Talking to the computer and asking questions has been a sci-fi staple for decades. The introduction of more reliable and easy to use voice search tools in recent years – Siri from Apple, Cortana from Microsoft, Alexa from Amazon, Google Voice Search, amongst others – has moved it into the real world. But what does this mean for marketing and for the business of Search Engine Optimization? Are we going to see a rapid shift to voice searches from the current text-based model?
Voice and Text Searches: The Differences
Voice searches are an evolving sub-sector of wider search operations, so saying anything about trends must be taken with the ‘past trends are no guarantee of future performance’ warning. Having said that, research shows that there are key, qualitative differences in the way that people use voice searches to those that are text-based. Voice searches focus primarily on the here-and-now: something that the user needs to know at that instant for the activity they are undertaking. A 2014 survey by Google puts the top five uses as:
- Asking for directions;
- To initiate a phonecall;
- To dictate an SMS or other text;
- To get help with homework; and
- To start the playing of a piece of music or a song.
The underlying tendency is that voice searches are undertaken when the person is busy with something else and (sometimes literally) has their hands full – the examples from Google’s survey showed that 38 percent of adults used voice searches when watching TV and 23 percent while cooking – and are three times as likely to be related to locally-based situations, services etc.
However, complex searches, searches while a user is sitting at a computer, or when someone is looking for something that is not immediate, all remain overwhelmingly text based.
Further, the reported prevalence of voice searches (the often quoted figure of 55% of teens using voice searches on mobile phones) does have to be put in context. This is 55% of teens saying they have used a voice search – NOT that 55% of searches by teens are voice searches (in fact, in 2016 Google said that 20% of queries on its mobile app and Android devices were voice searches – this does not take account of searches via (e.g) computer’s web browsers.
Separately, global market differences have to be considered. As usual, the US market is ahead of elsewhere with take up of voice searching, so the high end of figures quoted likely have to be marked down for elsewhere (although it’s worth noting that Baidu reports rapid growth in voice searches in China).
Future Developments: What Now for SEO?
Despite a note of caution about the ‘next big thing’ headlines, voice searches are a clearly growing segment of the overall search sector. Given this, how will SEO be affected?
The first thing to note is that voice searches are likely to complement text searches, not replace them. The particular focuses of searches undertaken by voice also need to be remembered. Importantly, it is also reported that the search mechanism used to process search queries – in particular by Google – is the same as the one used for text searches. In this regard, the SEO task remains as it was previously and the task is for SEO specialists to overcome any particular challenges in their sector.
But with voice searches predominately conducted with mobile devices, the importance of optimization for mobile is reinforced even more. Mobile-friendly websites are an essential for businesses, not a nice to have. Getting a business in front of the user and retaining them becomes increasingly important, and for many types of businesses, investment in mobile app development can be a good way to address the issues that mobile and voice searches can pose.
Businesses have to be alert to taking advantage of every chance and option that is open to them, and with voice searches focusing on the ‘what I am up to at this moment’ questions, it is important for firms or businesses that do focus on their local market – for instance cafés, take aways, fuel stations etc – to be optimised for geo-searches and geolocation, for example by making sure that question phrases are used on a website and ensuring that related keywords are included.