The future of search here, and it’s all about voice search.
In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about voice search and how to optimize your website for the future of search.
What You’ll Learn:
- How voice search is being used today
- The voice search ranking signals you need to know
- Introduction to the voice search quality rater guidelines
- How to optimize your content for voice search SEO
- How to optimize for different digital assistants
- What voice search means for the future of marketing
It’s safe to say that voice search has officially arrived.
According to TechCrunch, more than a quarter of US adults now have smart speakers, and that number is expected to keep rising.
Speech recognition is now at a level where our virtual assistants can deliver relevant content based on vocal commands.
Just last year, Google finally reported that its AI-powered Assistant improved its understanding of the English language so much that its error rate is now under 5%.
And, according to Google’s Sundar Pichai, the Google Assistant is beginning to develop a more nuanced understanding of conversational flow, meaning voice-based search has become easy and accessible for the average consumer.
As of January 2018, there were an estimated 1 billion voice searches per month, and by 2020 it’s predicted that 50% of searches will be done by voice.
The growing popularity of voice 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 if that well-documented prediction becomes a reality, competition for top billing in the SERPs is about to heat up big time.
As such, businesses need to prepare.
How is Voice Search Being Used Today?
It’s important to note we don’t necessarily believe that the rise of voice search means we’re abandoning text-based queries on the whole.
But, it does mean that digital marketing—and by extension, SEO — is going through some significant changes, and search marketers need to be aware of what’s new in the search game.
Here is a quick rundown of how voice search SEO is changing search as we know it.
Query Length is Getting Longer
How we approach queries is one of the more apparent ways SEO is changing. As we move toward a conversational approach to search marketing, we need to adopt a new approach to keyword research.
In many cases, Google is shifting away from keyword-triggered results.
Google Shopping, for instance, is based on matching search queries with shopper intent. Similarly, Google Discover is displaying content based on searchers’ preferences and browsing habits.
We must also take into account Google’s increasing focus on rich results, from the latest search console updates and all of the new reports included in the mix to the fact that Google has finally released a set of best practices for users hoping to secure a spot on the front page.
This is a big deal for voice search SEO, as voice results are frequently pulled from featured snippets.
We should also point out that voice search differs from text-based search in that we speak differently than we type.
Users interact very differently with voice than they do with text searches.
With text, it’s all keyword focused.
Unnecessary words are removed, and grammar generally isn’t accounted for.
For example, “best tacos Austin”: good search query, bad sentence.
But recently, and especially with the introduction of voice, queries have become much longer and conversational.
Instead of typing in “best tacos Austin” a voice searcher would ask “Where can I find the best tacos in Austin?”
Or, instead of “cheap flights from San Diego to Thailand,” they might request: “I need a list of the cheapest flights from San Diego to Thailand.”
Because of the shift, search engines have been relying less on keywords and more on Natural Language Processing to inform their search results.
For anyone unfamiliar, Natural Language Processing is artificial intelligence (AI) that helps computers understand and interpret human language.
Besides the increased length, voice-based queries often come in the form of a question.
So, where you might type in something like this “voice search and the future of SEO,” the voice-based version might look (or sound) like this: “what does voice search mean for the future of SEO?”
In Voice Search SEO, Intent Means Everything
Because many voice queries are questions, marketers need to consider this idea of intent much more than they did in the past.
Think about the searchers—or imagine yourself, interacting with your own smart device. If you’re searching for something in a hurry—what are the key things you need to know?
As a marketer, it’s vital to answer high-level questions in the most concise manner possible.
We’re still talking SEO, here. So, even though voice is the hot new thing in search, Google still considers the following ranking signals alongside some of the newer additions in the SERP landscape.
These metrics serve as a barometer for relevance–and can provide some clues into whether your content lines up with users’ intent.
- Clickthrough rate: Which, of course, is represented by the number of people who click your site compared to how many times your entry was displayed. Clicks alone don’t tell you much about the quality of your on-page content, but they do help paint a picture of which headlines (or PPC copy) resonates with your audience.
- Bounce rate: Bounce rate looks at how often people leave your site upon arrival—signaling a mismatch between what the searcher was looking for and what your website offered.
- Dwell time: Dwell time refers to how long people stay on your site once they’ve arrived. So, for e-commerce brands, this might mean shoppers look through all of the products, indicating an interest what you’re selling. For content heavy sites–media platforms or sites like ours with a heavy content component, it means reading a few articles, watching videos, and so on.
Users Want On-the-Go Answers
The idea that web users want their search results fast is nothing new.
That old stat stating that about half of all users bounce away from a site after just three seconds has been around for years. With voice, people want information on the spot. They’re searching for answers while their hands are full, or they’re driving, or hungry, or need to find a plumber that can fix their overflowing sink ASAP.
With that in mind, marketers need to focus on providing straightforward answers–FAST. Don’t hide the answers to common questions in lengthy paragraphs; instead, provide quick, concise answers that are easy for Google to extract from the page.
Often, these will be in the form of FAQs.
Voice Search SEO Ranking Signals: What You Need to Know
So, what signals does Google use to determine search rankings?
Good news here: many of ranking signals should be familiar to SEOs who have already optimized their sites for mobile and are actively pursuing the coveted spot in the featured snippets.
Speed Continues to Be a Major Factor
Here’s the thing–if you thought we were already impatient when it comes to load times, voice kicks things up a notch.
According to data from Backlinko, the average voice search page loads in about 4.6 seconds, which is half the time of your average webpage.
And while speed has long been a key ranking factor, it’s worth pointing out that any edge you can get on your competitors will help you get closer to that coveted position zero.
Mobile and desktop search results give users a bunch of options at once, while voice reads up to three results out loud. As such, speeding up your site is one of many differentiators in an increasingly competitive space.
That emphasis on speed has been confirmed by the Google webmasters themselves, who announced back in 2018 that speed has become increasingly important to searchers, and while it’s long been a factor in desktop rankings, they’re extending that ranking signal to mobile, too.
And while there’s no official word on whether speed is a ranking signal for voice, all signs suggest that it continues to be an important factor.
Embrace Security, Already
Per Google, HTTPS offers websites a minimal boost when it comes to positioning.
However, the search engine has certainly made it clear that adding that extra layer of security to your website isn’t just a “nice to have” these days–it’s an expectation.
If your site is still using HTTP, it’s probably time to add that extra “S” to your domain.
Authority is the Differentiator in a New Competitive Landscape
Because voice search results offer the searcher fewer options, competition for the top spot is fierce.
As such, Google appears to be giving preference to those sites with higher domain scores, as it’s a fairly reliable sign that the page contains reputable content.
Ahrefs found that the average domain rating of a Google Home result is around 77%.
Age Might Be a Factor, Too
That same Ahref study also noted that age matters for SEO these days.
They found that nearly 60% of the sites with a top ten Google ranking are at least three years old. Which makes sense, given that a reputable site that has been around for a while has time to build up backlinks, generate brand awareness, and establish some credibility with Google and the general public.
Long Form Content Has an Advantage in Voice Search SEO
Despite the fact that voice search gives users short answers to their questions, Backlinko’s report found that the average word count of the featured results was 2,312.
Which means that search marketers should continue to embrace long-form content as a cornerstone of their content strategy.
The benefit of a longer word counts is that it gives Google more opportunities to identify an answer to a searcher’s question.
While experts agree that you should keep things short when answering a question, long-form content is one of the best ways to demonstrate your knowledge of a particular subject.
Readability is sometimes forgotten about in SEO, but it’s actually a key factor when it comes to creating content that answers questions in a brief, direct manner.
Studies have found that top-ranked content is written at an eighth or ninth-grade level, and the Backlinko report we’ve mentioned found that the average response to a voice query is 29 words.
Those newer to SEO might think that 12th grade or college level signals better writing, but that’s not really the case. Big, obscure words or complicated sentences can interrupt the user experience, which is a major strike against you in the SEO game.
Look to tools like Hemingway App, a free web app that “grades” your content and highlights sentences that are too long or words that are too complex.
And remember, readability isn’t about dumbing things down. It’s about creating content that gets straight to the point.
On a related note, readability also means incorporating headers that allow users to scan the content to see if it matches their original intent.
Featured Snippets Get Preferential Treatment in Voice Search SEO
Long story short, optimizing for snippets means that by extension, you’re optimizing for voice.
Building on this idea of creating long-form content, optimizing for snippets means you’re focusing on useful, easy-to-understand content.
For the best shot at a featured snippet spot, make sure you do the following:
- Update content on an ongoing basis
- Answer questions–both on FAQ pages, as well as in blog posts, web copy, and beyond.
- Make sure you mark up questions using <h2> headers
- Answer customer questions on Google My Business
Voice Search Quality Rater Guidelines
Search quality raters are humans who conduct real searches. Then, they inform Google about the quality of the search results.
They’re given guidelines to follow, and their marks on a given website have a significant effect on where that site appears in the SERPs.
Likewise, voice search comes with its own set of quality raters and guidelines. Those people use different devices to ask questions. Then, they tell Google what they think of the answers.
The voice search guidelines are relatively short compared to the lengthy search rater guidelines associated with traditional search and can be viewed in full here.
Generally speaking, the quality raters rate content based on criteria such as:
- Length of response
- Satisfaction with response and information provided
- Proper elocution
- Grammatical correctness
For more information, you can read my full rundown of the voice quality rater guidelines.
How to Optimize Your Content for Voice Search SEO
Optimizing for voice search is quite a departure from the old days of search engine optimization. Though, when you think about it, it’s also more straightforward.
As I’ve mentioned, voice search is all about natural language processing, which means an emphasis on long tail keywords.
So, instead of “grocery store near me open now” you might say, “Ok, Google, where is the nearest grocery store that’s open now.”
In other words, you’re using long tail search terms that sound more like complete sentences, rather than trying to write copy that naturally weaves in the awkward phrases you’ve found inside the keyword planner.
According to studies, the first result in Google’s organic SERPs gets about 35% of the click share.
With voice search, there are even fewer organic “slots” available. Compared to the ten or so organic listings, plus the rich results box, smart speakers only share one result at a time, while mobile displays three results.
As such, securing the top spot is more challenging and more important than ever.
Is There an Optimization Report?
As it stands, proving the ROI of voice is something of a challenge. As is the case with social campaigns focused on brand awareness or Google PPC impression-based goals, success is measured based on correlation.
If you all of a sudden see an uptick in new traffic, you can likely attribute those changes to Google’s shoutouts—i.e., when Google says, “According to the site…”
Users do have the ability to scroll through a written record of voice search results, which includes links to those websites it recommended.
This way, users can easily find content later on—visiting websites that piqued their interest earlier, thus increasing organic traffic.
Voice search can also improve other metrics like online sales—think Amazon searches or for media companies, plays and downloads for music or podcasts.
In that sense, you can measure your performance; however, you can’t actually view your rankings or a report that lays out everything you can do to improve.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t optimize for voice SEO.
Google has been changing up its reporting features as seen in the Google Search Console updates. So, we can expect to see more concrete measures of success down the line.
That said, here are a few areas that should help you rise to the top of the voice results.
Optimize Your Business Listings for Local
When it comes to voice search, an overwhelming amount of searches are done for local businesses.
In fact, in 2016 the Internet Trends Report found that 22% of voice searches were used to find local content and information.
In order to surface in local voice searches, you’ll need a strategy that prioritizes local SEO.
While this may seem like a no-brainer for most local service brands, any brand with a local presence can benefit greatly from incorporating some local SEO best practices. Specifically, try to think of any keywords that take local landmarks or neighborhood descriptions into account.
Additionally, you’ll want to keep your listings clean and consistent is key. Your name, address, and phone (NAP) data should look the same across all directories.
According to a Yext report, over $10 billion is lost each year due to missing or inaccurate listings. And the stakes are even higher with voice search in the mix.
Local search questions make up a huge percentage of voice searches, as users often use voice to conduct “near them” searches for food, products, or services near their current location.
We’ve seen this shift toward voice queries particularly in areas like tourism and hospitality, where people search for things to do when they’re in a new city.
I’ll direct you to our post on local SEO best practices for the basics, but here are a few things that can help improve your voice search performance:
Register with Google My Business
If you haven’t already, verify your business with Google My Business.
This will add all of your locations to Google Maps and will start showing your listing when local searchers enter relevant queries.
To get more visibility to your website, you’ll want to try to get as many reviews to your website as possible.
Make Sure You’re on All Review Platforms
If your information is listed on multiple sites, that gives you multiple chances to show up in the SERPs.
Be sure that your business is included on all relevant review sites and directories–think Yelp, Foursquare, Bing, Facebook, and so on.
We’ll dive into this a bit more, but it’s also worth pointing out that different devices have partnerships with different platforms.
For instance, Alexa pulls recommendations from Bing and Yelp, whereas Google draws on its own properties to help people out. If you ask Siri for directions, you know you’re getting sent to the (arguably worse) Apple Maps, versus Google or Waze.
As such, maintaining your presence across all of these directories and review sites increases the odds that customers will find your business, regardless of preferred device.
Check that NAP Content is Consistent Across All Channels
Again, NAP consistencies are one of those things that search marketers have long known is essential if they want to compete in local listings.
I mentioned that voice searchers are after instant information. They want fast results when they’re driving around trying to find directions or a place to eat, meaning if you mess up in this area, you risk frustrating customers.
Just last year, Bright Local found that 93% of customers felt frustrated by incorrect directory listings and 80% said they lose trust in an organization when they see inconsistencies across business listings.
Answer Questions for Voice Search SEO
Questions now play heavily into your keyword and content strategies. In voice search, content should always be conversational, so the goal here is to write the way that you talk.
With the introduction of voice search and growing emphasis on quick answers, content structure has changed.
For example, FAQ pages which are structured in a way that goes down the list of queries starting with who, what, why, when, where, and how, perform really well in voice search.
But beyond answering questions, the depth of the answer is something content creators really need to develop. The better the answer, the higher the ranking.
The challenge for SEO pros is they’ll need to be able to anticipate exactly what questions searchers are asking and be prepared with the answer they want to hear.
Keep in mind that if you’re targeting a question, you need to be answering that question directly.
Identify Commonly Asked Questions for Your Business or Industry
What is it people need to know about your product or service? Google is more likely to highlight a website–be it in the featured snippet or voice search results–if they answer questions in a comprehensive manner.
For example, if you’re starting off with a phrase such as “how to optimize your site for mobile search,” there are likely several related questions to include so that the user receives actionable insights from your article.
As you jot down some of these ideas, enter them into Answer the Public, Google Keyword Planner, or your preferred keyword research tool. You’ll want to identify the most common versions of the queries you’d like to focus on to attract the most traffic.
How Do Users Phrase Search Queries?
Rather than focusing on specific keywords, a better approach is focusing on how users actually phrase specific questions. The answers to those questions then become the central focus of your content strategy.
Of course, this plays into some long stated SEO best practices: creating helpful content that gives readers the information they’re looking for.
As we know, the days of ranking a site based on fluff content are long gone. Now, a site must be able to establish authority and expertise through its content in order to gain the trust of users and Google alike.
That’s especially true in the age of voice search SEO, where attention spans are arguably even more limited.
If you feel stuck during your content creation process, focus on answering the “what,” “why,” and “how to” associated with each query.
Then, optimize your content based on how a searcher would ask those questions out loud.
Update Top Performing Pages
If your plan is to update pages so that they are more compatible with voice, start with those that already rank in the top ten (first page) for a particular query.
This means structuring content so that questions are used in the H2 headers so Google can identify the most important information on your site.
Aim for Rich Results For Voice Search SEO
Google is making moves toward a more interactive, valuable experience for searchers, right in the SERPs. Rich results are a big part of this.
If you’re not familiar with the name rich results, aka featured snippets, you’ve definitely seen them if you’ve performed a Google search anytime within the past couple of years.
Featured snippets appear at the top of the SERPs in what’s called Position Zero. They are chosen based on what Google decides is the most relevant answer to the searcher’s query.
As businesses optimize for voice, they should aim for the snippet, as roughly 30% of the 1.4 million voice queries tested by Google have the snippet position for its typed equivalent.
By device, Google Assistant on Smartphone returned almost 60% featured snippet responses, while Alexa and Siri came in last with about 15% and 20%, respectively.
Still, the numbers don’t lie: featured snippets play a big part in digital assistant and voice search.
For the best chance at claiming a spot in position 0, marketers need to again be optimizing their content for questions.
For reference, try to use content with the following in mind:
- Answer questions revolving around your target keyword
- Answers should be brief or in list form
- Questions should be in H2 (your subheadings)
- Target pages that are already ranking on page 1 of the SERPs
When in doubt, rely on the jeopardy principle. That means putting your keywords in the form of a question.
So if you’re in the hospitality industry and one of your major selling points is “eco-friendly hotel in Bali,” change your optimization strategy to include “What are eco-friendly hotels in Bali,” make it an H2, and feature your hotel in a short, concise answer.
Rich results also come with a whole host of benefits outside of voice, including increased traffic, more brand visibility, and increased leads and conversions.
Build Up Backlinks
Backlinks continue to be one of the top ranking factors when it comes to search, and that extends to voice search as well.
An impressive backlink profile is one of the easiest ways for Google to separate those with authority from those that haven’t yet proven their value.
As a quick sidebar, it’s worth mentioning that it might be time to clean up any outdated or bad backlinks that could be hurting your performance.
Google is experimenting with different ways to signal to users that the content found in their search results is credible, likely to combat the rise of fake news across all channels. Part of this includes bringing favicons into the mobile search results, as well as the recent focus on snippets.
As such, I think we’ll start to see more marketers talking about backlinks and other ways to signal authority on the page and over home assistant speakers.
Here are a few types of content that generate backlinks:
Client Case Studies
If you have clients that have given you great feedback, find out if they’d be willing to participate in a case study that shows exactly how your product or service helped them solve a problem.
Bring in Experts and Influencers
Sure, name-dropping might seem like a cheap tactic, but hosting thought leaders and influencers on a podcast, sharing a guest post, or interviewing a panel of experts is another effective way to attract more shares and backlinks.
As always, your aim is to be useful, so don’t name-drop for the sake of it. Focus on asking your experts questions that line-up with their expertise, lending some weight to the content.
Infographics remain a favorite within the online content space.
If you can create a visual representation of useful data on a specific topic, bloggers and social media users will readily share your creations to their own networks, linking back to you in the process.
Industry Surveys and Studies
Many publishers run industry surveys and if well done, these tend to generate a lot of backlinks.
Studies from credible sources are quoted and linked to all over the web, as they lend support and provide a factual base for companies in similar niches to pull from.
And, though the prospect of launching a full-blown industry study may seem daunting, it’s surprisingly doable, even for smaller companies. I’ve written a full guide on how to get started.
The thing about studies is that they help cement you and your company as a thought leader and establish expertise, which is becoming increasingly important for businesses hoping to land a spot in the first page or two of the SERPs.
Think eBooks, reports, deep dive blog posts, or even things like quizzes and calculators that give users new information that would be hard to find elsewhere.
Optimize for Intent
As we mentioned above, voice search requires SEOs to consider how they can add value to their customers.
- Is it easy for shoppers to find products and check out?
- Are calls-to-actions clear?
- Do product descriptions provide enough detail to make a purchasing decision?
- Create How-to Content – Step-by-step instructional content that gives users
- Work on earning links – This means creating content like what I’ve outlined above, as well as reaching out to publications and promoting your content on social media.
- Provide value early in the sales funnel – The more information you can provide that showcases knowledge and expertise, the more potential customers will align themselves with your brand. Down the road, when they are ready to make a purchase, they’ll consider your brand as a solution.
Voice Search SEO: Optimizing for Different Assistants
While the conversation about voice tends to focus primarily on Google, it’s important to keep in mind that Google Assistant isn’t the only voice search tool in the game.
There’s Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and the oft-forgotten Microsoft Cortana. Each of these devices requires a slightly different approach to voice based on some core differences. Each company has a different set of data partnerships and different algorithms.
Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know as you develop a voice strategy that takes all of these devices into account:
Voice SEO With Google
Google, of course, is important for all businesses given that people’s initial instinct is to Google just about everything.
As such, the bulk of your voice SEO efforts will likely be spent optimizing for Google Assistant and the 2000+ compatible devices.
Google Assistant is available as an app you can download on your phone or throug a Google Home device.
Google Actions are voice-activated apps that third-party developers can create specifically for use on the Google Assistant.
They function as an app would on your mobile or desktop device, only they’re activated via voice. Examples include things like activating Spotify or Pandora using your Google Home speaker or ordering an Uber as you get ready to go out.
What’s great about Google Actions is that they allow customers to have a conversational experience with your brand and incorporate it into their daily lives.
In that way, interacting with an Action provides an experience similar to that of conversing with a friend, making interactions more personal and forging stronger relationships between brands and consumers.
Because Google remains the dominant force in the search world, building Actions inside it will likely return the best results for your business.
You can build your own Google Actions through Google’s dedicated Actions console, using Dialogflow–its proprietary AI platform anyone can use to build Actions or chatbots for their website.
Voice Search SEO With Amazon
Amazon Alexa is quite a bit like Google’s Home Assistant, at least on the device level. If you’re the type of user who uses their smart speaker to listen to music or news and asks the occasional question, you might not notice much of a difference between Alexa and Google Assistant.
The key difference, of course, is Alexa is powered by Amazon, not Google.
While Alexa offers some pretty smart functionalities, her core offerings are focused more on Amazon-centric activities versus being another portal to the internet on the whole.
Alexa also allows users to shop for Amazon products. You can ask her to add a product to your cart or get an update on a recent order.
That said, Alexa can answer search queries, too, though those answers are pulled from Bing instead of Google.
Meaning, you also need to get on board with Bing’s Webmaster Tools and best practices to optimize your content for Alexa search.
Like Google, Amazon also allows developers to create voice-based apps, known as Alexa Skills.
Amazon for E-commerce
Amazon’s A9 algorithm works a lot differently than Google.
For one, Amazon’s search engine is based on promoting Amazon products that closely match searcher intent. WordStream does a nice job breaking down the signals in this piece, here. The key takeaways are, rankings depend on things like pricing, brand, coversion rate, images, and more.
Most SEOs looking to rank on Amazon are Amazon sellers, as opposed to well, anyone with a website optimizing for Google.
Still, performance depends on how you use keywords, answer questions, and meet consumer expectations, it’s all just happening within a smaller, transaction-focused ecosystem.
Voice Search SEO with Siri
Apple’s digital assistant Siri is the first digital assistant–outside of well, Clippy. Siri made her debut back in April 2011 and these days comes standard with any iPhone or Apple computer.
Siri is only available on iOS devices, whereas Google Assistant is available for download on any smartphone and comes baked into Google phones.
Apple is a bit late to the smart speaker game, as the first HomePod was just released in June 2017.
Yet, despite the somewhat disappointing sales, HomePod keeps up with the competition, answering voice queries just like Alexa and Google Assistant.
Apple also rolled out its own voice-based app platform, Shortcuts, which allows brands to create their own apps to use with any Siri-compatible device.
We should mention, however, that Shortcuts are a bit different than Google Actions in that, the main purpose for developers is to create automations, or Shortcuts, that teach Siri how to make things easier for you.
For example, if you’re ordering coffee every day using the same app, Siri may start prompting you to order “the usual.”
Voice Search with Microsoft Cortana
Given that Microsoft owns Bing, Cortana pulls info from Bing’s SERPs, not Google. So, like Alexa, your best bet for optimizing for Cortana is getting on board with all things Bing.
It’s also worth pointing out that Microsoft hasn’t quite kept pace with Google and Amazon.
What Does the Future Hold for Voice Search SEO?
The future of SEO isn’t far off, and in that future, voice search is here to stay.
People are already using voice search to find immediate answers to their questions, whether that’s finding the best donuts in town, the nearest hardware store, or staying up on current events.
I think one thing worth mentioning is voice search isn’t a replacement for text-based queries. The idea that voice search replaces text is similar to last decade’s prediction that social media would replace email.
The rise of voice demonstrates that the internet, specifically search, is becoming a richer, more varied experience.
SEOs need to embrace the idea of voice being one piece of the entire search puzzle and understand that many of the optimization methods outlined above make for a better experience for searchers, whether they use Google Assistant, Alexa, or enter a query from their desktop the old-fashioned way.
Ranking for voice isn’t as complex as you might imagine and many of the best practices include the same things you’ve been doing for years. Think long-form content, building a backlink profile, and answering questions.
The point is, gearing up for the future of voice search, or search in general means embracing a new set of best practices and getting back to SEO basics like link-building and high-quality, long-form content.