voice search

Voice Search Optimization: The SEO’s Journey (So Far)


As long as I’ve been doing SEO and digital marketing, I’ve pushed for the early adoption of new products, platforms, and technology. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (not an Amazon affiliate link, I swear!) has been a book I’ve leaned on since studying marketing in college.

Google MicThe first law states, “being first in the market is better than having a better product.”

To me, this concept doesn’t speak for product marketing alone. Google is processing tens of thousands of search queries each second. But they are bigger than their standalone search engine. This makes any peripheral plugging into its search engine an incredible marketing and branding platform. The more search results referencing a company, the more that company becomes recognizable by searchers. So why shouldn’t SEOs be helping companies take advantage of new technology? Why shouldn’t SEOs be optimizing for voice search results as part of their routine optimizations?

Granted, some of the new features, technology, and platforms I’ve pushed to clients throughout the years didn’t pan out. For every AMP there’s an Authorship. For every Freebase, there’s a Google+ (sick burn!). It’s common for a modern SEO to suggest using Progressive Web Apps, VR and AR applications (i.e. Amazon Sumerian).  Suppose technology has the potential to improve a searcher’s experience outside the traditional search engine model, build loyalty to the brand, and enhance conversions. In that case, it falls into the purview of SEO. After all, rankings in SERPs aren’t all we should be thinking about these days. We should be thinking about reaching the right searcher, understanding their intent, and giving them the experience they want and need (sometimes these are two separate things). We should be thinking about helping searchers, businesses, and Google at the same time. A win-win-win.

To me, everything above has been the natural evolution of SEO to date. Voice is simply an evolutionary step brought to us by expanding technology.

Applications of Voice Search Today

Voice Search is not new, but the role of voice search in everyday computing is growing at an incredible pace. “Voice-first” is showing up in more technology, from stereos to electric outlets. It is most popularized by titans like Google, Apple’s Siri, and the Amazon Alexa.

Not to be left behind, Voice Search was Google’s latest shiny object. It is part of mobile search, mobile devices, and digital assistants. It works for online and local businesses (i.e. local SEO) alike. Compared to Google’s pushing AMP in 2017, there was a real obsession with Voice Search in 2018. Google I/O (in May 2018) introduced projects around AI and “continued conversations.” We learned that Google was still pushing for smart displays in their voice assistants, which they ultimately delivered with the Google Nest Hub products. These will provide more opportunities for users to ask algorithms for things.

New technologies bring opinions and guesses from all areas of the marketing world. Not to mention, a fair amount of misinformation. You might have heard ComScore’s prediction that half of all searches will be voice searches by 2020. You might have also heard disagreeing naysayers, basing their opinion on the few “ok Google”-stemmed keywords that make it into keyword reports. This is not a good way to measure voice search activity, as evidenced by John Mueller’s tweet to me:

There you go, straight from the horse’s mouth. (John is not a horse.)

These wild speculations are partly because we aren’t receiving any Voice Search metrics from any of the Voice Search providers (though this may change one day), so we’re in a state of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ at the moment, despite knowing the search algorithm processes these voice queries.

Want some more juicy voice search stats, speculation, and opinions?

How much of this is representative of real life? Clearly, the truth lies somewhere in the fuzzy middle.

Investing in Voice Search Optimization

A business’s first question is whether it’s worth the investment to play in the fuzzy middle. As I referenced the Immutable Laws of Marketing above, my answer would be yes. But I recognize it’s one thing to stand on my pedestal and spend a company’s money for them, where failure isn’t necessarily a financial pain I would feel. I also recognize that most SEO campaigns need to have a business case, and the “fuzzy middle” doesn’t lead to convincing anyone of a real opportunity.

So my argument for the investment? SEO is constantly in flux. There isn’t a company out there that doesn’t know what SEO is, and very few think it has no value. SEO as a marketing channel has already been sold through. So we are not talking about selling SEO here; instead, we’re talking about investing in the next wave. From my perspective, I see many articles written about Voice Search and the occasional conference talk. Still, I don’t know many SEOs or companies embracing it as a legitimate growth opportunity.

Now, returning to an earlier statement: SEO is not just about rankings. It’s no longer just about getting people to click the little blue links on Google.com. It’s not just about earning a featured snippet. It’s about helping all of Google’s user base across all their platforms. We’re talking Chrome, your phone’s Google Assistant, your Google Home and Mini devices (also powered by Google Assistant). It’s even bigger than Google – the spirit of SEO lives in app stores, Amazon, Apple (Siri), Microsoft (Cortana), YouTube, and elsewhere, but I digress.

Think about that last bolded statement for a minute, and consider this real example. My wife was washing her hands in the kitchen and had a sudden thought. She called out, “Hey Google, what is the best soap to use for dry skin?” This is a thought she may have later gone to Google.com and asked (when her hands weren’t dirty), but the convenience of having a Google Mini in our kitchen inspired her to call out. Google responded by saying, “According to Livestrong.com…” and continued by reading the current rich answer:

rich answer result for best soap to use for dry skin

That shout-out, I argue, is part of the current definition of SEO. There’s no recorded click. There’s no record of anyone hearing that answer (yet). But Livestrong was promoted in my wife’s mind. And so were the products Google suggested.

Winning the featured answer is a start, and SEOs have been studying the techniques for a couple of years now. But what about the queries that are more voice-based than text-based? It’s a new type of keyword research. It doesn’t stop there – the skills need to be tweaked for these voice search queries. In this Martech Today article, they called it “voice query design,” as a component of “Voice Interface Optimization.” I’ve heard other terms like “conversational UI” and “conversation design.”  Some new terms here, and we’ll see which ultimately stick. Labels aside, the technology shows nothing but signs of sticking.

Who better to help optimize this system than an SEO? This is our bread and butter! As more controls are given to marketers to control the answers Google and Amazon’s Alexa give, the more a brand can control its influence.

If You’ve Been Optimizing For Semantic Search, You’ve Probably Already Started Voice Search Optimization.

If you have followed me in the past, I was quick to jump on leveraging Google’s epochal Hummingbird changes. When the dust settled, we SEOs realized what Google was trying to do. Google realized they needed to take reliance away from keywords alone and add a new skill – comprehension. From search entities and the relationships between concepts, Google certainly got smarter within the semantic search model.

Instead of thinking of queries as choppy, fragmented keywords, I began expecting more natural-language queries typed into the Google search bar. With that in mind, it drastically changed how I optimized copy. I was no longer just trying to optimize for a keyword – I was trying to optimize for a theme and hit upon the concepts and relationships I assumed Google had in their knowledge graph. Remember, at the same time, Hummingbird also brought us huge improvements in conversational search. More of a reason to consider optimization outside of the choppy approach we were used to.

I was trying to match the way I predicted people would be seeking their information. The intent of the searcher and the inherent value of my content became paramount. So much so that I haven’t done nearly as much keyword research as I used to. Gone are my massive lists of keywords and estimated search volume metrics. These days my lists are much, much smaller.

The Voice Search Optimization Mindset

SEOs, we have our work cut out for us. We have much to learn as Google keeps growing the abilities of its voice processors, and we should be currently experimenting with this new technology now. We need to stop watching all the headlines pass by our news feeds (which are the same headlines businesses are seeing), jump in, grab the bull by the horns, and own this for our clients and bosses. There’s money to be made, but SEOs need to evolve.

Think about the company you represent. What are the experts in? What do they do better than any other? If the answer is “nothing,” let me rephrase: What could your company be experts in for voice searchers before your competitors step up to the plate? (Remember the first Immutable Law of Marketing).

With these strengths in mind, it’s important to think about the direct goal that voice search can answer. I suspect with this new technology that some impatient and frustrated users have had their fill of “Sorry, I can’t help you with that right now, but I’m always learning.” Yes, Google is in the early stages – their new child is still a baby, so it makes sense to feed this technology at its level. Build direct answers that can answer direct and popular queries. Additionally, build content that can answer all the anticipated questions in a series of spoken questions. Traditional keyword research now has to consider such nuances.

Are we providing content in a way that not only clearly answers the needs but also illustrates the content’s importance to Google, thus improving Google’s growing comprehension? If I want Google to read my content out loud, or serve up a web page on my phone, I better make my content considerable for Google. To do this, I need direct and helpful content passages instead of long, redundant, over-optimized text. This makes for an easier read anyway. Frankly, this is taking a page out of the content strategists’ playbook, and the mindset they have about web content and the inevitability of voice search. In the end, SEO done right is a win for everybody. Now is the time to include voice search optimization into your SEO strategy.

Update: 7-31-2018

“As a news publisher, you can surface your content on the Google Assistant by implementing Speakable markup according to the developer documentation. This feature is now available for English language users in the US and we hope to launch in other languages and countries as soon as a sufficient number of publishers have implemented speakable. As this is a new feature, we are experimenting over time to refine the publisher and user experience.”

Update: 8-30-2022

Current Voice Search Usage

Statista reports that the number of digital voice assistants in use grew from 3.25 billion in 2019 to 4.2 billion in 2020 and forecasts, and is forecasting the number to grow to 8.4 billion in 2024. However, voice search usage seems to be declining. “The Manifest’s 2018 study claimed that 53% of respondents use voice search once a week, but only 18% of respondents use it as frequently in 2021.” 

We suspect that despite having search capabilities, many users mainly use the digital assistants to complete simple voice commands like turning off lights in their smart homes or playing music. It looks as if the novelty of searching by voice has run its course, and voice searches are likely more limited to situational conveniences, like the dishwashing example we discussed in the post.

Google has seemingly stopped working on voice search as well, as the speakable structured markup that we mentioned in the last update is still in beta. It’ll be interesting to see if Google ever moves it out of beta, or deprecates the markup.

What’s next for nontraditional search

Despite voice search usage declining and Martin Splitt from Google saying voice search will not be the future, the principles behind optimizing for voice search could still be valuable. We had previously stated that optimizing for voice search would likely be similar to optimizing for semantic search. Voice search queries are typically more likely to use natural, conversational language, and Google is still continuing to put effort into Natural Language Processing, as evidenced by their more recent work on BERT and MUM. So while voice search may have been another “fad” that’s come and gone, the concept of optimizing for intent over keywords is probably here to stay.

Google’s been investing time and resources into visual search lately, and only time will tell if it faces the same fate, but we think this method of search will be sticking around. Read our visual search blog post to find out why.

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