Voice Search SEO 2021 – what you need to know

Since the dawn of virtual assistants, voice search has seen a dramatic rise. We take a look at everything you need to know about SEO for voice search in 2021.

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Since Amazon released Alexa back in 2014 and the subsequent boom in smart speakers, voice search has increased dramatically. The trio of Amazon, Apple and Google currently hold the monopoly as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant find their way onto increasing numbers of devices and into our everyday lives.

There is a whole host of stats out there relating to voice search but largely they all agree that:

  • Voice search is growing
  • But probably not as quickly as everyone thought it would
  • And the number of voice searches differ by query type

Types of voice search

Before continuing we should consider what constitutes a voice search: is a true voice search one that returns a spoken result i.e. via a smart speaker? Or is a voice search one that just requires the searcher to speak but where the results could be visual i.e. when returned on a browser? Or does a voice search constitute any use of a voice assistant, no matter what the query, for example, adding a meeting to a diary or asking a smart light to dim. The answer is, it depends who you ask! 

According to PwC via https://financesonline.com/ the top reasons for using a voice assistant in the US are as follows:

Working at an SEO agency, the 32% ‘to search instead of typing’ is the figure that most interests me.

And according to YouGov data sourced from Statista, the use of smart speakers in the UK is equally varied.

Most of the research you’ll come across about the growth of voice search is fairly generic about the use of voice assistants but doesn’t isolate those voice searches requiring a search engine response – and at present nor can site owners categorically track voice searches on their own site using Google Analytics. 

With the use of smart speakers and voice assistants growing, voice search is ultimately increasing but we haven’t yet reached the heady heights of ‘50% of all searches’ that was doing the rounds a few years ago! 

Some of the most salient points are:

Whilst true voice searches are growing, there is still a reluctance to use voice search amongst some consumers depending on the activity type. Most gung-ho are younger people but there are trust issues around voice searches that involve transactions or personal details for all.

Via https://www.pwc.com/us/en/services/consulting/library/consumer-intelligence-series/voice-assistants.html

Voice search for search engine results

Where we can typically type 40 words per minute, we can speak 150 and the latter is obviously much less effort so it’s hardly surprising that voice search is taking off. And with search engines and voice assistants investing so much in understanding natural language, semantics, and local accents, the results are pretty good. 

For example, search engines are better able to understand follow-on questions such as ‘How old is Emma Watson?’ and then ‘What character did she play in Harry Potter?’ Just a few years ago this would have flummoxed most search engines.

Voice search is particularly useful for searches where the searcher requires a defined short response. For example, there is an ongoing game of ‘dead or alive’ in our office and voice search is ideal for uncovering this type of answer.

Similarly, voice search is helpful when an immediate piece of information is required, so stuck in traffic, a driver might ask a voice assistant, ‘What time does Fenwicks on Colchester High Street close tonight?’ Again, just a simple response is required. 

Finding an address, an opening time, or a product price are common queries and usually fairly successful voice search queries, as are ‘near me’ terms for restaurants, takeaways and taxi services.

But voice search also has limitations.

It doesn’t deliver great results when asked for more ambiguous searches such as superlatives like ‘best’ or ‘leading’. But to be fair, search engines aren’t great at deciphering this decision-based type of query anyway – whether voice or a browser-based. 

One of the key differences in ‘success’ rates for using voice search is based on device. A voice response on a speaker phone is usually given as a single reply but on smartphone is presented visually with a verbal response, so there are more chances of getting a useful result.

What does this mean for search engine optimisation tactics for voice search?

In short, ‘pure’ voice searches (with voice responses) don’t give the user as much variety so at least until that changes, voice search will mainly be used for searches that require a short response.

Ensuring a site’s local listings (Google My Business, Apple Maps etc.) are up to date is invaluable as they will contain opening hours and contact details which form the basis of many voice search responses.

Secondly, when we speak we use natural language, so search queries can look quite different from browser searches. For example, I might type ‘tomato plant care’ but I might say, ‘How do I look after my tomato plants in Spring?’

A site that is optimised well for long-tail searches and in particular questions (who, what, why where, when, and how), has a better chance of performing well for voice searches than one that isn’t. 

Ideally, longer form content should include one killer paragraph (of around 35-45 words) that contains on-the-money targeted keywords. This short summary of a longer answer is much more likely to be used for voice search or potentially for featured snippets too. 

In particular for question-based searches, it’s also really helpful to use structured data and schema markup as it helps search engines better understand the content on website pages.

Finally, it’s worth doing a sense check about how a business normally attracts customers or clients. The larger, more costly, more visual, or more tailored the product or service, the less likely voice search will have a massive impact on traffic.

Fundamentally we all love choice and on the whole, we’re very visual creatures and like to see our options in order to compare, contrast, review and establish the best option before we buy. It might be reasonable to add our usual brand of washing powder to a shopping list via a voice assistant but would we even begin to research high value items or more bespoke purchases in this way? Probably not. 

And nor must we forget that buying some goods isn’t a chore or something to be undertaken in the minimum amount of time. For many luxury goods or non-essential items, the research is part of the fun.

Voice search results need decent browser results first

A 2019 review of voice search queries showed that 97% of answers provided by Google Assistant are results that rank in the top 10 organic results and close to 80% of the answers returned were from the top three organic results. Therefore ranking well on a browser search is a prerequisite of ranking for voice search.

And as Apple uses Google’s search engine for its results, Siri users are likely to be served results from high ranking sites too.

So before putting all of your eggs in the voice search basket, focus on the fundamentals of good search engine optimisation practice. Write good quality content, provide answers to questions, use appropriate markup, and bolster that with all of the usual SEO techniques.

Voice search is growing but don’t be hood-winked by the voice assistant statistics – browser searches still rule the roost and will do for most queries now and into the future.

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