Three years ago, Arianna Lupi took on a project for Unilever to understand how people used voice search to browse the internet.
At the time, voice-based AI assistants like Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Siri were becoming more ubiquitous in homes, and wearable tech like Apple watches and bluetooth headphones expanded access to voice-based browsing.
As a rising technology, Unilever wanted to understand how it would change the browsing experience, and by nature, what that would mean for search engine optimization strategy.
So, Lupi purchased a Google Home to see for herself.
She found that most of her questions fell into two buckets. The first involved quick, daily life queries like “What will the weather be for the day?” or “What’s on my calendar for today?” In those instances, Google pulled from its internal data to supply an answer.
The other types of questions stemmed from needing a quick solution in the moment (also known in marketing as micro-moments). This included queries like, “What’s the best way to clean a kitchen floor?” or “What’s the difference between X product and Y product?”
3 Tips for Building a Voice Search SEO Strategy
- Focus on your users first. If people don’t get any value from visiting your website, they aren’t going to return.
- Win the snippet box wars. Owning the snippet box, which is what the AI reads, means your content is the authority for that search topic.
- Don’t overlook the little things. Consider addressing issues like website speed or jargon-heavy content.
Lupi, who now works as a search engine optimization specialist for the consulting firm Skale, found that her home assistant usage wasn’t unusual. The three most common words that pop up in a voice search include “how,” “what” and “best,” according to an SEOClarity study, which was reported on the SEO news website Search Engine Watch.
It was a natural fit for when you needed a specific answer or didn’t have access to a computer, but desktops were still needed for more complex searches.
“We have to adapt to the ways that users are searching for things.”
Still, voice search has left its mark on SEO strategy and it isn’t going away. A report from eMarketer estimated that 128 million people would use a voice assistant in 2020. And as the global voice recognition market is expected to reach more than $26 billion, according to revenue insight company Meticulous Research, voice searches are only going to become more commonplace.
“We have to adapt to the ways that users are searching for things,” Lupi said. “I’d say make sure you’re covering all of your bases. You’re covering video, you’re covering voice and you’re covering text. That will give you a bigger opportunity to get more visibility.”
How Voice Search Works and What It Means for SEO
SEO consultant Eli Schwartz doesn’t believe voice search will ever overtake desktop searches. Part of this stems from its limitations.
When a person asks a question to their home assistant, it sends the query to a search engine like Google, where its natural language processor breaks down the sentence for keywords and the user’s intent. It will then find the most relevant content and read an answer from a snippet box. Think of the snippet box as the script the AI reads. It is a selection of content — on average, 41 words long, according to a voice search study from SEO company Semrush — Google pulls from a story that it believes best addresses the question you asked.
This is great if you want to know how to do something or need a quick definition, but it lacks the breadth of choices that you can get searching on a computer, said Schwartz, who is also author of the book Product-Led SEO.
“I don’t think we’re in a place where voice searches can give out the best result,” Schwartz said. “You need different results, you need more information that can’t be distilled down to one sentence and read out to you. It’s important to differentiate between what kind of searches can be answered like that and what can’t be answered like that.”
So what does this all mean for SEO?
Lupi took away two main things from her research experience. First, people aren’t using voice search to learn more about your product. Their questions tend to relate to a specific moment.
“It’s more about what they need,” Lupi said. “The questions people are going to ask are around a specific problem or pain point they have, not about you in terms of your brand.”
And second, people tend to speak to their voice-based AI devices in full sentences. It sounds obvious, but it’s a huge difference from how we text search on a browser.
When we visit a search engine on our phone or laptop, we’ll type in keywords like “Taco restaurants near me” or “Carnitas tacos recipe.” When we talk to Siri or a voice-based AI assistant, we’ll ask “What are the best taco restaurants near me?” or “How do you make carnitas tacos?”
Those longer search phrases are called long-tail keywords, Lupi said. Unlike ranking for keywords, which tends to involve providing a broad overview of a topic and repeatedly using the keyword in the content, optimizing for long-tail keywords requires addressing the specific question or phrase.
“This gives opportunities for websites and publishers to try to understand and answer specific questions that users have instead of going after the broad term,” Lupi said.
Developing a Voice Search SEO Strategy
Focus on Your Users First
What does your user want?
Answering that question and figuring out what value your company provides its customers are the fundamental building blocks for any SEO strategy, Schwartz said. It doesn’t matter how many keywords you cram into your content or even your click-through rate, if people don’t get any value from visiting your website, they aren’t going to return.
But it’s even more important to deliver on your user’s needs in voice search, a world in which searches tend to be more specific and only the best answer gets read aloud by the AI assistant.
Still, Schwartz knows it can be a tricky question to answer. For example, if you run a pharmaceutical website, it might seem natural to optimize your content to rank for specific drug names like Advil, Tylenol and Claritin. But that doesn’t specify the value you bring to a user, Schwartz said.
Instead, Schwartz encourages founders and SEO marketers developing their strategy to think through why their company exists in the first place. If you have to, think back to what you told investors when you were launching the company.
“Look at that feature snippet, can you provide a better answer?”
“So let’s say you’re optimizing for drug names because you want to share dangerous side effects,” Schwartz said. If that’s the case, then you should write content that seeks to answer questions users might have about the side effects of various drugs.
From there, Chris Rodgers, founder of Colorado SEO Pros, an SEO consulting firm, suggests outlining what questions your customers are asking as they move through the buyer’s journey. Back to the pharmaceutical website example, those questions might be “Can I drink alcohol while I take this drug?” or “What happens if I miss a dose of this drug?”
As you identify those long-tail keywords, search them on Google Incognito to see what results come up. Look for snippet boxes. Since this is what an AI assistant will read, it’s a good sign that people are using voice search to ask that question.
Then you can start thinking through how your company can answer that question more effectively to take over the top spot.
“Look at that feature snippet, can you provide a better answer?,” Rodgers said. “Can you create a page that serves as a more effective resource than the rich snippet page as well as all of the other pages that are ranking, whether that’s by being more succinct, providing more accurate information or providing more information if there is information missing?”
Win the Snippet Box Wars
If you want to win at voice search SEO, then you have to win the snippet box wars.
Optimizing your content for the snippet box isn’t an exact science, but there are steps you can take to make a push for the top spot, Lupi said.
When content is pulled into the snippet box role, it’s because Google’s algorithm believes that that section best answers the question being asked. The information that gets pulled can take the form of a list or a definition, but it’s usually written in a conversational tone, easy to understand and to the point, Lupi said.
Owning the snippet box means your content is the authority for that search. It will take the top spot on the page ahead of all other search results, what Google calls “position zero.”
The best way to take over that top spot is to once again identify the key questions that your users are seeking answers for in your content. If you’re a UX company, users likely won’t care about your company’s tools. But they will care about what the best way to do UX research is.
Lupi suggests finding ways to incorporate answers to those questions in your existing content. If you’re attempting to rank for the keyword “UX research,” add a section within your content addressing the question “What’s the best way to do UX research?” Making the long-tail keyword a section headline and answering it in straightforward terms will give you the best odds to take the top spot, Lupi said.
“It’s just about trying to reverse engineer existing snippets for your industry and make it your own way.”
You can also look at what your competitor did to rank in the top spot and make tweaks to your own approach to win the snippet box, she added.
“In the end, like everything in SEO, it’s just [an experiment]. I’ve had featured snippets that I just moved to the top of the page and it ranks,” Lupi said. “It’s just about trying to reverse engineer existing snippets for your industry and make it your own way.”
Still, there is a risk in focusing too much on snippet boxes. While ranking in position zero sounds great, you’re essentially giving away your content without getting any credit, Schwartz said. Users won’t click on your content because they’ve already gotten what they need. As a result, he wouldn’t recommend making snippet box rankings a primary SEO metric.
Lupi acknowledges the flaw. She’s helped companies earn snippet boxes that have received thousands of impressions (number of times it appears at the top of search results), but only 100 clicks. But she’d also argue that someone has to take the top spot, so it might as well be your company.
It can help increase your brand’s authority in your industry and will still get more clicks and attention than the person ranking below you.
Don’t Overlook the Little Things
When someone uses voice search, they generally have two expectations: a quick response and an answer that is easy to understand.
As a result, you need to make sure your website speed is at least on par with your competitors, if not better, Lupi said. If you find your content is lagging, a few common factors worth addressing include caching issues, large media files and bulky code, according to a post from web hosting website DreamHost.
“Google is expecting to take results from a page that loads really fast,” Lupi said. “If your page takes longer to load, then Google isn’t going to take results from you because it’s going to take them a while to go through it and it’s not a good experience.”
When it comes to writing content, Lupi recommends removing as much jargon as possible from your story. The text should have a conversational tone since it’s going to be read out loud. In general, a ninth grader should be able to understand what you wrote, Lupi said.
“Try to make your content as easy to read as possible,” Lupi said. “That’s going to give a better experience to the user and to Google in general.”
The Future of Voice Search
While Schwartz doesn’t see voice search replacing desktop browsing, he also doesn’t think it’s going away.
“Despite all of that investment, a significant majority of people aren’t yet doing it,” Schwartz said. “I do think we will get to a point where, age-wise, the younger groups of people are doing lots and lots of voice searches the same way that Gen Z doesn’t text necessarily anymore.” (Gen Z, according to Schwartz, prefers to video chat instead.)
Still, creating content for voice search isn’t for everyone. If you sell objects like car parts and don’t naturally rely on SEO, then Schwartz doesn’t think much will change in how people find your product. But if you rely on SEO as part of your marketing strategy, then you need to pay attention to voice search.
“Not everyone should think about SEO,” Schwartz said. “If you are thinking about SEO, voice search is coming for you.”