How to Prepare Your Business for the Voice Search Revolution
Have a Glance
Remember when it was considered weird to use a Bluetooth device in public? Back then, the last thing people wanted was for others to think they were ranting to themselves on the street. Today, using voice search on a mobile phone in public can still have some of the same stigma attached to it, especially in certain settings (like the restroom—more on that later), but that stigma is disappearing rapidly.
Google Ramps Up for Voice Search
Google has been preparing for voice search for quite some time. The rise in mobile usage and voice commands, in fact, have led to some pretty significant changes in how Google's search engine interprets queries. In 2016, Google officially stated that 20 percent of mobile queries had become voice searches, and in an interview we did here at Stone Temple Consulting with Google's Gary Illyes the same year, he mentioned the search engine gets "30 times as many action queries by voice as by typing. " The percentage of voice search queries is expected to rise, especially as the younger generations continue to adopt voice search.
Voice Search Will Grow Even More
Because we see comfort levels using voice commands on mobile devices are significantly higher among the younger generation, it's reasonable to expect that voice command usage will increase over time. Other reasons for growing adoption will likely include improved technology.Different folks prefer different technologies when performing their voice searches. If you have an iPhone and know that Siri can take care of what you need, then you'll likely ask Siri and not bother opening up a dedicated app or browser.In fact, the Internet Trends Report showed Siri processed more than one billion voice commands per week by June 2015. Also of interest in that data are the forecasts for continued growth of voice search. For example, Baidu chief scientist Andrew Ng believes that at least 50 percent of search queries by 2020 will be performed as a voice or image search.
How to Prepare
Search boxes and browsers will remain with us for the foreseeable future, but their importance is going to decline significantly over the next decade. In fact, a forecast from Strategy Analytics shows that by the year 2020, less than 25 percent of internet connected devices will be a PC, tablet, or smartphone.
What will those other devices be? They'll be watches, thermostats, TVs, refrigerators, cars, game consoles, and many other types of devices. Most of these will not have a browser, and the main interface will be via voice.
Digital personal assistants may be the main connecting tissue that binds all these things together. Those are tools like Google Assistant, Cortana, Amazon Alexa, and Siri. This then will become the new key focus of your optimization efforts. When someone tells a personal assistant, "Find an Italian restaurant near me, " you'll need to have taken the right steps to be included in those results.
Some of these new steps will have a lot in common with those needed to show up in today's search results, but not all will be that simple. For example, if the query is, "How do I change a tire? ", the personal assistant may only return one single response. This may come from what Google calls a "featured snippet, " the direct answer the search engine gives to queries above the regular search results. It's the first of three ideas I have for you on how to prepare for this new world:
Learn how to get featured snippets for your site. The great thing about this is that it both prepares you for the future, and it also will help you drive a traffic increase to your site right now.
Learn the most common questions prospective customers have about products and services like yours. Get out there and learn what they want to know, and then start building content to answer those questions proactively. Being one of the best information sources in your market space will be critical to surviving and thriving.
Start experimenting with conversational interfaces. These are different than traditional web interfaces. For example, on a website, users often navigate to what they want in a step-by-step process. If I want a running shoe, I might navigate in steps like this:
Pick sneakers in the menu
Pick running sneakers in the menu
Pick a brand
Pick a size and color
Pick a specific product
In anticipation of the changes that will unfold in 2018, I recently wrote an article predicting the search engine optimization (SEO) trends that will be most important to address in the coming year. Among the trends I predicted was the continuing rise of voice search—the growing tendency for users to rely on vocal commands and personal digital assistants to handle their search queries.
Though 2018 might see incremental increases in this trend, I believe we're on the verge of full-scale search revolution in the next few years. So what's motivating this transition, and how can we best prepare for the changes to come with it?
It's hard to say exactly how many search queries are voice-based, since Google doesn't publish that exact information regularly. We do know that the general trend is rising, and soon, voice searches may represent the majority of total searches. According to Mary Meeker's Internet Trends report in 2016, voice searches increased more than 35-fold between 2008 and 2016. According to Location World, more than 40 percent of adults used voice-based search on a daily basis in 2016. And predictions by ComScore estimate that more than 50 percent of searches will be voice-based by 2020.
Why is this the case? There are a few strong motivating factors here, including the increased sophistication of voice-recognition systems—Microsoft's voice recognition software now has an error rate of 5.1 percent, equaling those of its human counterparts. Digital assistants also make the process of voice searching easier, inviting more people to the system. As more people start using voice search and it becomes more “normal,” the percentage of the population using voice search also climbs.
The voice search revolution has been catalyzed by the rise of smart speakers. Though similar technologies have been around for years, in 2017, sales of smart speakers more than tripled thanks to the rise of both Google Home and Amazon Echo. Smart speakers are almost exclusively reliant on voice commands to operate, conditioning people to resolve their questions and accomplish tasks using voice-based queries.
The Biggest Repercussions
Let's assume that voice-recognition technology and smart speakers are going to become even more advanced and more popular, sparking a full-on voice search revolution. What would be the biggest repercussions of such a change in the search world?
Complex queries. Search queries are already becoming more complex, with users no longer needing to put forethought into which keywords they use for a query; instead, as long as they ask a question that's remotely decipherable, they'll be met with a suitable selection of answers and options. This is thanks to Google RankBrain (along with Hummingbird and other sections of Google's search algorithm), which specializes in “understanding” complex user queries and condensing them to something that's easier to search. Accordingly, the traditional approach to targeting keywords for analysis and optimization will need to change, favoring longer keyword queries and targeting overall topics, rather than specific terms.
Audio-only interfaces. Smart speakers are also conditioning people to discover information, make purchases, and interact with websites using only their voice. This means that eventually, the value of visual mediums, including traditional websites and search engine entries, could decline. We'll have to rethink how we present information to audiences, and may be forced to come up with entirely new structures.
Shorter interactions. Voice-based searches aren't appropriate for long-term research sessions; instead, they're used for quick interactions, like finding the name of an actress or looking up a place for Chinese takeout. As user interactions grow shorter, we'll have fewer opportunities to make an impression on users.
Higher pressure for top positions. Though multiple options are available, for short-duration queries, digital assistants usually only relay information from the top-position entry (or an internal knowledge database). This is going to introduce even more pressure to get the top position for a given search engine results page (SERP).
More local results. Though not a rule, many voice queries have a local intent, since users are relying on voice search on-the-go, or while at home, searching for contextually relevant information. This will drive an uptick in the percentage of locally-focused queries, and the emphasis Google and other engines place on local results.
What to Do Now
So what steps should you be taking now?
Audit your current strategy. Take a look at your current strategy. How much effort are you putting into voice queries and long-tail keyword phrases? It may be time to redistribute your funds and emphasis.
Brainstorm new keyword targets. Pay close attention to your keyword strategy. How many of your targets are head keywords, how many are long-tail keywords, and how many are general topic targets?
Choose your battles. Consider fighting harder for top spots on a handful of key SERPs, while forgoing the battle for keywords that aren't as important to you.
Consider local. If you aren't already investing in local SEO, now's the time to start.
Rethink your advertising game. If you use PPC ads, you may need to rethink your approach; soon, consumers will start interacting with your ads differently, and you may need to upgrade your targeted advertising to a different format.
Prepare for more changes in the near future. The most important thing you can do is prepare yourself for more changes down the road. We still don't know exactly how a voice search revolution will manifest, so it pays to remain open to the many changes to come.
Since few SEO changes truly transform the landscape overnight, you're safe making incremental tweaks in your approach. Prepare a flexible foundation for the future of voice search, and look forward to the new means of customer engagement to come.
Imagine a world where I simply say what I want, starting with, "Give me a list of Nike Air running shoes for men, size 10. " In this world, I skip many steps in the process and get to what I want much faster. We won't get to this world overnight, but we will get there, and the time to start learning is now. You can do this by experimenting with the Amazon Echo (learn how to build an Amazon Skill here) and Google Home (learn how to build an Action on Google here).
The world is changing fast, and we're approaching a point of major disruption in our industry once again. While this can be frightening, it can also be exciting. One thing is for sure: It's a time of great opportunity. Start exploring the right ways to set yourself up for success now, and you'll be in a much better position to do well as the events of the next year unfold.