LET'S GET STRATEGIC
The Rise of Voice Search and Its Impact on SEO
by Linda Pophal
You’re sitting at your desk, talking to a colleague about a trip to Spain you’re planning. The next thing you know, you’re seeing ads for Spain pop up in Google search and on Facebook. It’s not magic. It’s the power of voice search. Marketers can use your interactions with voice assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa, along with other factors—your search history, shopping activity, visited websites, etc.—to create a comprehensive profile that they can use for ad targeting. Not all voice assistants do this, and the process is actually more complex than it may seem, but it’s illustrative of the shift from text to voice in consumers’ search habits. Voice search is on the rise.
THE GROWTH OF VOICE SEARCH
Search Engine Journal notes in an article that the number of digital voice assistants is forecasted to reach 8.4 billion by 2024. That’s higher than the world’s population! Almost one-third of the U.S. population has at least one smart speaker device. As the devices have proliferated, so has their use for search. Edlyn Collanto—an SEO research specialist at UpCity, which helps companies select service providers—points to UpCity research indicating that 58% of consumers ages 25–34 use voice search daily, and 39% of those who participated in the UpCity research have been using voice search for 1–2 years.
VOICE SEARCH TECHNOLOGY IS REALLY NOT THAT NEW—BUT IT’S IMPROVING
While voice search may seem like pretty advanced technology, it’s been around for decades, Total Voice Technologies notes on its blog. Alexa isn’t the first voice assistant; in 1952, Bell Laboratories created Audrey, a virtual assistant that could only understand numbers at first and, later, a few limited words.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and speech recognition had advanced significantly. In 2010, per a timeline by Adido,
Google added personalized recognition to voice search on Android phones. Today, not only do smartphones and virtual assistants (such as Alexa) accommodate voice search, many apps—including Google Maps and Waze—do as well.
Natural language understanding (NLU) and AI advancements have made voice search more functional now than in the past, says Namanh Hoang, founder of AskNam, a marketing publication. “What NLU, in conjunction with AI, allows platforms to achieve now is an understanding of the context of the request and correcting its interpretation of your request,” he says. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it used to be.
In 2022, Hoang says, Google implemented a major update to its algorithm—the “helpful content update.” The goal, he notes, “was to force content providers to focus on more niche, personalized, and specific contact.” It essentially rewards content that meets the Google E-E-A-T (experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness) criterion in response to the growing use of long-tail keywords, he says. “As more people create this type of content around super long-tail keywords, voice search can interpret the specific context of a user’s request and, in return, provide specific answers.”
HOW TO OPTIMIZE YOUR CONTENT FOR VOICE SEARCH
Clearly, voice search is likely a function to consider for any type of business that has a website and wants consumers to find it. So, what do you need to know, or do, to ensure that you will be found via voice search? Phil Strazzulla, founder of SelectSoftware Reviews, which offers guides to HR and recruiting tools, has closely monitored the evolving SEO landscape and offers the following three suggestions for optimizing content for voice search:
- Embrace semantic SEO by focusing on context and user intent. Optimize your content to provide comprehensive answers to user queries. Think beyond keywords, and prioritize content depth.
- Capitalize on local voice search by optimizing for “near me” queries. Ensure that your Google Business Profile listing is claimed and up-to-date, making it easier for local users to find your business through voice search.
- Create interactive content, such as quizzes and polls, that encourages user engagement. Voice search users may seek interactive responses, and this can set you apart from competitors.
Strazzulla also points out that generative AI “is likely to play a significant role in enhancing voice search capabilities, making it even more crucial for businesses to adapt their content strategies. It’s an exciting time for SEO, with a shift toward more natural and conversational interactions.” John Pennypacker, VP of sales and marketing at AI provider Deep Cognition, agrees. “When using voice commands, people tend to use natural language and ask questions in a conversational manner,” he says. “This means that businesses need to optimize their content for long-tail keywords and phrases, rather than just focusing on short and concise keywords.”
To adapt content strategies to leverage the power of voice search, Pennypacker states that “[b]usinesses should focus on creating conversational and informative content. This means providing answers to common questions and addressing specific pain points in a conversational tone.” A great way to do this “is by creating FAQ pages or sections on your website that address commonly asked questions related to your business or industry.” Not only does this help with SEO, but it also makes it easier for digital assistants to provide the information directly to users, Pennypacker explains. Collanto gives the example of a restaurant developing a well-structured FAQ section that provides voice search-friendly responses to questions such as, “What’s your daily special?” This, she says, “exemplifies how content can adapt to leverage voice search trends while providing value to users seeking quick, spoken answers.”
Jason Smit is CEO of Contentellect, which helps scale online businesses. Contentellect, he says, is “steering clients to focus on long-tail natural language queries and optimize for conversational interactions.” Tools such as Surfer, he states, can help content marketers uncover keywords that actual voice searchers use. Smit’s firm analyzes this data “to inform content strategies with tangible examples.” His writers “are crafting articles, FAQs, and guides in an inviting ‘chatty’ style, using full sentences and clear organization.” It’s almost “like drafting a thoughtful email to a friend.” Content is also structured to provide “succinct audio-friendly answers upfront,” Smit says. “Think bullet points and clear headers that are scannable for voice assistants.”
At Imagefix, a design and digital marketing agency, creative director Garry West says the company has “embraced innovative keyword research tools such as AnswerThePublic and Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool. These provide keywords and related questions, tailor-made for voice search optimization.” He offers the following tips for marketers wanting to optimize their content for voice search:
- In voice searches, brevity rules. Choose concise titles and descriptions that are easy for users to digest and align with your target audience’s needs.
- Mobile devices are the go-to choice for voice searches. Make sure your website is mobile-optimized for a good user experience.
- Create content with question-based keywords in mind. Think about how people naturally phrase their queries when speaking, and incorporate those phrases into your content.
- Website copy should sound natural. This makes it easier for search engines to understand what your content is about, ultimately boosting your ranking.
- Use structured data markup on your site. This helps search engines to understand your content and deliver more precise results for voice searches.
- Backlinks are still hugely important to SEO. Make connections with authoritative sources, and incorporate backlinks to your website for increased visibility.
It’s also important, West says, to ensure that your website isn’t slow. “In real-life conversations, instant responses are the norm. Voice search users anticipate a similar digital interaction,” he states. “Therefore, website speed and mobile friendliness are non-negotiable. A speedy, mobile-responsive site mirrors the immediacy of human conversation, enhancing user experience and boosting SEO rankings.”
If you haven’t already optimized your content for voice search, now is the time to do so to ensure that you can compete with other sites that are already voice optimized. As virtual assistants and voice-activated apps become more prevalent and more popular, it’s really not a choice—it’s a mandate.