The Rapid Growth of Voice Search, Direct Answer & the Future of SEO

8 Minute Read | Search Engine Optimisation

The growth of mobile and the rise of voice search has changed our industry. And no longer can search marketers and SEOs afford to ignore it. Love it or hate it, voice search isn’t just a silly fad. Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) have evolved to cater for voice search, and if you’re not taking it seriously, now’s the time to start.

David Plunkert Retro Futurism
Image Credit: David Plunkert

How Is Voice Search Different

With almost 2 billion mobile phone users globally, Google has shifted its focus away from desktop and towards mobile search. A shift that has also led the company to invest heavily in improving its voice search platform, OK Google. But Google are far from alone when it comes to developing voice recognition technologies. Apple and Microsoft have done the same, and between them this troika of blue chip companies have made voice search a ubiquitous presence across the globe.

OK Google, so now that Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are a part of our daily lives, how does voice search differ from text?

In a nutshell, voice search is more conversational. As Jayson Demars mentioned in Forbes:

“Rather than typing individual words into a search bar, users speak their query, usually into a phone. Doing so naturally encourages users to speak in a conversational way, creating unique and different queries to be processed by search engines, bypassing the need for keywords and instead rewarding sites with content that falls in line with the user’s request.”

Beyond Keywords

As everyone who offers search engine optimisation services knows, we have to move beyond keywords. Of course, this idea extends beyond voice search and goes straight to the heart of a broader paradigm shift within SEO. But nonetheless, when it comes to capturing voice searchers, looking beyond traditional keyword targeting is particularly vital.

With 55 per cent of teens and 41 per cent of adults now using voice search at least once per day, we have to start focusing on producing content that directly answers searchers’ questions. Even for small clients and small businesses this is key to capturing voice search traffic. Of course, you’ve still got to get your basic SEO elements right, but if you’re not tailoring at least some your content to answering direct queries, you’re missing out on some easy wins.

Who, Why, Where, What, When & How

Voice search is all about providing direct answers (sometimes referred to as ‘rich answers’) to search queries. And this whole game has become marked by what journalists have traditionally called the Five Ws (and How), and creating online content that answers conversational search queries.

Recent data compiled by Search Engine Land found a 61 per cent growth in searchers’ use of these phrases year-on-year. A trend that has come about due to improvements in voice search technology and the expansion of Google’s Knowledge Graph.

Growth in Question Phases Year over Year

It’s Getting Better All the Time

While it’s impossible to predict the future of search (text, voice or otherwise) with any certainty, the rise of hands-free devices and the improved accuracy of speech-recognition technology will continue to grow.

Google’s voice recognition technology has drastically improved in recent years. In fact, as of April, OK Google had managed to reduce its error rate from 25 per cent down to 8 per cent in just two years. Edward C. Baig from USA Today puts these impressive figures down to advances in hardware, and enhancements in machine learning and natural language processing. Improvements that will no doubt continue, causing error rates to drop even further, and searchers to become increasingly confident with the technology.

How Should We Adjust Our Campaigns to Capture Voice Searchers?

As voice search technology develops and becomes more prevalent, it’s important for all of us working in search marketing and SEO to adjust our strategies. So once you’ve come to terms with the idea that voice search is more than a passing fad, it’s time to tailor your SEO and content efforts towards capturing these searchers. Here are a few handy tips.

Direct Answers

Creating content that exploits conversational searches is the key, as more and more Google SERPs are coming back with rich answers to both text and voice searchers. Recent research by Stone Temple Consulting found that Google are responding to 19% of search queries with some kind of rich answer. This is up almost 500% from two years ago.

Bing, on the other hand, is only providing rich answers to 1.7% of search queries.

Custom Queries

There are a variety of ways that Google presents direct answers to conversational search queries. In some instances they present tabbed results, like when you’re looking for movie session times. In other cases you may receive a carousel, like when you’re searching for ‘What Are the Main Attractions in Sydney’. But no matter how Google are presenting their rich answer responses, the heart of the matter is this: with almost 20% of Google SERPs coming back with a direct answer, you need to produce content that answers question keyword terms that relate to your industry.

Understand How the Five Ws Apply To You

Before you rush off and create a whole bunch of content using the Five Ws it’s important to understand your vertical. For example, a company operating in the financial services industry would be looking to target different types of questions than a retail brand. So before you produce any content go to Google Trends and uncover the question keyword terms people are searching for in your vertical.

According to research from Search Engine Watch shows that retail brands receive a lot of search volume from ‘where’ based enquires. In fact, the data compiled by Jason Tabeling reveals that ‘where’ searches account for 43% of retails total question keyword terms. Yet when it comes to financial services, searchers are looking for completely different content. As Tabeling points out:

“In Financial Services those questions centered more on understanding the complexity of these products and asked “How” and “What” most frequently. For example, “How much money do I need for retirement?” or “What is a Roth IRA?”

Question Keywords by Vertical

As the graph above highlights: if you’re producing digital content in the financial services industry, you should be looking to answers questions that ask ‘how’. Accounting for 47% of total question keyword terms, producing informative and useful content that answer ‘how’ questions is going to boost your voice search traffic.

Take Advantage of Long-Tail Search

One of the major differences between text and voice search is the average length of the query. In fact, research from Bing (as reported by John Gagnon from Search Engine Watch) shows that with text searches, two-word queries are by far the most common, with a substantial drop in use once a query reaches three words. Yet when it comes to voice search, the most common query length is three to four words, with a more gradual decline as the length of the query increases.

Voice search provides the perfect opportunity for you to target more long tail keywords. Not only will targeting more long tail phrases – searches of more than five words – allow you to provide direct answers to niche search queries, but it will also allow you to drive high quality traffic to your site. Traffic from long tail search terms tends to be way more targeted and focused than traffic from more shorter, generic searches.

As Colin Ryan points out, “the top 10,000 keywords make up less than 20 percent of overall search traffic. The vast majority, 70 percent, comes from the less glamorous but crucial keywords in the long tail.”

Get Specific And Get Found

Where to From Here

Until recently, voice search wasn’t even a consideration for SEOs. Due to errors with automated voice translation technology, most of us continued using text search well after the initial release of Siri and OK Google. Not anymore.

Voice recognition technology has improved, and as it continues to grow, we need to factor voice search into our strategies. As Chris Doran from Acquisio states,

“The growth of Siri and Cortana will continue to change SEM. Keywords will finally evolve into statements and questions changing how marketers find their audience. Broad targeting will replace explicit keywords matching intent as questions and queries will grow significantly during 2015.

Conversational search is here to stay, and as Google, Apple, and Microsoft continue to improve their voice search platforms, all of us in search marketing have to evolve beyond text centric SEO and tailor our campaigns to capture this new breed of searcher.

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