A smartphone with a voice search app open - voice search optimization best practices
PHOTO: Adobe

According to a July 2020 report from Perficient, 55% of those polled indicated that they use voice search on their smartphones to find answers to their questions. Combine that with a report on mobile usage from Statista that revealed that in the third quarter of 2020, mobile devices generated 50.81% of global website traffic, and you have an emerging paradigm for voice-enabled search. With voice search gaining momentum putting the focus on voice search optimization for your businesses websites is a smart move.

The Evolution of Search

The way we search the web has changed over the years. Previously, if we wanted to find the capital of Tennessee, we would type “Tennessee capital” or some variant of that phrase into Google. If we wanted to know the temperature in Birmingham, England, we would type “temperature Birmingham, England.” This is opposed to how one would request the same information by speaking, in which one would say “what is the temperature in Birmingham, England?” or “what is the capital of Tennessee?”

Google Voice Search initially debuted in 2010. Then came Google’s Hummingbird algorithm update and an emphasis on semantic search, which focused on the implied meaning of search queries. Since then, Google Voice Search has been integrated into Google’s virtual assistant, Google Now, and many other devices. The combination of Google’s search algorithms and high-level natural language processing (NLP) technology has enabled users to search Google using language very much like they would use if they were talking to another person.

Ryan Steelberg, president of Veritone, an AI OS solutions provider, believes that voice commands, whether they are for search, information retrieval, or commands, should be seamless and fully integrated. “When you're trying to search through archives of audio and video, it enables you to get used to an extra speed of functionality and ease of use. I think it's still the state of the art as natural language processing continues to improve,” he said.

The widespread use of smartphones has increased the use of voice search as well. It’s easier and faster to simply ask a question verbally than it is to type, especially while one is mobile, and hands-free technology in vehicles has allowed even those who are driving to do a search. According to a report from Statista, there are projected to be over 130 million Android users this year. The majority of those users have a Google search bar with voice search functionality on their home screen. iPhone users now have the option of adding a Google search bar widget to their home screens, but unlike Android, it is not there by default.

Greg Sterling, VP of Insights at Uberall, a “near me” marketing platform provider, said that improvements in speech recognition and natural language processing, along with machine learning and AI advances, have led to a vastly improved voice search experience. “As a result, the entire process of speaking to a search engine or virtual assistant has become more natural and results are getting better. Google in particular has made significant strides in understanding and accuracy,” he said.

Related Article: CMO Speak: Is Voice Search Important Yet?

Voice Search Is About Answering Questions

People who type their search queries are interested in researching a topic. Those who use voice search are typically more interested in quickly finding an answer to a question or very specific information such as an address or business hours. “We can see the entirety of search as a process of seeking answers to questions. Voice is a subset of that; the behaviors aren't radically different, although most voice search is happening on mobile devices or smart speakers/screens,” explained Sterling.

When you search for the answer to a question, Google’s search engine results page (SERP) often presents what is called a “Featured Snippet” that answers the question, with a link to the answering site, and then a section called “People also ask” with related questions.

google search

Given that people often use voice search to ask specific questions, it behooves brands to create pages that answer the questions that customers are likely to ask relating to the brand, such as those that would appear on a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page. Those are the pages that are the most likely to become Featured Snippets on the SERPs, which, as Sterling said, “is kind of a jackpot. Many SEOs will build out more FAQs and focus on common questions and answers as a way to be responsive to voice queries.” 

Conversational Long-tail Keywords

Most SEO efforts focus on specific keywords that include the brand name, the names of the brand’s products, services, or solutions, and terms related to those elements. That is still a valid practice, even for voice search, but the use of long-tail keywords may be more useful. Long-tail keywords are, as the name suggests, search terms and phrases that are longer than normal search queries. This makes sense for voice search because voice search uses conversational queries that are often in the form of questions, and long-tail keywords can mimic those questions. Additionally, many sites do not use long-tail keywords, even though they account for almost 70% of all searches.

“Voice queries on balance tend to be framed as questions and are somewhat longer than desktop keyboard-generated queries,” Sterling said. “Long-tail keywords are going to be less competitive overall, depending on the category, so they're useful in general for SEO. But they can be very useful in the context of voice queries if there's a very specific question and answer.”

The use of long-tail keywords and phrases comprised of the questions a brand’s customers are likely to ask, and content that answers those questions, is a useful method of ranking higher in the SERPs. Additionally, brands often bid on long-tail keywords to increase their visibility and appear more prominently on the results page.

“It really depends on the coordination with the search indices, particularly with Google and others. If they're giving fair treatment, there is an opportunity to go more longtail in terms of SEO and optimization. It creates a very rich fabric and personalization of the search experience,” explained Steelberg. “It is imperative that anybody who has an application, a website, you name it, is going to have to start thinking about what changes they make to their overall voice strategy,” he said, “which is inclusive of SEO.”

Properly Use Schema Markup

Schema is a markup language that is used to provide search engines with additional information about the content that is on a website. Essentially, Schema enables site owners to more accurately describe the data so that Google can understand that data more precisely. Google even has a service called the Structured Data Markup Helper that creates the Schema tags for a page.

Along with being more informational for voice search, adding Schema markup to the HTML of a web page improves the way the page is displayed in the SERPs by enhancing the rich snippets that show up underneath the page title. Schema can be used to markup everything from products, events, places, people, articles, organizations, and more.

Steelberg believes that the use of Schema will be systemized over time as the AI machine learning models and Natural Language Processing models continue to advance. “I think having that more structured schema, meaning we will be able to adapt to the common Schema standards out there versus having, in effect, to create whole stylesheet representations on the website just to accommodate voice search. I think we'll kind of meet in the middle, based upon the acceleration and advancements of both.”

Voice Search Is Used for Local Search

Voice search is often used to look for businesses “near me.” This is very useful because when voice search is used via a mobile device, Google already knows the user’s current location. This is optimal for local businesses, as customers are able to use voice search to instantly locate such a business, and then get directions to the business. “It's just part of your normal lifestyle that lends itself, at least in terms of frequency, to a higher quotient of local query,” suggested Steelberg. “There're different correlating data sets that just make it easier. So you don't have to add a command to your point by default. If if I'm searching for Arby's, I'm probably not searching [for Arby’s] in New York City if I'm in Orange County, California.”

More importantly for local businesses, Google uses listings from My Business in the SERPs it returns to mobile users, so it is important to have an updated Google My Business Listing. “Most voice search is happening on smartphones. Smartphones are used everywhere but certainly on the go. Mobile queries tend to skew local. So there's a high degree of overlap between voice queries and local searches,” suggested Sterling. In fact, a 2019 Uberall survey revealed that 48% of voice search users have searched for information about local businesses.

Additionally, it is important to target localized keywords in order to rank higher in the SERPs. If my business is located on Broad Street in Orlando, Florida, it would be wise to use “located on Broad Street in Orlando, Florida” as one of my long-tail keyword phrases.

Final Thoughts

Voice search is becoming more popular every day, as mobile devices are now used to access the web more often than desktops or tablets. In order to rank high in the SERPs, it is necessary to take extra SEO measures for a website to be optimized for voice search. By answering questions, using conversational long-tail keywords and phrases, properly using Schema markup, and ensuring that local businesses are up to date in Google My Business, a brand can be sure that they are ready for voice search.