The importance of voice search

Is your site properly optimised for the fastest growing type of search?

The world of search is defined by the technological innovations that make it possible. Ever since Sergey Brin and Larry Page first mapped out the algorithms for BackRub (Google’s first incarnation) in their Stanford dorm room, the way we use the web to search for information has been continually evolving. Now, as we look to the future, predictions are being made around how search engines will accommodate the increasing demands of the user.

Voice search is by no means a new idea. In the immediate years following the new millennium, the world of search was a crowded market place, with many engines competing in the same space. Along with Google, the names Lycos, Alta Vista and Ask Jeeves go hand in hand with conjuring up nostalgic memories of dial-up internet, CRT monitors and Will Young winning the first series of Pop Idol.

In 2002 Google trialled a rudimentary version of voice search through the now discontinued Google Labs. Looking back, it almost seems comical to imagine that their solution required the users to sit at their computer and dial up a phone number. Once you were through, an automated voice would command you to “say your keywords”, and your results would appear on your desktop before your very eyes.

Understanding RankBrain and user intent

Fast-forward fifteen years, and voice search is becoming one of the most talked about considerations for website optimisation (pun intended). Google’s capacity for voice search has vastly improved in terms of the amount of languages it’s able to process, the accents and dialects it can detect, and its applications across other Google products like Maps.

Google’s RankBrain is a key player in understanding not just what appears in the search engine results, but why it appears. A lot of this comes down to user intent. The RankBrain algorithm that Google uses to serve up results to queries has become so sophisticated that it can understand the differences in the user’s intent for different types of information.

This is why it’s so vitally important to know the difference between a user who might be researching a restaurant for an anniversary dinner in three months’ time and a user who is three blocks away looking for a quick, cheap dinner. And the difference of intent is that the former could be made via desktop computer, and the latter is likely to have been made by voice, on a mobile phone.

Voice search in your home

Thanks to in-home personal assistants, the likes of Google and other search engines such as Bing and Yahoo aren’t the only players in this market either. The Amazon Echo was the fastest selling speaker of 2015 as more people are becoming used to the idea of voice searching through a personal assistant which, in the case of the Echo, is called Alexa. Apple’s Siri assistant has also given this sort of search capability to the many millions of iPhone users. Google have been in a battle to assert their own dominance in both these markets through their Pixel mobile phone and Google Home; their home assistant to rival the Amazon Echo and Microsoft’s own product, Cortana.

With Google’s new messaging app Allo which is built to rival the likes of WhatsApp, users can ask the app questions and the answer will then be pulled directly from Google’s search results into the conversation itself. So whilst you’re exchanging messages with your friend about what you’re making for lunch and decide to ask Google “how do I boil an egg?” – you won’t need to leave the app to do so! Now you and your friend know that the optimal time to boil an egg is 6 minutes if you like “a bit of squidgy in the centre”.

Allo is indicative of Google’s commitment to innovation in voice search and rolling it out across their various new platforms.

Preparing for the future

The next question we should ask ourselves in the wake of search engines encouraging users to search with their voice is what can we do to ensure websites will maintain their positions, and how will these voice searches differ from those that come from desktop computers? Here, the now often repeated mantra of ensuring your site is optimised for mobile search comes into play. Web searches are carried out everywhere at any time thanks to the mass adoption of smart phone technology, and your site has to be prepared for this.

Tools like Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test are designed to give site users an idea of how well the site is likely to perform when it’s served up in a mobile search. Getting this right is particularly important when you consider that in 2016, 20% of queries through the Google mobile app came through voice searches.

Having an understanding of how Google pulls answers to queries that come through voice search is also key to ensuring that your site will be returned in results pages. You have to appreciate why people might be performing voice searches through mobile and a big part of this is concerned with local search. Having your site optimised for local, informational searches is a key part of ensuring your site receives traffic from these searches. This is especially vital when considering the increasing importance of micro-moments which are indicative of the users demand for instant, relevant information.

You can ensure your site receives traffic from these local searches by including NAP data (name, address and phone number), as well as directions and travel connections, in crawlable text on-site. Additionally, you can maximise your site’s potential by listing it in networks where search engines can be expected to pull information from to answer voice search queries.

This can include, but is not limited to;

  • Facebook
  • Google Business Centre
  • LinkedIn
  • Yelp
  • MapQuest

Research shows us that digital assistants are pulling their answers to voice queries from these networks as well as ‘position zero’ in the Google results, making securing the answer box results these positions even more valuable for organic search.

Preparing yourself for the next evolution of search is vital, particularly with the dynamic nature of the industry. Even now, industry leaders are predicting that as soon as 2020, 30% of all web browsing, not just searches, will be done without a screen, making it crucial to be properly optimised not just for the web of today, but also the web of tomorrow.

Google and other search engines are giving site owners much more to think about in terms of implementing a content strategy, regardless of what stage of development their site is in. For example, a new site should be working to implement a voice search strategy from the ground up. The same can be said of existing sites and those that might be going through a site migration; creating the habits of properly optimised content early on will put your domain in a stronger position to serve queries from voice search. This is especially important when we look at creating FAQ type content that directly answers the predicted questions of users. An accurate anticipation of how users will interact with search engines is a determining factor in ranking for voice queries.

The old practice of creating content for content’s sake isn’t going to cut it any more in achieving and maintaining rankings for this new type of search. The way people are searching for information is evolving, and websites have to evolve with them. At present, more and more of us are speaking to our phones and personal assistants, and it’s our responsibility as SEO’s to be able to answer the questions that they might have.