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January 7, 2014

Voice Search SEO: A New Challenge

Google Voice Search

Can you hear it? Web search is about to get a whole lot more audible, so make sure you are listening. The rise of voice-activated search is likely to mean big changes in how people search for information online and the kind of results the search engines serve up to them.

In this age of mobile devices, most of us have encountered either Apple’s voice-activated assistant Siri or the voice search feature on Google Search for Android and iOS. However, what began as a convenient hands-free option for the mobile Web is now making its way onto our desktops too.

The driving force behind it is Google, who has made voice search available for PC users via its Chrome browser. The user simply clicks on a microphone icon in the search bar and can then speak away. Google has also now extended the “always on” feature to Chrome users too, with hands-free search triggered by the command “OK Google.”

Right now this might seem like a novelty, but with Google investing so much in it, the rest of us will have to keep up. The fact is, by its very nature, spoken search is having an impact on the performance of SEO. That, in turn, could affect the effectiveness of your campaigns and will involve taking a new look at your SEO strategy.

Conversational Search

As soon as voice is involved, the way we search changes. With this in mind, search engines are developing ways to handle ‘conversational search’. This reflects how people speak, for example asking questions, rather than the abbreviated way we type our queries into a search box. The voice-activated search results will then aim to respond as though you were talking to another person. As Google says: “You’ve got questions. Voice search has answers.”

With the search engines only able to respond to a single question or request at a time, finding all the information you need as a voice searcher could mean asking further questions. The goal for search engines is going to be to give the most relevant answer each time. This makes their ability to interpret conversational speech a critical factor, with a shift from simple keyword matching toward extracting meaning from natural language. With the roll out of Hummingbird at the end of the summer, Google has already refined its algorithm to adapt to the longer queries that result from spoken questions.

The Challenges

A search engine that can deliver direct answers, rather than serving up a page of resources, doesn’t sound promising if you’re used to the traditional SEO model. Getting to the front page won’t have the same impact if the search engine doesn’t need to display it. Simple information requests such as the weather forecast, and facts and figures are likely to be handled in this way.

For a business, this adds a new dimension to optimization. Not only will it be about being seen as the most relevant result for a given keyword, you will also need to provide something that a search engine can’t.

SEO itself will be more challenging, with fewer statistics available on what people are searching for. In the past, even people who typed in a search term but didn’t stay on your site would add to your search data. As voice search becomes more popular and click-throughs decrease, it will be difficult to monitor keyword performance in this way or to keep tabs on your ranking with the search engines.

Adapting For Voice Search

The good news is, if you can be ready for voice search and optimize with the new challenges in mind, you have a chance to stand out from the competition. Consider the ways your potential customers might discover your product or service via a spoken question. Then position yourself to answer the kinds of questions that can’t be served up by a search engine in a straightforward response. Interactive features and the need to buy, connect with people or take some other action will continue to attract Web users to webpages.

Finally, this could be a positive step for global businesses. On one hand, voice search opens a door to searchers with less than fluent English, making it easy to search without worrying about spelling. On the other, Google Voice Search is multi-lingual and is already delivering voice-activated results for 42 languages and accents. If you have overseas markets and can provide multi-lingual content, voice search gives you a new opportunity to meet their needs.

Voice search is a game-changer, and one where the rules are not all that clear. If your business is willing to adapt its SEO strategy for voice, however, you can stay competitive in this new, more conversational Web.


Christian Arno is the Managing Director of Lingo24. Follow Lingo24 on Twitter @Lingo24.