SEO has always been built on shifting sands. As the main search engines’ algorithms evolve, SEO practitioners have had to adapt their tactics to keep pace. No SEO professional worth their salt would employ techniques like link farming or keyword stuffing today, and new challenges continue to current themselves.
Casually conversing with and retrieving information from an omniscient supercomputer has long been a staple of science fiction. We might still be some way from developing true non-natural intelligence, but for an increasing amount of people, effective voice search is now a practical reality. Several smart phone users are already used to interacting verbally with the iPhone’s “knowledge navigator” Siri, or using the voice search feature on Google Search for Android.
Now Google is intent on bringing voice search to our desktops. A voice look for facility has been available on Chrome for a while but in November last year the search giant introduced an “always on” feature via the “Google Voice Search Hotword” extension. Instead of clicking the “search by voice” icon, users can now just say “OK Google” to trigger hands-free search.
Most web users have become used to the concept of using keywords to search, even if they know nothing about the underlying theory or how search engine algorithms work. If you’re looking for a dog grooming parlor in San Francisco, you might type “dog groomer SF” into the search box. This sort of truncated command comes less logically when we speak and a voice query might be more along the lines of “Where can I find a good dog grooming parlor?”
As Google’s Matt Cutts said: “It is definitely the case that if you have something coming in via voice, people are more likely to use normal language. They are less likely to use search operators and keywords and that sort of thing and that is a general trend that we see.”
Voice search is not only a challenge for SEO practitioners but for the search engines themselves, who have to find new ways to deliver the most related results.
Cutts continued: “At some point, we probably have to change our mental viewpoint a small bit, because normally if you add words onto your query, you’re doing an ‘and’ connecting each of those words, and so as you do more and more words, you get fewer and fewer results, because fewer and fewer documents match those words. What you would possibly want if you have spoken word queries is the more that you talk, the more results you get because we know more about it, and so you definitely have to change your viewpoint to trying to extract the gist – you know, just summarize what they’re looking for, and matching that overall idea.”
Single way that search engines can provide the most related information is to make the search process more conversational. In September Google announced the Hummingbird update to its algorithm that allows it to handle the longer, more difficult queries that tend to be made when interacting verbally. Follow-up questions are more possible in the voice search format. Google also aims to make more use of its Knowledge Graph – the virtual map of people, places and things and their relationships with each other.
As the popularity of voice search increases, we are likely to see a corresponding drop in informational based traffic queries to websites. Many queries can be answered directly and, if a user doesn’t need to click on a web page to get information, that will obviously limit search traffic. Companies will also find it harder to keep track of how many times a website or brand has been mentioned as a conversational search result.
Some information will still be delivered via web pages however, and actionable queries for products and services will continue to demand a web page as a final destination. Voice search is set to change the game, but it can also be viewed as an opportunity. With Google’s voice search already available in 42 languages and a variety of accents, it could further open up international markets as multilingual users who are unsure of exact spellings could be confident enough to make a verbal query.
If you can provide the sort of information that users are searching for and adapt to the way search engines are likely to deliver it, you can still stay ahead of the game. Voice search is still in its infancy but it’s set to grow. Everyone involved in the field of SEO should be prepared for it.