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His master’s voice search

Photograph of Amelia Groen

Amelia Groen

Developer

If you’ve asked your phone something like “Hey Siri, are there any restaurants with outside seating nearby?”, you’re not alone. It’s predicted that in 2020 almost 50% of general web searches will be voice-activated, according to a survey conducted by Adobe. This number is not surprising, as almost all smartphones ship with some sort of voice assistant pre-installed, be it Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa or Cortana.

On top of that, more and more people are adding smart speakers to their homes, so the number of voice searches being made is poised for growth.

Four logos for Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon's voice assistants

Left to right: Apple‘s Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft‘s Cortana and Amazon‘s Alexa

But the way users ask questions out-load differs from traditional typed search. Instead of using three or four keywords via a keyboard input (weather London tomorrow) in the search bar, the way users interact with voice assistants is more conversational and averages at about 29 words (“OK Google, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?”).

Most websites will still be optimised for traditional keyword searches, but the rise of voice search means that it’s time to start thinking about optimising for voice search as well. There are valuable opportunities to take advantage of. Users are already starting to use voice commands to do their grocery shopping, and 20% of consumers have already made a purchase through their digital assistant: a number that is growing. Voice search queries using a mobile phone are three times more likely to be related to the user’s location, something businesses with brick and mortar location can take advantage of.

How do you optimise for voice search?

Voice assistants tend to read search results out loud. But most pages on the web contain much more information than the snappy response people are looking for. So how do you tell search engines what content from your website is meant to be read?

Before we answer that, here's a brief introduction to Schema...

Schema is a universal language used widely to structure data on the web. Structured data helps search engines better understand content on the web. And search engines use structured data to present more information in the search engine results.

Example: when you search for a recipe for apple pie, the first results you see might contain rich snippets that show an image of the pie, its average user rating, the time it takes to cook, and the ingredients you need, before you even click into the recipe website. That’s because those websites have made good use of structured data using schema.

Three search results showing apple pies

Out of 336 million results for "apple pie recipe", Google highlight three to show in 'rich snippets'.

Schema is really good for optimising the visual representation of search results.

But with voice search, the user isn’t necessarily looking at their screen, and the most relevant results are likely to be read out loud.

The solution might be speakable schema.

Speakable schema

Speakable schema will allow web developers to signal to search engines which elements of a web page are best suited for audio playback. Unfortunately, there is a caveat: Speakable Schema is currently in beta, and only available for news websites. Of course, considering the trends, it won’t be long until it is more widely available.

Luckily, there are some other ways to optimise for voice search in the meantime...

Structured data

While schema may not be a magic bullet for voice search optimisation yet, having structured data does help to increase a website’s search engine ranking in general.

When it comes to voice search, 75% of the results will come from the top three positions in search engine results pages (SERPs). Having structured data helps search engines find and understand the most important information on a page, and pages that search engines understand tend to rank higher.

Additionally, appearing in a featured snippet (an answer to a query given above the organic search results) might help your content return in voice search results as well, as 40% of all voice search answers came from a featured snippet. Featured snippets are likely a result of well-structured data, but more than that are super-concise answers that search engines know answer specific questions.

Other things that make your content more likely to appear in a featured snippet are good old web standards like semantic markup: h-tags, properly formatted lists, alt-text on images and so on.

Restructuring content for specific queries

Another way to optimise voice search is by using data. Start by identifying the keywords currently ranking in the top 10 in relation to your business. With these keywords, you can go to answerthepublic.com and identify related queries.

For instance, if we’re optimising for a theatre company, we might search for ‘theatre’, and find the type of questions users are likely to ask related to this topic. Questions like ‘when will the theatre open’, but also questions like ‘how theatre helps mental health’.

When we know what users are looking for, we can look at restructuring content.

The average voice search result is only 29 words long. This means that to optimise for voice search, it’s important to keep content concise. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to have a ton of articles that are only 30 words long, but it might help to create a section on your website that is structured as a series of questions and answers. This can be as simple as including a comprehensive FAQ section or rewriting the headers in an “About” section as a series of questions. Make sure that the content provides straightforward, high-value information. Google’s search engine is not tricked by fluff, and that’s not what users are looking for. Additionally, it helps to keep the tone of the content conversational so that it sounds natural when read aloud.

Quick loading time

Voice search results prioritise content that loads quickly. Of course, we already make sure that we optimise the performance of our websites on desktop and mobile devices. But optimising for voice can mean doing extra checks, and maybe compromising a little of the standard experience to the benefit of voice search results.

Conclusion

The best way to optimise for voice search right now is to:

  • Apply standard SEO best practices to your website, like using schema to structure your data
  • Restructure (or rewrite) your content in short-form question and answer format
  • Make pages on your website load as quickly as possible

Optimising for voice search will only grow in importance. While Speakable Schema might not be widely used yet, it won’t be long before it gets added to the checklist of ‘things to do’ before launching a website. So watch this space.

Now, back to that apple pie 🥧 ...

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