SEO in 2018: The Opportunities & Challenges of Voice Search

It’s rare to catch a seismic technological shift as it happens.

From the slow but now deeply rooted advance of social media into our lives, to the gradual saturation of smartphones, technology has been characteristically measured in its immersion.

Voice search looks set to continue this trend.

Able to solve the most heated debates between mates, “OK Google, can you really see the Great Wall of China from space?” to streamlining a busy household, “OK Google, add vegemite and milo to my shopping list”, voice activated systems are slowly finding their place in Australian lives.

When Siri hit the market back in 2011 this was no certainty with the ability to carry out voice activated search more novelty than necessity.

Fast forward to 2018.

Google Home arrived midway through 2017, with Apple HomePod and Amazon Echo soon following.

With Google boldly stating that 50% of searches will be conducted using voice search by 2020, this has the potential to be a turning point for marketers with entire SEO strategies potentially pivoting to target voice search going forward.

In the same way that smartphones ushered in a period of location based SEO to reflect the purchasing intent of consumers on the move, voice activation will require changes to optimisation strategies with featured snippets, naturally worded long-long-tail keywords and ‘near me’ phrases offering fertile, but limited, new ground.

For consumers a voice activated search is a chance to streamline tasks, simplify processes, and find answers in the blink of an eye.

For marketers, this new technological shift could mean the difference between success and failure in a changing search landscape.

The predictions…

While voice activated systems haven’t yet become mainstream in Australia, we can look to America for a glimpse into our near future.

In America it is estimated that voice activated digital assistants will rise by 14.1% in 2018 to reach a total of 69 million. Of this total people are:

  • Conducting online searches (69%)
  • Asking questions (67%)
  • Making phone calls (61%)
  • Finding a business in the local area (58%)
  • Researching a product (53%)

Recent figures released by Google reinforce how voice search is finding a place in daily life, with 72% of Americans who own a voice-activated device using it in their daily routine.

While the figures don’t reflect the same use here, it’s only a matter of time before voice search in Australia picks up speed.

What are the differences between Text and Voice Search?

Text driven search provides the opportunity for multiple websites to appear on a single search engine results page.

While these results remain extremely contentious, they also provide variety.

Contrast this to voice search.

There is a clear difference, in most cases, with the return of a single answer through a voice assistant.

This may appear innocuous, but it is anything but.

With virtual assistants returning a single result read aloud, optimising to appear in that highly valuable verbal position will become key.

As a result, voice driven search optimisation has the potential to be a make or break skill for successful marketers.

To take advantage of this shift, several distinctions between text and voice search must be accounted for.

#1 The length of the search query

When you type in a search query you are typically using partial language, for example “New shoes 2018”.

Contrast this to voice search when you can comfortably search for “what is the newest release in the Adidas sneaker range?”

To put this length difference in perspective, voice searches are on average 76.1% longer than text-based searches.

Longer search queries will need to be taken into account when optimising for keywords going forward.

#2 The inclusion of questions

While people tend to use statements in text based queries, digital assistants allow for flexible questions, providing solutions to naturally flowing requests in a way that traditional search cannot.

#3 The purchasing intent

While text search uses keyword driven content to target niche markets, voice search will connect businesses with consumers at the very end of their purchasing cycle.

When consumers reach a site due to these terms, they are deep in the research stage of solving a problem, giving marketers the chance to capitalise and convert.

#4 The increase in hyper-local queries

Currently, mobile voice searches are over three times more likely to be local based than text search. With the overlap of local signals between mobile and voice search it seems likely that a convergence is on the horizon. With detailed questions becoming more common, the days of unnatural and stagnant search language look set to be over.

With these differences in mind, new obstacles will stand in the way of marketers.

Finding a way to overcome these obstacles will be required, with each challenge presenting opportunities too.

The Challenges & Opportunities of Voice Search

Challenge – Optimising to appear outside the SERPs

In most cases, voice activated results won’t display on search engine result pages.

With no need to scroll down a list of results, no scanning for the most relevant page, no fierce competition between websites, there is only one holy grail for marketers to target – Google’s Answer Box aka Position Zero.

Providing information above the fold on Google, Position Zero provides the most relevant information pulled from the most relevant website. As voice search moves forward, these featured snippets will take priority.

Challenge – The unknown search behaviour of consumers

Mobile search brought on an influx of ‘near me’ and ‘opening hours’ requests.

Will these type of searches continue to dominate voice search?

Recent evidence suggests yes. Though it appears that these types of phrases will be used as part of lengthier questions.

For example, instead of typing into your desktop or phone, ‘Cinema opening hours’, you might instead ask your voice assistant ‘What time is the cinema open until tonight?

It seems likely that longer search queries will become the norm, making it vital that marketers adjust their strategy to match.

Challenge – The changing nature of content style.

So far Google has shown a preference for returning voice search results that are short, sharp and to the point. In fact the average result is just 29 words long and written in language designed for a 9th grader.

Changes in existing content and future content strategy will be required to suit Google’s voice search preferences.

Challenge – The importance of local signals

As mentioned, compared to text search, mobile voice search is three times more likely to be used for local purposes. With such location specific needs, it appears that local signals will remain a key part of optimisation going forward.

Ensuring location based signals are up-to-date and accurate wherever they are found will remain a priority.

Final Thoughts

More than simply convenience, voice search will change the way search queries are handled. To what degree that occurs is still unknown, but the realisation of a changing landscape should still be enough to convince marketers to prepare.

Ultimately, voice search is on the rise and will only grow further. As a fast and immediate solution it is precisely what modern consumers want. For the savvy marketer, finding ways to take advantage of this immediacy will be both the challenge and reward going forward.

Alexander Porter is Head of Copy and an SEO Strategist at Search It Local, a Digital Marketing agency based in Sydney. Alexander is passionate about providing brands with a voice, understanding emerging technologies and social media. He enjoys sharing his insights on copywriting, digital marketing, SEO and the power of language to strike consumers like lightning.