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Voice search – How is it reshaping search results?

January 13, 2018

Voice search – How is it reshaping search results?

“Ok, Google- play ‘Toto’s Africa’”… Sound familiar? How many times this week have you used your smartphone or home assistant to answer burning questions such as;

“How much does the latest iPhone X cost?”, “What will the weather be like today?” or far more importantly “What time does The Red Lion close on Friday?”.

With the growing popularity of ‘eyes-free’ technology in our homes and in our pockets, the way people search has increasingly changed from traditional ‘typed’ search to querying voice-assistants.

The concept of ‘voice search’ started with Microsoft incorporating speech recognition in their technology, in 2002. Apple then incorporated voice function technology in their mobile phones, known as Siri, a fews years later.

Fast-forward 16 years, with voice search rapidly growing in popularity, SEO strategies will need to adapt when it comes to creating and optimising digital content to ensure the changing demands of users are met.

Search results pages are evolving

Voice-search tends to be long, often question-based queries that require descriptive and factual answers to be returned to the user. Over the last few years, Google have been increasing the number of formats used to display long tail answers, such as featured snippets, Knowledge Graphs and the ‘People also ask’ accordion. These types of features have been introduced in search result pages as a direct result of Google addressing the growing use of more conversational and vocal queries. These results have been structured to be spoken out loud, as well as read. They allow users to get an immediate answer to a question, without having to click-through to a website to investigate further.

Most recently, Google have released search-speech guidelines to outline clear instructions for content being published online, ensuring it will directly answer a spoken query. The guidelines feature a ‘Needs Met rating’, with examples of good, medium and poor answers that a voice assistant may choose when answering queries. This document is the closest Google have come to allowing SEO’s and content marketers a view of what is required in order to correctly optimise on-page content for voice search.

“SEO’s have begun to embrace the ‘0 position'”

When they first made an appearance, these new ‘real estate’ features in search engine results pages (SERPs) were apprehended by some SEO professionals. Labelled the ‘zero (0) position’, it was widely considered these descriptive results would steal traffic away from the ‘traditional’ organic results.

However, whilst in more recent times SEO’s have begun to embrace the ‘0 position’ – seeing it as something to optimise their on-page content towards rather than treating it as something to fear, it’s fair to say that these additional features have led to a decline in more ‘traditional’ organic search results.

Perhaps not the ‘death of SEO’, but it’s something to watch closely.

Another recent change to perhaps accommodate the more traditional SERPS, has been the expansion of characters in meta descriptions.

This change has been made as part of Google’s continual experimentation, however, this does not change the impact meta descriptions have on SEO, as Google’s John Mueller reiterates, meta descriptions do not have any impact on ranking, but may affect click-through rate.

It is important to note though that by increasing meta description length, those websites ranking towards the bottom of the first page are now likely to be pushed further down the SERPs, making it even more important to be ranking well for their key search queries.

Recently, search results in the US have seen subtle labelling in search results with the introduction of ‘According to’, mentioning the source that holds the particular opinion/answer. This new addition is the result of Google adjusting results for the audible response (and potentially disassociating themselves with the facts of the answer following a spate of poor quality answers being returned in featured snippets and voice search). Home assistants read results out, starting with “According to..” then stating the source that delivers the most accurate answer.

Although this is yet to feature within UK SERPs (the above is a screenshot form US SERPs), I safely predict this will make an appearance in the coming months.

Optimising for voice search

One of the more important behavioural elements to remember for voice search is that people don’t speak in the same manner as they type. Optimising content for more long-tail or conversational queries makes it more likely to appear in voice search results. Having on-page local intent will also increase the opportunity to rank, as users often request local-focused results such as; “Italian restaurants near me open at 12pm”.

“Having more than one accurate result will be counter-productive”

Think mobile-first! It is important to remember voice search and mobile browsing go hand in hand, and the rising popularity in voice search is a direct result of people favouring their mobiles when browsing the internet. As over 55% of all browsing is now conducted on mobile devices, not having a mobile responsive site is the first hurdle to overcome before any further optimisation should be considered.

There is no denying search engines are adapting to the way in which results are displayed, most certainly due to the rise in voice search. We’re also seeing hardware manufacturers bridging the gap between voice and display with hybrid devices to transition more users.

As 2018 continues to see a rise in eyes-free search, I predict that the results pages will cut down from the typical 8.5 average results shown currently, as having more than one accurate result will be counter-productive.

Instead of viewing ‘voice search’ as having a negative impact on more traditional SEO strategies (as was the initial reaction to featured snippets), it should be embraced. Speech-only SEO is still ambiguous, as it is still relatively unexplored. This notion is supported by the frequent tests that are being conducted by search engines such as Google including conversational search. However, this should not discourage websites and content publishers to start thinking of ways to ensure new content that is created and published online adheres to these new guidelines.

I predict a lot of change within the search landscape to accommodate this new way of searching online. Alphabet/Google will of course be pressured to maintain revenues with the ‘click’ removed and Adsense is still it’s cash cow. We’re predicting at Blue Array an expansion into Google monetising image search, which is a sizeable percentage of search (about 30%), to accommodate this potential loss in revenue.

Watch this space, we’re in for quite a ride this year!

Emily is an SEO Manager, with digital experience both in-house and agency side. SEO has always had prominence throughout her career in digital marketing but copywriting is another big passion of Emily's. Outside the office, Emily is a keen cyclist. Follow her on Twitter @Originalisaac

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