Scroll through LinkedIn or look through the latest marketing strategy blogs, and there’s a good chance you’ll see an article on “the rise of voice search.” It will likely cite an overused and under-verified statistic that “Voice search will be 50% of all searches by 2020.” Originally an off-the-cuff prediction by a Baidu executive, then falsely attributed to the media firm Commscore by countless bloggers, this figure has loomed large over the SEO world for quite some time. “Did I miss the rise of voice search?” You might be asking.
And the truth is, you haven’t missed much. Voice search, while benefiting select consumer industries, is not yet the SEO paradigm shift it was made out to be. So what is it? And when should you start to care? We asked our Senior SEO Manager, Phil Chevalier, his thoughts on the state of voice search, the impact it will have in the B2B & B2C markets and his predictions for the evolution of SEO overall.
The state of voice search in 2020
Voice search currently plays a very important role when it comes to certain specific types of searches that users frequently conduct, but it has a long way to go before it replaces typing as the default behavior for most searches. An Adobe survey from 2019 found that 48% of people report using voice for “general web searches”, but when we look at the types of searches that bubble up, we see that many of them fall outside of the range of things that most companies should focus on to improve their SEO.
1. Directions while driving — 52%
2. Making a phone call — 51%
3. Sending a text — 50%
4. Checking the weather — 49%
5. Playing music — 49%
It’s clear that smart speakers like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa are driving much of the current voice search usage, and people tend to use these devices for a certain set of tasks. What these tasks tend not to include is looking for any kind of in-depth information, comparison shopping, or prospecting various goods or services. And it’s in precisely those areas where SEO is playing its strongest role right now - in getting relevant information to the right audience by anticipating their needs and curiosities. Can we get to the same place with voice? I’m sure - but maybe not with the current hardware at our disposal.
Before we each find ourselves turning to voice as our default search behavior, there are some substantial hurdles to overcome. (Like the fact that natural language processing is really, really hard!)
The impact of voice, and “no click SEO”
While it hasn’t fundamentally changed SEO strategy, the steady growth of voice search has resulted in some key developments that today’s marketers need to consider. For one thing, it’s evolving the syntax that people use when they search. Searches became more conversational, often now taking the form of complete sentences, and containing a much higher degree of specificity. We saw a preview of this when mobile surpassed desktop as the preferred device for search users globally. “Long tail”, as search terms containing three or more words are referred to by SEO strategists, became in many ways the new normal.
To compete for these longer terms, companies have adopted strategies based around informational articles and resources that are framed as answers to commonly asked questions. The hope, for many of these strategies, is that their content will be selected by Google as a rich snippet -- a search result that often doesn’t require a user to visit their page to get all of the information they need. Those optimizing for “no click SEO,” as it’s come to be called, should consider themselves ahead of the curve when it comes to voice search. In essence, the goals are very much the same: make the information on your site so accessible that users can get it without actually visiting.
Other important synergies that should be capitalized on now between text and voice search are structured data, and Google My Business listings. Getting set up on Google My Business listings is extremely important and will be even more imperative should voice search truly take over.
The biggest winners (so far) of voice search
The biggest potential winners right now for voice search are most likely product companies (and the places that sell them), and (maybe not at this very moment) travel companies like airlines, hotels and restaurants. Right now, it’s any place that allows searchers to use voice assistants to make a shopping list, place a reservation, or conduct a similar task.
It is unlikely that voice search will have a large impact on the B2B market within the current paradigm. Obviously, if we anticipate a world where almost all searches are conducted through voice, then any company currently drawing traffic from search engines will have to find their future within that new search landscape. How this happens is the big question.
If I had to guess, I would imagine that the best way to do this would be to develop smart speaker tools that are useful to people in the industries you’re trying to serve. So, for example, a major HR consulting firm could develop a deep resource library that’s optimized for voice in order to help HR professionals navigate through crises like Covid-19. The benefit in that case would be high amounts of brand exposure, and the institutional authority gained by being a trusted source of information. However, without a huge behavioral shift, voice search is unlikely to transform the B2B market.
While we wait for voice, SEOs should focus on video
While voice search hasn’t yet lived up to its transformative potential, the developments happening with video are worth getting excited about. Historically, HTML paragraph copy has had the advantage over video of being able to be distilled into a rich snippet or “quick answer” that users can see without clicking on a page. However, sometimes these answers are incomplete and require the user to click the link for additional reading anyway. To make this easier, Google started introducing anchor links that send users to highlighted text containing the information they’re looking for. And now, Google has started introducing similar functionality with video.
To get users to the information they’re looking for faster, YouTube videos are now appearing on SERPS with the option to watch only the part where the answer to a user’s question is given, giving users the chance to watch only the part of a video that matters to them (with the help of Clip structured data).
While text has dominated search results so far, this development finally makes video a more viable type of result for a much broader set of search queries, which will continue to transform the way results pages look and feel. As this catches on, expect results pages to start showing a much more equal, if not lopsided, distribution of text and video results.