Voice search is redefining SEO – 20% of all searches are voice-based according to Google. Being an avid writer, I always assumed that voice search was pretty useless since you can get the same functionality from a search just by typing. Plus, you don’t have to waste your energy forming words and holding the phone up to your mouth.
Recently, I picked up a job volunteering to teach children in underprivileged areas of California for about an hour every week. It was there that I really saw the potential and reason for voice search. As it turned out, I was paired with a fourth-grader who was dyslexic, so he struggled when it came to reading, writing, and typing
Something that really amazed me was seeing him look at the keyboard, pausing, then tapping the visual icon for microphone and using the search option to find the videos he wanted to see. It dawned on me that with the personal assistants were becoming more popular because of the aspect of convenience that they bring to the market.
Voice Search and The Driving Forces Behind It
A misunderstanding that many people have when it comes explaining the popularity of voice searches is justifying that popularity as part of the convenience of a voice search itself. The greater factor that predicts the rise of voice searches is their tendency to be bundled up into other technology-driven developments that become commonplace in daily life. For example, if you’re just sitting in front of your laptop and you want to know about something, chances are that you won’t use a voice search because typing is much faster.
The public, as well as the market, is driven by convenience as naturally as water tends to flow downward. Understanding why voice search is rising in popularity requires us to understand what benefits to convenience voice search brings in the first place.
So far, it appears that people would rather type than talk out loud when trying to find results, and Google’s own Search Insights reveals patterns in behavior like the fact that people will just choose the nearest device they have on hand when making something tedious like a reservation. In a study published by Stone Temple, it was revealed that the most popular reasons for using voice search were because it’s fast, the answer is read out loud, or because it allows the user to avoid typing.
Companies are moving to exploit this craving for convenience to move their own agendas forward. The goals and strategies of major technology companies guide the development of technologies that popularize voice searches. In this case, companies are aiming to extract more data out of our day-to-day lives by making personal assistants ubiquitous.
Knowing your customer through analyzing patterns in immense amounts of consumer information so that you can optimize and deliver products to them before they even know they want something has become standard practice for most of the largest international technology companies as well as retailers. Five years ago, Target was able to figure out that a girl was pregnant before her parents simply because of her spending choices.
If the analytical insights of consumer data have already reached such depths five years ago, then their sophistication now is probably hard to fathom. One thing we do know is that technology companies that have a large stake of their revenue in advertising and marketing (every company, really) will be searching for ways to get the most accurate picture of every individual person as part of a strategy to maximize the sources of their revenue. Just last year in 2016, Google’s total advertising revenue shot up 17% to a huge $19.1 billion.
For these companies, the problem is becoming one of getting more information rather than developing new and more efficient analytical methods to interpret existing information. The Harvard Business Review documents how technology follows an arguable trend of diminishing marginal returns when it comes to productivity.
The same applies to information technology, and this decreasing rate of returns is what has technology companies scrambling to find a way to get more data from its users rather than spending that money on developing newer analytical methods.
By putting yourself in the shoes of a big tech company, you’ll probably quickly realize that you can’t simply ask users to give you a personal report of what they like and don’t like on a regular basis, and any attempts at that would be perceived as intrusive. So, how does a company get to know you more personally without you asking too many questions? By giving you a personal assistant that you get to order around and ask questions.
People have already started to ask questions about this move by companies to introduce personal assistants and the NYTimes documents the typical line of skepticism: “I was going to try Cortana, Microsoft’s version of Siri, but to use it, you have to allow Microsoft access to your location, your contacts, voice input, information from email and text messages, browser history, search history, calendar details “and other information.” Naturally, I declined.”
But that isn’t stopping people from buying into it. BusinessInsider reports that there are about 35.6 million users of voice-enabled personal assistants, with Amazon and Google leading a significant portion of the market share. The same article highlights that the growing utility and presence of personal assistants by noting that there was a 129% increase in users for 2017 in comparison to 2016.
The nature of convenience changes with how technology is presented and framed to different individuals. The rise in popularity of digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Amazon’s Alexa is representative of cutting-edge developments that further link the online and virtual world with our physical realities. Now that people have access to an assistant that can reply to a basic range of commands and questions, they are more likely to engage with that assistant.
The Prevalence of Digital Assistants and the Rise of Voice Searches
Something worth noting is that the biggest technology companies are all opting to include personal assistants along with their products. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon occupy an immense part of the market share and they each are multi-billion dollar companies whose decisions and products have the potential to shape and shake entire sectors because of the sheer number of people they serve. Already, a number of sites are reporting that there is an ongoing battle between these companies over who can create the best personal assistant and that this battle runs parallel to the OS battles of the past.
Among other things, tech companies have been sinking their jaws into investments in the R&D of deep learning and machine learning, methods that allow artificial intelligence to modify its own code with the purpose of adapting to some set of conditions more optimally. The research firm Gartner predicts that “deep-learning applications and tools will be a standard component in 80% of data scientists’ tool boxes by 2018.” The technology that allows a personal assistant to adaptively respond to its user and optimize its own consulting performance has existed since 2014.
As it turns out, the primary medium through which these digital assistants offer help is through sound, so you have to speak and treat the virtual assistant like a real one if you want to use its interface and get the most out of it. The advertising that tech companies like Google are putting out to people when referring to these assistants focuses on individualization and understanding personal preferences. For example, Google Assistant’s pitch reads as the following: “Ask it questions. Tell it to do things. It’s your own personal Google, always ready to help.”
Speaking with someone or something is similar but distinct to communicating with them through a text-based medium both in the type of words you use in each type of communication and the level of engagement you give. It’s possible that personal assistants are voice-activated because the companies behind them want to increase the accuracy of their data on consumer preferences.
By engaging a customer with something framed as “personal” and allowing them to talk and interact with it, companies are probably positioning themselves to better understand consumer thoughts and behavioral patterns. Google’s Francoise Beaufays comments that: “Voice changes the way people interact with their systems.” While Beaufays is attempting to underscore the revolutionary characteristic of personal assistants and the technology behind them, their pertinence to the optimization of data collection remains.
As evidence of this, we can start by recognizing that speech is an essential component of engagement that works in tandem with visual components. Conversations that engage an individual have particular visual and auditory cues. The presence of a personal assistant is used to justify and normalize the increased engagement of users with that product.
So, the recent prevalence of voice searches isn’t something that has been instigated only due to the merits of a voice search in itself, but rather, its popularity has been mediated by the increase and the acceptance of personal assistants that are voice activated. Further, the introduction of personal assistants that rely on voice further fall into the broader industry objectives of technology companies with regard to data collection and the application of machine learning methods. But what does a greater number of people speaking into their phones for information actually mean for SEO? How does it even change the nature of search?
The Language of Speech and SEO
The ways in which people can use a language are incredibly diverse. This diversity is so great that multiple modalities of one language can exist and interchange with each other simultaneously. New meanings and misunderstandings arise from this process.
If you think about the way that you speak to someone and the way that you compose your thoughts on a piece of paper, you might notice that there’s a big gulf between the types of words you use. Think about the differences in the way you talk to a professor in comparison to an essay or report you might write for them. In contrast to conversational language, if you were to read out an analytical essay, you would probably sound more dry, objective, and your sentences would be longer.
This difference is important because voice search now has garnered enough search volume to impact site rankings. A MindMeld survey revealed that voice search skyrocketed from 0 to 50 billion searches in 2015. Additionally, recall that 20% of all Google searches are now performed through voice, with 41.6% of all users reporting that they have started to use voice searches in the past 6 months.
Figuring the difference between the verbal modality and the textual modality of the English language is key to capitalizing on the increasing share of voice-based searches through SEO. Let’s take a look at some of the basic distinctions of academic and narrative writing in comparison to everyday speech and conversation. To start off, the fundamental way that we approach language completely changes when we compose sentences.
The results of a study published in the Journal of Writing Research indicate that it was actually harder for people to plan a sentence involving two related concepts in comparison to two unrelated concepts and that composing a sentence involving two related concepts took more working verbal memory. The authors attribute this unexpected result to the “temporal dynamics of the sentence production process,” indicating that something about the quality of ideas changes for individuals when planning and composing sentences.
Your brain engages in a different psychological context and a different set of associations when you speak in comparison to when you write. If we take a step back and examine the general patterns in language that emerge from word frequencies, sentence lengths, and other characteristics, it is possible to document differences.
The book Word Frequencies in Written and Spoken English notes several important features unique to linguistics that may explain these differences such as the presence of word fragments when the speaker breaks off in the middle of a thought and the presence of interjections and involuntary pauses. Further, words or phrases that sound the same such as “their, they’re, and there” are indistinct in the processing of spoken language.
A variety of other considerations should also be taken into account when one begins to consider and account for the fact that one in every five searches are now performed through voice. An interesting consequence that manifests in a more salient manner is the representation of emotion. Research published in Conversational Informatics makes the case that emotions play a role determining the direction of the conversation in claiming that: “…emotions [are] integral parts of an agent’s cognitive architecture.”
The basis of how voice search will change SEO springs out of the differences and unique characteristics of language. SEO should be viewed as a continuously shifting set of techniques that adapts to key changes in the nature of search. The increasing number of voice searches will present a set of word and phrase frequencies that are distinct from written language, but that also compete in an equally accessible environment.
How Lingual Shifts Impact SEO Results
When two groups of people have different ways of describing things but share a common language, the vocabulary and original understanding of certain words in their respective groups will change. The most famous example of how this works is, of course, the Internet as English is a lingua franca but its practitioners come from a variety of cultural contexts and backgrounds. The development of Internet slang in particular and its documentation on websites such as UrbanDictionary highlight how language evolves as different groups of people are incorporated.
A research study published by the Cambridge University Press comments on the significance of UrbanDictionary: “By relying on the users of the language to select and define words for a dictionary, UD – which defines more than one million words – has in effect influenced both access to and formulation of the lexis.” The introduction of voice search will likely have a similarly significant impact on SEO through a reformulation of the search lexis or the words that people use when searching for information.
What is actually happening with voice search is that a proportion of the people who perform searches are now using a different vocabulary to perform those searches. That vocabulary is expected to be more conversational and shorter due to the implicit nature of making a query to a personal assistant expecting to receive and process an answer. That action of speaking to an agent – AI or not – that processes your request rather than typing in a request yourself will change the context in which the search is made.
Moz, one of the pioneering and leading websites of SEO, talks about the difference between how you would initiate a text-based search and a voice-based search by presenting you with two different contexts. One is where you are making the search sitting down at a computer and another is where you are making the search by asking a personal assistant such as Alexa or Siri. The article makes a prediction on your search behavior by positing the question, “How would you search for Microsoft’s CEO in each of these cases?”
The answer given is that most people would prefer the short-form “Microsoft CEO” phrase for the text-based search, while they would ask a full sentence such as “Who is the CEO of Microsoft?” when using a personal assistant. The idea that you wouldn’t throw a phrase like “Microsoft CEO” at a personal assistant and expect it to understand that you wanted to it to perform a search and give you the answer to who the Microsoft CEO is the key to understanding this lingual shift for searches.
In the same article, Moz summarizes a few insights that are very important to how SEO will actually be changed. These are:
- A small difference in query lengths
- The prevalence of question words
- An increase in intent compared to interest
- Increased Locality
- Huge impact on third party listings
Each of these five points represents an opportunity for your site to refine and update its presentation to be a little more voice friendly. But are we truly making a shift towards a point where voice searches outnumber text searches?
Strategizing For Changes to SEO From Voice Search
While the emerging market for personal assistants and the increase in the number of voice searches over time is an interesting and exciting new trend that many will want to jump on the bandwagon with, we shouldn’t forget that the other 80% of searches are still done through text. Voice search will not suddenly and completely upend the majority of search types, but it does make a non-negligible difference that you should account for.
There are a number of commercial services emerging that serve the sites looking to capitalize and bet the voice searches will rapidly occupy a greater portion of searches. WordLift is one of these companies that promises better SEO results by its methods and expertise in accounting for voice searches. WordLift is a strong advocate of the idea of structured data and schema markup as major strategies for SEO results deriving from voice searches, and specifies three big goals to help your company gain an edge in this area:
- Make your content machine-friendly.
- Let users navigate within the website by finding meaningful content.
- Cultivate a community of users for your website.
In summary, tech companies have recently been investing into a strategy to optimize their data collection by marketing personal assistants. These personal assistants will lead to an increase in the number of people making voice searches since it exists as a primary feature and way to access that personal assistant.
Differences in verbal and written modalities become more apparent and relevant as voice search becomes a more popular search method. To account for this increase in voice searches, your company should anticipate the most frequent formats that users of personal assistants will employ to ask questions and make your site more noticeable through an approach that emphasizes the use of structured data. The popularity of voice search is borne out of a market need for convenience and will reshape SEO as people adapt to the products that satisfy that need.