps. They have the advantage of being the first of their kind to hit the market, meaning there’s a lot of them available.
Since their release in 2015, Amazon now has over 30,000 Skills in the US alone.
Like Actions, Skills are cloud-based and open to any brand wanting to build a capability, or app, in voice form.
Amazon itself explains it best:
“When a user speaks to a device with Alexa, the speech is streamed to the Alexa service in the cloud. Alexa recognizes the speech, determines what the user wants, and then sends a structured request to the particular skill that can fulfill the user’s request. All speech recognition and conversion is handled by Alexa in the cloud.”
Unlike mobile apps, that means users don’t necessarily need to have a Skill in mind when they interact with Alexa, instead, she’ll find the appropriate Skill to match their request.
If you decide to build a Skill, you’ll first need to decide on the type:
- Custom Interaction – this allows you the most control over the user’s experience, and can accomplish virtually any action
- Smart Home Skills – these are pre-built skills that can control home devices
- Flash briefing Skills – these are used to provide content for customers flash briefings (or quick updates, such as “tell me the news”)
- Video Skills – enables you to provide video content
- List Skills – these enable users to add items to lists
In most cases, you’ll probably be building a custom interaction.
The same best practices apply here as did with Google Actions, but additionally keep in mind to:
- Make it clear when the user should respond
- Keep your responses brief
- Explain any complex Skills
- Clearly present all options, and avoid overwhelming the user with too many
Voice Search on Apple
Apple has the distinction of introducing the very first digital assistant, Siri, to the market back in
Outside of that, Siri functions in much the same way as the Assitant and Alexa. She’s cloud-based, extremely smart, and ready to turn on the lights or answer a question.
If you have an iPhone (or even if you don’t) you know that Siri’s baked into the Apple’s iPhone.
Press and hold the home button, and Siri’s waiting to answer your questions and commands.
If you want to search the internet by voice, launch your mobile browser and click the microphone located next to the space bar.
Unlike the Google Assistant, Siri is only available on iOS, while the Assistant is available on both Android and iOS.
As of now, it also doesn’t respond to voice searches via the internet with voice responses; instead, it will pull a traditional mobile search results page.
Somewhat surprisingly, Apple didn’t release its HomePod – its take on the Smart Speaker – until June 2017.
Though it was a bit late to the game, the HomePod comes with all the features we’ve come to expect in our smart devices, from helping out around the house to performing internet searches and answering questions.
Despite that, the HomePod hasn’t been quite the hit Apple expected. Though US consumers bought a record 66 million smart speakers in 2018 — up from 37 million a year earlier — Apple only a 6 percent share of the market.
As of now, Apple doesn’t have a Smart Display (equivalent Google HomeHub or Amazon Echo) in its lineup yet.
Just last year, Apple introduced Siri Shortcuts, its answer to Alexa Skills and Google Actions.
The technology will bring third-party integration to the Siri HomePod, allowing brands and other outside sources to build voice apps and commands accessed by Siri.
The difference here is that Shortcuts are often programmed by the user to help them automate or combine certain features or tasks.
Shortcuts on the iPhone is particularly cool because it has the ability to learn your routines.
As an example, if you order coffee every day with the same app, Siri might suggest your favorite beverage.
Or you can build your own Shortcut. Maybe you wanted a bedtime routine Shortcut. You could build one that dims the lights, plays your favorite soothing radio station, and sets your phone to silent mode, all simultaneously.
If interested in Shortcuts, I highly suggest this article by Cult of Mac, which goes over the step-by-step process.
How to Optimize Content for Voice Search
Now that we’ve taken a look at the devices side of search, let’s dig a little deeper into optimization.
As we covered above, people interact with digital assistants and voice commands very differently than they do a traditional search.
And while most assistants are smart enough to
1. Focus on Conversation & Question Phrases
We know that people are searching differently via voice.
For marketers, that means their content strategies need to adapt to the new norm.
And while keywords and keywords phrases will remain important, factors like synonyms and natural language need to be accounted for.
Voice search is dominated by question phrases (think who’s, what’s, when’s, where’s), and to stay relevant, you’ll need to optimize your content to include questions surrounding the given topic and primary keyword.
Traditional keyword research tools won’t help as much here; instead, I recommend using a tool like Answer the Public to uncover the most common questions for each piece of content you produce.
Going forward, keep in mind when optimizing your content that people will be more likely to:
- Use natural language
- Less likely to use keywords
- More conversational searches
- Use longer search queries
And, as always, keep it simple. No fancy language or content that requires a dictionary on hand. For reference, your average Google voice search result is written at a 9th grade level.
2. Optimize For Featured Snippets
One of the biggest differences between voice and traditional search? Assistants like Alexa and Siri usually only read out one initial answer, instead of pages of search results.
To increase your odds of being chosen for that coveted one answer, you need to work at not just getting to the #1 position in the SERPs, you need to get to #0.
Technically called the Featured Snippet, this result sits at the very top of the results page, making it the first things users see, and often, the only answer users hear when interacting by voice.
How often a Featured Snippet will be pulled as a voice search result varies by device, according to research by Stone Pilot.
But, as you might guess, this one is extremely big for voice searches on Google.
Google Assistant on Smartphone returned almost 60% featured snippet responses, while Alexa and Siri came in last with about 15% and 20%, respectively.
The reason Featured Snippets are used so often is that they’re built to offer quick, concise answers to questions asked by users.
Which means that as marketers, you need to be optimizing your content for questions. For best resutls, answers should be brief or even in list form and the questions should be in H2 (subheading).
Another way to increase your odds of a Featured Snippet is to include FAQs in your content.
Remember, length is key here.
In fact, it’s one of Google’s Voice Quality Raters criteria, and anything too long will receive a low grade.
While Google isn’t giving us any exact word counts to work with, a study by Backlinko found that the average voice search response consisted of just 29 words.
It’s also important to note that Moz recently found that list-type formatting returned a large of Featured Snippets – especially for searches for anything containing the words “best” and “how-to.”
3. Product Optimization for Amazon
If you sell inside Amazon, you’ll need a strategy to surface your products for voice search.
Bad news: we don’t know the exact factors that Amazon uses.
Here’s what we do know: When a customer asks to order a product on Amazon, Amazon will first look to that person’s order history.
So if someone asks Amazon for toothpaste and they’ve previously purchased Crest, that’s the product that will pop up.
If they haven’t ordered toothpaste from Amazon before, Amazon will recommend products based on its Amazon Choice Program.
Because no search giant likes to share all the in’s and out’s of their top secret algorithms, Amazon won’t say for sure how it selects products for its Choice Program.
We do know, however, that the product needs to available via Prime through the Fulfillment by Amazon or the Seller Preferred Prime program.
Amazon also makes Choice Program selections based on price, rating, reviews, and shipping speed.
So, what does that mean for sellers on voice search? The best way to rank is to earn your coveted Choice spot, which means staying competitively priced, fulfilling customer orders, comments, and questions, and putting a strategy in place to solicit as many positive reviews as possible.
4. Miscellaneous Factors
Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into ranking for voice search.
To get the best results possible, be aware of the following:
- Focus on local SEO. A 2016 the Internet Trends Report found that 22% of voice searches were used to find local content and information, so make sure you’ve claimed and optimized your Google My Business profile and incorporating local keywords, landmarks, etc. into your content.
- Work on PageSpeed. That same Backlinko study found that the average voice search result page loads in 4.6 seconds. For reference, that’s 52% faster than the average page.
- Social engagement may be a thing with voice search. On average, voice search results have 1,199 Facebook shares and 44 Tweets.
- Make sure you’ve switched to HTTPS. They’re prevalent in voice search results.
Wrapping Up Voice Search
Voice search is here for the long haul.
Regardless of your preferred device, the way people interact with virtual assistants is changing the way we search.
As a brand, your job is to keep up.