The way we interact with technology is becoming increasingly verbal. Many of us send voice messages to family and friends instead of texting, leave voicemails with businesses instead of emailing, and have conversations with digital assistants instead of manually searching.
It’s our primary and preferred mode of communication. And now speech recognition technology is reaching a point where it can offer a good enough experience over text, more and more people are beginning to search for information online using their voice.
To put things into context, in 2012, the word error rate for speech recognition tech was around 20 percent. Now it’s as low as 8 percent. This may not seem a big difference, but it’s in ironing out these final few percent of imperfections that takes the experience from disjointed and occasional to seamless and frequent. In the US alone, it’s expected that this year 36 million people will use a voice-activated assistant at least once a month — over double last year’s figures.
Many of the big players are preparing for a promising future of voice search and digital assistants. Amazon recently expanded its Echo line to eight models. Google has announced several new voice-controlled devices, including the Google Home Mini and Google Home Max. And it’s reported that Microsoft is soon to release ‘Invoke’, their Cortana-enabled smart speaker unveiled earlier this year.
The people using voice search are predominately teens and twenty-somethings searching for entertainment and information. But as it can be done hands-free in the home or while on-the-go from mobile, people are also using voice search to complete purchases like ordering a pizza or booking a taxi. And as it becomes normal to interact with the web without a screen — from one of your digital assistants or your new augmented ‘Alexa’ glasses — only more voice-driven transactions will occur.
This is why many marketers believe voice search to be the future of SEO. Already digital marketing is looking a lot different from the past when it was solely based on shorthand and the written word. It’s these businesses that take heed and tailor their strategies for voice search now that will benefit most — getting a head start for a future when everyone uses a voice-enabled digital assistant to interact with the web.
Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Adjusting to more natural speech patterns
With the rise of voice search, marketers will not only need to optimise for short tail keyword phrases but also long tail phrases that match more natural patterns of speech.
When a typical user types into a search engine, they use brief, chopped up phrases like “weather London” that are quick and they know will still generate the results they want.
When using voice search, however, it’s quicker and more efficient for user’s to stick to their normal patterns of speech. For instance, by asking “What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow in London?”.
Picking up on natural speech patterns and optimising for longer, more specific key phrases will give you a leg up in the voice search results. This requires knowing your audience better than ever — speech quirks, geographical information, past behaviour, and any other data that will help you decipher their language and intent. Voice search providers already use this information with the goal of answering users queries as quickly as possible, so the more accurately you know your audience, the more likely you’ll appear high in voice search results.
Optimising for mobile voice shoppers
As over half of all search queries come from mobile, it was clear a long time ago that businesses should be focusing on designing for mobile first. And with the biggest draw of voice search being to be able to browse and shop while on-the-go, voice search pushes this idea even further.
Figures from Google state that twenty percent of mobile queries are voice searches, a number that is also growing at a faster rate than text-based search. It’s data (from 2014) also shows that the majority of voice searchers are teens doing things like asking for directions, looking up facts, checking movie times, and dictating texts.
As digital assistants continue to improve speech recognition, integrate third-party services, and become more like two-way conversations, it will become more common to use voice to make purchases.
So when someone asks their phone a question relating to your products or services, you want to appear top of the list. That means using natural language but also writing descriptions that go into as fine detail as possible. For example, if you sell men’s underwear, rather than optimising for the key phrase “men’s boxers”, you would go with something like “fitted colourful men’s cotton trunks”.
Making the most of voice shoppers also means making sure your content is optimised accordingly so that you appear higher on mobile rankings. It goes without saying that means having a website that is responsive and mobile-friendly. But you should also ensure all your resources are crawlable, remove Flash as it isn’t supported by most mobile browsers, and optimise your load time, for instance by compressing images.
It’s still early days for voice search, and a lot of strategies going forward will be based on the effects on search engine results over the coming months and years. But we’re a few steps closer to query-less search — a day when a device knows what you want without even having to ask it. This is the grand vision that companies like Amazon and Google have been long heading towards. So best to start preparing now.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, spirituality, meditation, and everything in between.