A co-worker sent me a simple email the other day asking how we optimize our websites for voice search. I had a flashback to my high school geometry class when I had to go to the chalkboard and demonstrate a proof and had no clue what to do. I had a basic understanding of the fundamentals, but the details were lost to me. I did the email equivalent of punting.
Here is a quick snippet of the response I ended up giving – my commentary about the response is in italics:
Voice search is one of those paradigm shifting changes with which content marketers and the SEO community are just now coming to grips. Paradigm Shifting – I can’t be held accountable for not having a plan, no one has a plan! We’ll have another year before we can see what the best practices actually are. A year seems like a good amount of time to let someone smarter than me figure this out. We are also running into a schism in search because of it. Google Now uses Google. Siri uses Spotlight and Wolfram-Alpha, Cortana uses Bing, and Alexa uses a (speculated) combination of A9.com and Bing. Name drop Cortana since everyone forgets about Microsoft, and hope it makes me seem like I am on top of the subject.
I still could not find any analysis of how a voice search results affects Analytics (if at all)… we might never know if someone got an answer from one of our sites and found it useful. This means more ‘dark search’ (non-measurable results) from the search engines. Ooooh dark search… jargon implies knowledge, right? [UPDATE: This post was written before Google hinted at including voice search in the Search Console.]
Turning Talk Into Action
After the email exchange, I rolled up my sleeves and dug into the current strategies and practices being used by others to optimize websites for voice search. We really are in the early days but we know the landscape is shifting.
In October 2014, Google released results of a survey on voice search. According to Google, “55% of teens and 41% of adults use voice search more than once a day.”
The survey also discovered what people use voice search for. Over a third of teens and adults used voice search to ask for directions. Results like this hammer home how local SEO efforts will assist in voice search optimization.
For the most part, people use voice search for specific answers. This means they are searchers closer to the bottom of the search funnel. They are closer to making a transaction than non-voice searchers.
A more recent survey reported by GlobalWebIndex in February 2016 put the usage of voice around 1 in 5, or 20%, which is not as impressive as the Google survey but there is a bit of information in both we should be paying attention to. Younger web users are adopting voice search as one of the main ways they interact with search engines.
The trend is clear, natural language search is only going to grow in use over time. When GlobalWebIndex asked, “What are your main reasons for using voice search on your mobile?” the responses showed why the trend is going this way. The number one response was “It is quicker than going to a website or using an app.” This answer is closely followed by “I can use it while driving…”.
I remember the early days of voice recognition and just how awful it was. The technology is just now matching expectation and there is a lot less misinterpretation and repetition when using voice controls.
These relatively recent improvements in voice recognition have fueled the trend of using voice to perform actions we once had to type out. It is much easier to speak than it is to type. And when our devices recognize what we mean, not what we say, the experience is almost magical.
A Quick Analysis of Questions and Google
Part of the research I conducted analyzed how Google handled various questions. This study took over 100 questions collected from my search history as well as the search histories of coworkers and friends.
While I would prefer to have a much larger sample to work with, I realized a lot of questions were in the variation of “How old is [celebrity]?” or “Where can I get a taco?” Seriously, three different people had this exact question in their search history! In future iterations of this research, a wider selection of questions will have to be used.
Focusing on questions, and how they are asked, is a key part of optimizing the content of a website for voice search. Knowing what types of questions are most likely to come up in an Answer Box on Google allows us be selective in what questions we focus on giving optimized answers for.
I performed each search using Google and documented if an Answer Box was provided. If a box was given as a result, I indicated if there was a link to a source website. The extension of this study is to do these same searches using the various digital assistants, not just Google Now.
What I learned was 59.2% of the questions used in the study generated an Answer Box. I further examined the type of question to see if there was a significant difference between them.
A Breakdown of the ‘Who’ Questions
The ‘Who’ questions pulled from search histories included questions like “Who is the CEO of Coca-Cola?”, “Who is Johnny Appleseed?”, and “Who is the new Indiana Jones?” 64% of these questions returned an answer box in Google. The specific questions like, “Who is the CEO of Coca-Cola,” got an answer box but vague questions like, “Who was the actor in …?” did not merit an answer box; however, they sometimes got carousels or other special SERP features.
Wikipedia dominated as the main source for the answers for these questions, though specialty sites were used to supply answers in specific cases.
A Breakdown of the ‘What’ Questions
The ‘What’ questions used in this study covered a wide range. “What can you use WD-40 for?”, “What is the name of Harry Potter’s owl?”, “What size socket to use on a car battery connector?”, and “What is poutin?” are fairly representative of the whole. 50% of these questions had answer boxes.
Several of these questions were reinterpreted by Google as searches for definitions. “What is poutin?” and “What is a Victory Garden?” received a direct response giving a definition of the word. Questions with specific answers received Answer Boxes while the vague questions (e.g. “What is that BBC show with …”) did not.
A Breakdown of the ‘Where’ Questions
These questions were interesting as they related to both geographical elements and transaction elements. “Where is the nearest Trader Joes?”, “Where was Hess imprisoned?”, and “Where do huckleberries grow?” are examples of the types of ‘Where’ questions I analyzed for this study. 60% of these questions got an answer box. Some, the one’s related to brands, usually generated a Google Map result.
The questions not generating a Google Map result usually had an image of a map associated with the answer. This might not be a factor in whether one source was used over another, but having a map when describing where something is definitely useful.
A Breakdown of the ‘When’ Questions
This set of questions had the most direct responses from Google and I was not surprised. “When is Mother’s Day 2016?” has a specific answer requiring no further explanation. Likewise with “When did World War 1 end?” Questions related to brands, like the ‘Where’ counterparts, generated a Google Map response. “When does Autozone open?” was an example of this. The business hours are listed on the Google My Business page so Google had immediate access to this data. Not surprisingly, these questions had the highest percentage of Answer Boxes. 76% of the questions analyzed in this study generated an Answer Box by Google.
‘When’ questions generating an Answer Box drew from the widest variety of sources, from the obvious Wikipedia to denofgeek.us, biography.com, and almanac.com. Those questions which had historical, factual dates were answered directly, without a link to a source. The questions requiring a bit more explanation (e.g. “When should you plant tulips?”) had sources attached to them.
A Breakdown of the ‘Why’ Questions
These types of explanatory questions had a lot of immediacy attached to them. For example, “Why are there helicopters in the West Loop right now?” or “Why is the El stopped?” were questions looking for answers related to a specific place and moment in time. Not surprisingly, there were no answer boxes for these questions and even the SERP provided little insight. Only 25% of the ‘Why’ questions generated an answer box. Those questions tended to relate to historical events or medical questions.
It is obvious ‘Why’ questions are the hardest to succinctly answer and thus harder for Google to find an authoritative source for the answer. In my experience, I turn to Twitter to answer these kinds of questions, not Google or any other search engine.
A Breakdown of the ‘How’ Questions
Of the 6 question types, the Answer Box loved ‘How’ questions the most.. 78% of the ‘How’ questions generated an Answer Box. The Answer Box included ordered and unordered lists, took text from alt tags of images on source pages, or converted header tags from multiple pages to create an answer to the question.
In one case the answer box grabbed a YouTube video to answer the question,”How do I tie a tie?” which is interesting because the question, “How to tie a tie?” did not generate a video but a standard Answer Box with step-by-step instructions.
To be a source for a ‘How’ question, the content should focus on clear step-by-step instructions set out in an ordered or unordered list format.
Practical Steps To Prepare For Voice Search Optimization
Step One: Write in Natural Language
Google and other search engines are getting better at understanding synonyms and word variations, but when you use the words people actually use when talking about your products and services, you do not have to rely on a computer program to come up with the correct meaning.
Step Two: Front Load the relevant Content
Deliver the goods as soon as possible. Let your reader know exactly what needs to be known. Okay, so it might not be the nitty-gritty details – those will come later on in the post, but the core questions can be answered right away. In search engine terms, the information given first is given greater weight.
Step Three: Incorporate Questions by Topic
“Frequently Asked Question” pages are great, and they will not be going away anytime soon, but separating those questions onto one page may be doing a disservice to the site. Keeping specific questions on pages related to the topic increases the value of the page.
When someone asks the question to OK Google, Siri, Cortana, or Alexa, the page will not only reflect both the question and answer, but also will contain more information relevant to the searcher’s interest. It will be a quality result for the search engine to give the searcher.
Step Four: Use Schema Markup to Send the Right Signals
By now, Google and other search engines are pretty good at identifying language and parsing out the questions and answers, but why not give clear direction? By using the Question/Answer schema markup language, you can identify the questions on the page and the accompanying answer.
In all the research I performed on voice search, I never saw the Question/Answer schema factor into results. Additionally, the pages I created to test schema on the results were spotty. To that end, while I’m of the mind “this can’t hurt” there is no evidence it helps. Further research and testing is needed.
How Not to Optimize for Voice Search
Since we are in the early days of voice search and the metrics available to us to measure the effectiveness of voice search optimization are nonexistent, I feel it is necessary to talk about what not to do in order to optimize your hotel website for voice search.
1. Redesign Your Website
Remember when Google said design for mobile first and there was an urgent need to redesign websites so they could be viewed and used easily on mobile devices? There is no call to arms for voice search going on right now. While the paradigm is shifting and optimizing for voice search helps your site get in front of the trend, it is impossible to know for certain how voice search will be utilized in the future. Completely redoing a website to optimize for voice search right now would be a complete waste of money.
The goal right now is to start thinking about the content on the site and fleshing it out or rewriting it to simplify the language used. Use the natural questions a searcher would ask in your writing, and provide simple answers to those questions.
2. Turn Everything Into Questions and Answers
Voice search does favor questions since asking questions is the more common type of search performed by voice. The last thing you want to do, though, is rework all your content so it reads like an interrogation.
Imagine reading an entire page written in the following style:
“Where in downtown is the hotel? The hotel is located at the crossroads of Main and 1st. When can I check into the hotel? Check In time for the hotel is 11am.”
No one wants to read web copy like that. While we want to find questions we can answer, we still want to make sure the searcher finds what has been written enjoyable. Write for people, not search engines. Search engines are looking for the good content; write the good content.
Is Optimizing for Voice Search Worth the Time and Effort?
In the May 2016 issue of Entrepreneur magazine, Mikal E. Belicove wrote in his ‘Ask a Geek’ column about voice search. He asked Dr. Peter ‘Dr. Pete’ Meyers, a data scientist at Moz about the effects of voice search on websites. Dr. Pete answered, “If you don’t figure out voice search now, you’ll be left behind in a few years.” What this really means is SEO strategists, content marketers, and businesses reliant on search need to begin understanding search done by voice. We need to start using it and learning how our customers are using it, or else we will be left behind.
Even though the paradigm of search is shifting, I am not recommending a complete redesign of a website just to optimize for voice search. Using voice command to search the web is not the main way people use search. Regular text searches on mobile devices and desktop are still the primary way people perform searches. With the rise of mobile and the increased accuracy of voice recognition, the trend towards more voice search is only going to grow.
When refreshing content on your site, consider these guidelines. Starting now to get your content in front of people using voice controls to search means your site will be riding the trend instead of playing catch up. Thinking of your content in relation to natural language search right now will save time and money down the road.
Let Blue Magnet Help
Staying on top of the trends in search engine optimization, whether it is Google telling webmasters to optimize for mobile first and engineering a switch to responsive site design or Google penalizing specific types of external links, is time consuming. For many hotels it saves time and money to let an agency take on the burden so they can focus on their guests.
When you are ready to discuss how Blue Magnet can optimize your website for voice search, regular search, and conversion, contact us, and we will be glad to help.