Are you talkin’ to me? – Google voice search, SEO & user intent

27 September, 2017

Search #1: “Optimise voice search trends fix website 2017

Search #2:  “Voice search blog SEO 2017

Search #3:  “Ok Google, find me a comprehensive, recent article that explains Google’s voice search functionality, with strategic tips for the future of SEO, preferably by an immensely talented and decidedly handsome writer

All of these are potential Google search queries that one might use to find a blog post just like the one you are reading now.

Spot the difference?

#3 is closer to what we know as natural language. It is conversational, contextual and reflects how humans talk to each other. And Google gets it.

#1 and #2 are also in a format most of us are very familiar with – query language. As 21st Century information junkies, we punch in around 3.5 billion searches per day into Google’s search engine, mostly using query language.

Query language is what happens when searchers strip the English language of conjunctions, interrogative words and all the other important stuff, leaving behind what we know as ‘keywords’. Over time, Google users have become accustomed to using this style of search.

Since Google has the luxury of massive amounts of data to analyse (in the form of our search queries), their algorithms soon learn to read between the lines.

But this isn’t really how we talk to each other, is it?

Job interviewer: So, why do you think you are the right person for this position?

Job candidate: Umm… need job big salary near me?

(Note: If you are in need of a hearty, slightly NSFW chuckle, check out What if Google was a guy? Go on.)

Now, according to Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, voice searches account for as much as 20% of all searches on their mobile app an Android devices.

So, Google is starting to recognise that the simplest way for us to express ourselves is to communicate through natural language, using our voices (so retro!). And with around 2.5 billion people having access to a smartphone around the world, we are asking more with our voices and less with our fingertips.

Let’s take a look at what kind of impact voice search might have on the future of SEO and search engine marketing.

How the Hummingbird update changed search

In 2013, Google implemented one of the biggest overhauls to its core search algorithm, nicknamed the Hummingbird update. The idea was to better map the user’s search intent to the results that were being returned. By taking the fragments of information from a typical 2 or 3 word query, Hummingbird was built to enhance the engine’s interpretation of the search.

Here’s an example:

When I search “born in the USA”, rather than providing me with information about US citizenship, Google knows I am probably more likely to be looking for The Boss’s 1984 smash hit. Pulling out the YouTube result provides an instant answer to my query.

In the year prior to Hummingbird, Google had also introduced what they called the Knowledge Graph. Appearing adjacent to the standard search results, the idea behind the knowledge graph is to provide a rich, comprehensive solution to the searcher’s query instantly.

The information is usually pulled from one or more of the top ranking sites and compiled in an easy to consume format for the user.

Perhaps you are curious about the sugar content of that apple you were munching on? Google’s Knowledge Graph can help you in a flash.

Natural language and voice search from the user’s perspective

Although this article is focused on voice search through the lens of Google and SEO, it’s worth zooming out to see where else voice commands are in vogue.

The most obvious trend is probably sitting in your pocket or on your desk right now. Mobile technology has been the single biggest catalyst for voice commands and queries.

Personal assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa encourage us to speak to our devices and computers to get what we want. Plus, we’ve got early adopters (tech nerds) eagerly spruiking the hyper-connected Internet of Things (IoT), which will be largely a voice driven network of appliances, devices, vehicles and much more.

As our relationship with technology becomes increasingly complex, natural language will be the release valve that allows us to normalise our interaction to some degree.

Research in human-computer interaction has been able to explain our predisposition to happily chatting away with an inanimate object through social response theory.

Before your eyes glaze over at the thought of dense behavioural theories, here’s the TL;DR – We treat computers as social actors even though we are perfectly aware they are not intelligent organisms like us. This manifests in behaviour that you see and do every day:

  • Engendering computers
  • Treating a voice as a person and unconsciously acknowledging “someone else” in the room
  • Extending social norms to computers.

These types of interactions have become so common in our lives that we don’t even stop to think about how absurd they really are. And this is just the beginning.

What does voice search mean for search engine optimisation and paid search ads?

Although voice searching is still in its infancy, it is unlikely that SEO and paid search foundations will be tossed out the window as a result of the paradigm shift to voice.

Using Google’s micro-moments as a framework for understanding search intent is an ideal starting point.

  • I-want-to-know – Research and exploration
  • I-want-to-go – Navigating within the immediate location
  • I-want-to-do – Assistance with a task, experience seeking
  • I-want-to-buy – Evaluation of alternatives, purchase readiness

At any point during their journey, your customers may rely on Google for valuable information to guide them. It’s up to you to be there with the most pertinent, useful, consumable answers.

There are three logical, intertwined ways that voice searching will impact SEO and paid search.

Marketers and business owners, jot these down.

Or take a voice memo on your iPhone, whatever’s easy.  

1. Queries will be longer

Remember the three search query examples at the beginning of this blog?

Keywords typed < keywords spoken.

Because it is easier to talk than type, long tail keywords will become more important.

Rather than focus on optimising for a one or two word keyphrase, experiment with longer keyphrases in your on-page content.

When you are planning your site content, imagine your ideal customer sitting across from you, having a conversation about your products, services and competitors.

As a starting point, I want you to make a list right now of at least six questions they would have for you. If you can’t do that off the top of your noggin, then get chatting with frontline staff, scour your customer emails and stalk your own business Facebook page until you have them.  

2. Intent should become clearer

In theory, voice queries should contain all the missing pieces of language that help to understand what the users actually wants.

In order to gratify the insatiable thirst for knowledge, Google will most likely increasingly reward those sites that provide detailed, informative content.

Especially if that content happens to match the precise intentions of the searcher.

Whipping up a service page, optimising for your trusty old market-defining keyphrase and expecting Google to keep feeding you quality traffic ain’t gonna cut it.

You need to deeply understand the user intent behind the query and meet that head on. The brands that will win voice search SEO in the future will leave no stone unturned in the quest for understanding user intent.

Sites like Quora and Answer the Public are your friend here.

On the flip side, we must assume voice search will become aligned with queries at the more commercial end of the spectrum.  AdWords aficionados should be able to use long tail negatives more accurately to avoid misdirected clicks and wasted cash.

3. Local and vocal

Go ahead and add ‘Concierge’ to the list of job titles your smartphone currently holds.

Because we carry our mobile phones literally everywhere, most location based searches tend to come from these devices. Which means we rely on them to get us out of a pickle when we are on the move.

For businesses where a physical location is part of the customer experience, Having a mobile friendly site is mission critical. If you aren’t sure, test your mobile friendliness here.

The other key thing to understand about local SEO is the urgency of the search.

Nobody is going to voice search ‘show me the most popular vietnamese restaurant for vegans in newcastle’ in case they are in the area in a fortnights time and feel like popping in for dinner.

They want chow and they want it now.

This means your local optimisation strategy needs to cover all the bases. Using FAQ sections with in-depth answers to common questions and using site content to pre-empt follow questions will help you convert local searches into customers, pronto.

Should I change the way I optimise my site?

The simple answer is yes.

Search engine optimisation and paid search are constantly evolving, so you should always be learning about where the curve is headed and what it means for your customers.

In terms of voice search specifically, it’s probably a little early to tell exactly what best practice will be (and for how long).

Certainly, testing out content formats that lend themselves to appearing as answer boxes is a smart move.

Hopefully, you have noticed a few of the signposts throughout this article that point toward where voice search and natural language will be taking search engine optimisation in the future.

Here they are, just in case:

  • Voice searches from mobile devices will continue to increase
  • Google isn’t afraid to make major changes to improve user experience
  • Voice search in Google is a part of bigger trend of voice activated devices
  • People are comfortable talking to computers
  • It is easier to express our intent through natural, spoken language
  • Understanding your customer’s needs and intent will become more important than ever..

Ready to play around with Google voice commands? These oughta keep you busy:

By Alex Taylor
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