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Voice-based search: what SMEs need to know

6 minute read

Voice-based search: what SMEs need to know

You’d have to have been living under a rock to have missed the explosion of voice assistant technology. From Siri on your iPhone to Cortana on your laptop to Amazon Home in your living room, the likelihood is that you’re surrounded by the voices of helpful assistants trying to make your life run smoothly.

Until now, voice assistants have been concerned primarily with helping users gather information: “Ok Google, where is the nearest pharmacy?”. However, with Google getting ready to launch “Duplex”, helping customers to carry out “real-world” tasks like booking appointments, we’re now embarking on a whole new level of voice-based search, in which local businesses and their customers are brought ever closer together.

And, as these technologies start to penetrate our lives, so too our online behaviours are changing. With an estimated 50% of all browsing sessions being voice-conducted by 2020 and Google Duplex getting ready to assist customers in making real-life arrangements, it’s time SMEs begin integrating voice search into their digital plans.

What is voice search and how it differs from text search

Voice search is the voice recognition technology that allows people to make searches by speaking into a device. Voice assistants then respond to your requests for information, from finding and calling a contact in your phone, to looking up the nearest train station relative to your current location.

The most common voice assistants are Siri found on iOS devices and Google Assistant for most other Android handsets. Computers have Cortana helping users around Microsoft Windows, and home smart speaker systems include the likes of Amazon Alexa.

Initially, the differences between text search and voice search seem obvious. One is typed into a keypad; the other is spoken into the microphone. But there’s more to it than that. Research shows that there’s a world of difference between how we communicate with our voices and what we type into our search bars.

  • Voice has longer and more conversational queries

Given that voice assistants are deliberately personable, we tend to respond by using similarly natural language. We’re generally much more conversational and use much longer form queries. When using a computer keyboard, we’re often second-guessing which keywords will most likely throw up the best results, so we experiment with formal and concise keyword phrases.

  • Voice search tends to focus on question phrases and more, therefore, shows intent

Because we tend to be more natural in the language we use in voice search, we tend to ask questions, and so use longer phrases. These questions also use words to show intent such as “when” and “where”.

  • Voice search has high local value

Voice searches are most commonly done on the move which means that they’re more likely to include local search keywords like “near me”, “where”, “nearest” or names of towns and cities.

  • And greatly impacts 3rd-party listings

Because voice search is generally more local-focused, they tend to turn up results from 3rd-party listings or review sites such as Google My Business, Yelp, and Trip Advisor.

Voice search vs text search example:

Say we want to find the nearest train station, we’d usually type into a search bar something like “train station” (even queries including “near me” have been shown to have plummeted now most people are aware of location tracking). However, if we were to talk to Google Assistant, it would go something like this: “Hey Google, where’s the nearest train station to me?”

The phrase “Hey Google, where’s the nearest train station to me?” is a question, is conversational, uses natural language, shows intent, and has local value.

Why it’s so important for SMEs

In a world where immediacy is key, voice search is becoming increasingly popular. It’s estimated that 53% of adults use voice search at least once a day, and 76% of smart speaker owners perform local business searches weekly. And, thanks to advances in AI, voice search is turning up ever more relevant search results, with about a 95% voice recognition accuracy rate for Google Assistant.

But the real value of voice search for local businesses is not just that there are more people using it than ever before, but that voice searches are 3 times more likely to be local-based.

For these reasons, if your site is optimised – particularly for mobile – you’re more likely to be the first site digital voice assistants will suggest in your niche. The key is to build voice search into your digital strategy right away.

Bringing voice search into your digital strategy

1. Familiarise yourself with the technology

Before you even begin, it’s worth familiarising yourself with some of the most common voice assistants. This way you’ll start to understand the way in which your voice search enquiries work, so that you’ll be better able to create content to responds to these kinds of enquiries.

Starting with your smartphone, make use of Siri or Google Assistant, depending on whether you’re with iOS or Android, and use it to look up local cafes, find places on Maps and find information on a supermarket’s opening times.

If you have the equipment available to you, get to know Amazon Alexa or Google Home to search for day-to-day queries.

2. Your content

Your website’s content is the first place to start if you are to begin to be found in voice search. 

Make your content relevant

You need to focus on making your content relevant to those making voice searches. This starts with owning your “digital footprint”. That is, make sure all those aspects of your business that might appeal to voice queries, are referenced on your site. From your contact details, to availability of Wifi and Apple Pay, to lunch and dinner menus.

Top tip: Using telephone schema, you can get your contact details picked up so that customers can call you via Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

Focus on fewer but more local and long-tail keywords

We’ve already discussed the ways in which consumers search differently in voice and in text, and for these reasons, it’s important you respond by developing your keyword research:

  • Expand your keywords into longtail question phrases – consider the “who, what, where, when and how” question phrases.
  • Focus on keywords and phrases that are most relevant to a local searcher
  • Include references to local landmarks that might be relevant to your business
  • Use modifiers such as “top” and “best”
  • Create specific articles that respond to the top search phrases for which your audience will be searching
  • Create an FAQ page

For more on general keyword research, read our guide here.

Use natural/conversational language

Given that consumers use more conversational vernacular when they’re using voice assistants than when they’re typing into a search bar, it’s important that your content responds. 

Consider referencing local lingo or nicknames and use questions as your headings to correspond to the types of questions your audience might be asking their voice assistant.

Rethinking the tone of your content so that it speaks to your local voice searcher not only helps provide the right kind of information your target audience are searching for, but it has the fortunate by-product of making you more approachable in general.

Create content for “position zero”

Content that appears in the position zero in Google results – or Google Answer boxes – are most likely to be returned to a voice search. As such it’s important you focus on the content areas that are most likely to appear in these boxes.

For more on optimising your content for Google Answers, read our detailed article here.

3. Localise your SEO

As voice search is more likely to be local based, it’s important you stand your site in good stead and get it optimised for local SEO. There are many ways in which to do this, but these are a good start:

Structured data/schema mark-up

Ensuring structured data (schema mark-up) is integrated into the back end of your website will help your content appear at the top of search results and, therefore, get picked up by voice search.

Get yourself on business listings

Set up and link your site to a Google My Business page as well as local directory sites such as Yelp; and third-party review sites such as Trip Advisor.

Fix your site speed and get secure

With a search medium that’s as immediate as voice search, it’s important your website speed is correspondingly fast. Use Google PageSpeed Insights to fix issues slowing your site down. Your website security is also important given that HTTPS-secured websites make up 70.4% of Google Home results.

Make sure your site is mobile optimised

Given that such a high proportion of voice-based searches are done on the move, it goes without saying that your site must be optimised for mobile.

Take care of your reputation

The more good reviews you get, the better you’ll rank in local search. This starts with getting yourself listed on as many third-party review sites as possible, and then working hard to garner good reviews. You can also optimise your presence on these review sites to help towards your search ranking.

For a more in-depth guide to local SEO, read our guide here.

4. Prepare for Duplex

With Duplex on the horizon, it won’t be long before your business sees a wave of a new kind of phone call. Very soon you’ll be picking up the phone to hear a realistic-sounding voice assistant asking to make a booking.

When Duplex is launched, it’ll be worth your while using it to make a call to your business to see how best to respond to the call. You can then begin to tweak your phone manner to elicit the most appropriate responses.  

Voice search and the future of digital marketing for SMEs?

It’s estimated that, by 2020, 50% of all web searches will be voice-conducted which means that searches will be increasingly localised. As such, businesses need to start focusing on their content and SEO to respond to voice-assisted enquiries.

Optimising your site for mobile, creating appropriately natural content and using some basic SEO tactics will not only help you enjoy the benefits of increased traffic and better conversion rates, but will stand you in good stead for more and more voice-triggered interaction with your customers.

Charlotte Jenkins is an Oxford-based content marketer. She has several years’ experience in content writing, editing and digital marketing, helping clients communicate their businesses online.

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