Last Updated on September 16, 2019 by Marc Miller
Voice search is changing the world of SEO by bringing back long tail keywords and putting a premium on well-targeted question and answer formats for content. In this article we’ll be investigating why and how to take advantage of those changes.
Here’s a Table of Contents to show you what we’ll be covering and let you skip to where you want to go if you’re looking for something specific:
Understanding Voice Search: The Bigger Picture
Why do People use Voice Search?
As voice search continues to grow in accuracy people are increasingly finding it to be an easier and faster way to get answers to many of their questions. Most people still only use voice search for doing specific tasks or in certain situations where typing isn’t convenient, but 16% of people use it as their primary method of searching.
Voice search is growing quickly (it grew 35 fold from 2008 to 2016 according to the 2016 Internet Trends Report ), and it is only going to get bigger. People are getting comfortable talking to their technology in different places and trusting it to do more involved tasks as it gains in word accuracy and learns to do different tasks. Here’s Google’s Machine Learning Word Accuracy over time from the 2018 Internet Trends Report:
As you can see Google just recently hit the threshold for human accuracy, which is a big achievement, and a big part of the reason why use of voice search is starting to grow so quickly. While it still has room for improvement, the biggest challenge on the horizon and where voice recognition still really struggles is in noisy environments.
Voice search is definitely here to stay, so it’s time to figure out what that means for those of who want to have our information found on the web.
We are going to take a quick tour through a number of helpful graphs and charts to better illustrate the trends in voice search, then go over what the most important actions are for you to take advantage of voice search.
Stone Temple has a great article on voice usage trends that shows all sorts of graphs breaking down different trends in voice search. They get a lot into demographics and other breakdowns, whereas here I’m focused on answering some high level questions.
Where, When and How People Use Voice Search
Where do People use Voice Search?
According to data from Stone Temple data the three most common situations for people to use voice search are at home and in the office alone, followed by at home with friends.
People have increasingly started using voice search in public places, as the percentage of people using voice search has increased significantly in all of the following situations: on public transportation, in a restaurant with friends, in a restaurant alone, in the office with coworkers, at a party, at the gym, in a restaurant with acquaintances, in a public restroom, and in a theatre.
The number of people who use voice search in a restaurant has almost doubled from 2017, going from about 18% to about 35%.
Here’s the chart from Stone Temple:
The one clear takeaway that is very clear from these statistics is that people have become much more comfortable using voice search in public places. Strangely enough this graph would actually suggest that the use of voice search itself has turned into something that is more normal for people to do when in public. The only three decreases were in using voice search at home and in the office alone, as well as at home with friends. While those are still the top three uses by overall percentage, it is interesting to note that those are the only areas that decreased.
Why? I don’t pretend to know on that one. Maybe some early adopters didn’t like it. Maybe people just don’t want to admit to talking to a machine when alone anymore. It would take further investigation to draw any meaningful conclusions.
When do People use Voice Search?
Most people use voice search in situations where it would be otherwise inconvenient to use their hands for a search. About 57% of people use voice search while driving, 44% when their hands are full, 39% when their hands are dirty, 32% when it is faster to use voice commands, 23% when their phone is out of reach, and about 16% of people do not use voice search at all.
Important Stat: 16% of People Primarily Using Voice Search
This is significant because this means that for 16% of people (or about ⅙ people) they could be searching for anything when using voice search. Voice search results are different from normal search results in a number of ways, so as this number increases it will be more important to make sure that you have content optimized for both regular and voice searches across the board.
That still leaves ⅚ that don’t use voice search as our main method of searching. Stone Temple’s survey data shows that there are only about 15% of people that don’t use voice search at all.
Voice search is a tool that has been getting more useful over time. In the early days it was potentially too much frustration to use due to the inability of virtual assistants to properly understand people (look back to 2013 on the first graph above). Most people did not like using a virtual assistant if you had to phrase your questions awkwardly and talk in a structured monotone just to get them to understand you.
Now that people can talk normal and conversationally adoption rates are going up.
How do People use Voice Search?
People generally use their voice search for the following functions: 56% for texting, 50% for making a call, 38% for map navigation, 38% for performing an online search, 33% for playing music, 23% for setting a reminder or making a note, 19% don’t use voice search to control any apps, and 10% use it to control social media.
See the chart below:
People are often in transit or using their mobile phone when doing voice searches, so it makes sense that many of the results tend to be local search results.
What Type of Searches do People do When Using Voice Search?
Voice searches generally fall into one of these four categories: 30 percent of people search for general information, 27 percent for virtual assistant tasks, 22 percent for local entertainment and 21 percent for fun and entertainment.
These numbers come from the Internet Trends Report in 2016 showing a breakdown of what people search for when using voice search:
While these categories are pretty broad, both ‘local information’ and ‘fun and entertainment’ are categories that can very likely end up leading to someone visiting a local business.
For any businesses that rely on customers frequenting their business voice search is clearly already a big enough trend that it is important to take note of and take steps to optimize your site for.
Most voice search happens on mobile, and when people are searching on mobile they are often just steps away from a purchase.
Take a look at this graphic from Search Engine Watch:
For local brick and mortar businesses local SEO is something that can be made into a huge asset for a business and an important part of an online marketing strategy when done correctly.
A Quick Note on Smart Speakers and Smart Speaker Searches
While the market for smart speakers is growing quickly, as Amazon’s Echo was it’s best selling item last year, there’s still only 7% of people who own them, according to Edison Research.
Roughly 65 percent of people who own an Amazon Echo or Google Home can’t imagine to going back to the days before they had a smart speaker, and 42 percent of that group say the voice-activated devices have quickly become “essential” to their lives. – GeoMarketing
People use their smart speakers for quite different things than regular local search:
Take note that here only 13% of people used their device to find local businesses, as most of the time people are doing things in their home. The story is much different with local searches in general.
Overview of Important Facts About Voice Search Results
The most important aspects of showing up in voice search results are:
- Make sure your website is mobile responsive or mobile friendly
- Your mobile page speed should be fast
- Your site should be secure (according to backlinko 70% of Google home results are https)
- Average result is 29 words in length
- Simple, easy to read conversational content is best
- 40 percent of all voice results were same as featured snippets
- Use schema markup when appropriate (focus on most important things)
- Store hours, address, phone number, any other important business information
- Write a description of where your business is that includes local landmarks
- Use long tail keywords
- Include questions people might ask in your writing
- Page Authority/Domain Authority is important (don’t expect to put a few questions on a random page and have it rank)
- Voice search usually chooses one answer
- Sometimes it will show a carousel of search results if it is unsure, but this partially due to no one answering the question clearly enough for Google to be confident in the answer
- Voice search is action based: The easier you make it for Google to know how people can make a reservation, call a phone number, or perform any other relevant action the better
- Make sure you’ve claimed your Google My Business profile and have filled it out appropriately
- According to Backlinko 75% of voice search results are in the top 3 organic results for that search
- If there are steps involved in a list, make sure to list ‘Step 1’, ‘Step 2’, etc.
- If there is a incorrect link make sure to give Google feedback so they can review the information(and potentially feature something else instead)
As you might have noticed, there’s a lot to pay attention to. The list above is a collection of different points from a number of different articles on the subject. I’m going to break these down into a few different sections so that it is easier to digest and see how they all fit together.
Foundational SEO Factors Also Important for Voice Search
If you have someone that you pay to do SEO for your business, then hopefully these things are already done. If not you should do them or find someone to do them, as they are very important factors for your Google rankings in general and will only become more important as Google’s mobile-first indexing continues to get rolled out. The categories these fit into are general SEO factors,
- Your site must be mobile-friendly (or mobile responsive)
- Your mobile site must load fast (especially on mobile, as keep in mind most people are using data and have less connection than with internet)
- Your site must be secure
- Make sure you’ve claimed your Google My Business profile and filled it out appropriately
Also necessary for building traffic, but takes much more effort:
- Use conversational writing style (almost always best for search rankings in general)
- Use quality content marketing that delivers value to help build backlinks, Page Authority and Domain Authority
These are all things that should already be happening on your site, at least if you have paid a professional to do them. If you are doing it yourself, make sure to check into them. The first four points are in order of importance so you can address them accordingly. As mentioned in the previous article about Google mobile-first indexing, your mobile page load time is going to be a big part of general SEO moving forward. Keep in mind that just because your site passed the test for being ‘mobile-friendly’ does not necessarily mean that it is well optimized.
The last two things should be a continual effort made over time. Every article should be relatively conversational, even in more technical fields. There are very few exceptions to this, as very few people want to read lots of technical jargon.
Make sure you have the first four points taken care of before you even worry about pursuing the next steps, as until those first four are completed that is where you can best spend your time anyway. You can take a look at our previous post if you want to find out how to rank in local organic SEO or the Google 3 pack.
The time to address these things is now, as these things are only becoming more important.
After the Baseline Foundational SEO: Voice Search Specific Guidelines
If you already have the first four parts covered above then here’s the most important things to focus on for showing up in voice search.
Factors to Pay Attention to:
- Use question and answer format to address potential long tail keywords
- Use headers (h2, h3) to specify questions when possible
- Make sure when you answer the question it is clear that your statement is an answer to the question (usually briefly restating the question is appropriate)
- Keep in mind most pages that rank in the ‘0’ position for voice search are snippets from 2300 word articles
- DO NOT make thin pages of content only with a few questions and expect to rank
- Ordered and unordered lists after a targeted header can be great
- Use schema markup when appropriate (hours, phone number, address, other business information, also potentially for things like recipes, authors, or other characteristics)
- Focus on the things central to your business that would be particularly helpful for you to show up for, as in Brian Dean’s study at backlinko he didn’t find schema markup to be overly helpful, but my own thought is this is going to vary substantially by subject matter
- If you have steps that you are listing make sure to list them clearly ‘Step 1’, ‘Step 2’, etc.
- Say the most with the least: 29 words is the average response, but needs to answer the question as completely as possible
Conclusions: Where to go from here?
By now you should have a good grasp on what makes voice search different and what’s important to achieve voice search rankings. Next I’ll walk you through the process of optimizing new content and re-optimizing your old content to do well for voice search.