May 16th, 2017

How does voice search affect your SEO strategy in 2017?

Graphic of people with speech bubbles

What makes voice search different from ordinary search?

You may have heard that voice search is the next biggest thing in SEO. That it’s going to be a game-changer. That the Internet will never be the same.

This seems all the more imminent with Amazon’s recently-released Amazon Echo Show, a technological advance from their original Echo, which Google Home had only just matched. What Echo and Home share is an easy way to ask a simple question and get an instant answer. The result—along with electronic personal assistants such as Alexa, Siri, and “OK Google,”—is a dramatic rise in voice search.

Voice search—also known as “conversational search”—uses completely different search structure from how most of us type queries into Google. When we type, we’re used to stringing the most important key phrases together in a sort of Boolean search shorthand. Let’s say we’re trying to find out the capital of Michigan. We’re likely to type in something like “Michigan capital” into our search engine. But when we use voice commands, we use more conversational phrasing. We might say “What’s the capital of Michigan?” or “Is the capital of Michigan Lansing?” And because these things are simple questions, Google can easily deliver a direct answer. This is not only appealing to Google, it has great attraction to most of us. This is why we’ve seen such an incredible rise in voice search volume in recent years. So, as SEOs, what we now need to ask is: how does this affect us?

Should you re-think your SEO strategy to accommodate voice search?

Yes and no. On the one hand, as Rand Fishkin over at Moz points out, just because the overall percentage of voice commands is rising, that doesn’t mean they’re replacing the traditional keyword phrases. Instead, they’re adding to the overall number of searches per year. So while more and more people are conducting voice searches every year, they’re simultaneously conducting more standard searches. It’s almost as if, by accustoming ourselves to using our phones for voice search in our day-to-day lives, we’re building a habit out of asking Google for answers to questions on our computers as well. Who’d a thunk?!

But I would argue that the way we phrase searches for voice will start to affect how we search for things when we type them in. After all, many of us had to learn how to organize our search terms for Google in the first place. Not so many years ago, only someone very new to the Internet would phrase a search as a complete question—now it’s become the norm. Many of us will continue to type in shorthand on our computer and use conversational queries on our smart phones. But for some of us, the habit of using more conversational queries on mobile will carry over to the keyboard. That’s a trend to look out for.

Voice search results must be mobile friendly.

If you’re focusing your SEO on voice search keywords, you need to make sure that your results are mobile friendly. The logic behind this should be immediately evident: most voice searches are conducted on smart phones. And while some of these answers are read aloud, none of these personal assistants are going to start reading your 1000-word blog posts in answer to your question. That means users who want to learn more will be clicking through to your post and reading the answer on their smart phone.

There are many ways you can optimize your web design for mobile. Maybe you’re already on top of that, in which case—well done, you! But if you haven’t looked at your own website on a phone recently, you should go poke around and see if there are obvious sticking points. Even if it’s something you’re tempted to write off as “not that big of a deal,” trust me: it is that big of a deal to your users.

Are some searches more friendly to voice search than others?

In the midst of the hype around voice search, it’s good to remember the down sides. As many have pointed out, Google’s (and Siri’s, and Alexa’s) preference for short, simple answers can quickly backfire. It’s been tied to the spread of false information, along with some of Google’s featured answer snippets, because it often simplifies the answers to much more complex subjects. As a very simple example, if you search for “Who won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016,” the answer Google delivers is Spotlight. Now, it’s true that Spotlight won the Academy Award for best picture during the 2016 academy awards. However, the movie itself was made in 2015. If you actually wanted to know which movie, made in 2016, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the answer is (infamously) Moonlight.

This has significance for SEOs because it tells us that voicer search isn’t ideal for every query. Not only can it inadvertently deliver inaccurate information, it also isn’t well-equipped for more complicated answers. So if you’ve based most of your SEO strategy around ranking highly for short, simple answers, there’s a good chance voice search will make you irrelevant. Google might pull your answer and deliver it to a searcher without that person ever needing to click through to your website.

However, if you focus on providing thorough, detailed information to more complex questions, your content will continue to be relevant for years to come.

Google search is getting smarter. And that makes SEO easier.

Google’s mission, at all times, is to provide the best results to any searcher query. Ever since their Hummingbird update, they’ve improved their ability to understand the underlying semantics of the content they index. In other words, they know what your content means, and how well it aligns to a searcher query, even if the keywords don’t 100% align.

A bit part of SEO has always been trying to help Google interpret the relevancy of your content. We work with keywords not because we have some magic ability to dictate to Google what we want to rank for, but because keywords help us make sure Google understands what our content is about. The better Google is at organically construing meaning from your content, the easier it will be for SEOs to optimize our content. We’ll spend less time worrying about keyword density, and more time making sure our meta descriptions and alt-tags are user-oriented.

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