Monday, 08 January 2018 06:16

The Rise of Voice Search: What You Need to Know


OK, Google. What’s in store for SEO in 2018?

The answer to that question might be a little too big for voice search to unpack, but if this holiday season has shown me anything, it’s that voice search is going to play a big role in 2018. Every electronics store I walked into was showcasing their latest virtual assistants, artificial intelligence, and smart home devices.

Voice search is here to stay, and it has hit the mainstream in a big way.

Voice search is also clearly on Google’s mind. Google made 10 big announcements at I/O 2017, and four of them involved Home and Google Assistant. Plus, in early December, John Mueller launched an idle tweet asking the SEO community about what sort of voice search data they’d like to see and why

Voice search is also already having a big impact on SEO as we know it.

There’s strong evidence that voice search optimization is intricately connected to Google’s featured snippets, which occupy the coveted “position zero” in SERPs.

In other words, if voice search optimization isn’t already part of your SEO strategy, it’s time to fix that.

In this article, we’ll look at five big advancements voice search made in 2017, and how to prepare for voice search in 2018 and beyond.

How Voice Search Changed in 2017

1. AI-Backed Speech Accuracy Is Now (Almost) on Par with Human Accuracy

In May 2015, Google’s Sundar Pichai announced that their speech recognition error rate was at 8 percent thanks to their investments in machine learning.

Now, according to Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends Report, Google’s speech recognition is even better — their English word accuracy rate is now a staggering 95 percent, as of May 2017.

That number also just happens to be the threshold for human accuracy. Sure, it’s still slightly more error prone than typical human dialogue, but the gap is shrinking quickly.

Put into perspective, this means that Google’s AI-backed voice recognition has improved by 20 percent since 2013. And they’re still making “significant breakthroughs” in speech recognition, according to Pichai at I/O 2017. He says we’ll continue to see “error rates continue to improve even in noisy environments.”

2. Voice-First Devices Are Becoming Common Household Appliances

Virtual assistants, smart home devices, and other voice-first technology(e.g., Google Home, Amazon Echo, and the upcoming Apple Homepod) entered the public consciousness in a big way in 2017.

In 2015, almost no one had heard of voice-first devices — only 1.7 million shipped across the U.S. That number shot up to 6.5 million in 2016.

In 2017, VoiceLabs predicts that number will swell to 24.5 million devices shipped. That’s more than a 312 percent increase from 2016 to 2017.

More than 12 million voice-first device sales will occur in Q4 alone, according to Strategy Analytics, so we can expect even more sales next year.

If 2017 was the year that pushed voice-first technology into the mainstream, 2018 will be its heyday.

3. Voice Search AIs & Voice-First Devices Have More Diversified Skill Sets

Google’s doing everything they can to make the Google Assistant part of your daily routine. Now, in addition to getting a traffic, weather, and news update when you say “good morning” to your Google Home, you can make announcements throughout your house, find your phone, and entertain your kids with over 50 new “family fun” skills.

But wait, there’s more!

As of 2017, you can integrate your Google Home device with a Chromecast, effectively allowing you to control your TV with your voice.

Google’s begun rolling out a hands-free calling feature, free in Canada and the U.S., though it currently only supports outgoing calls. And, since Google partnered with Walmart in August 2017, you can now take advantage of voice shopping through your Google Assistant.

Not to be outdone, Amazon Alexa comes equipped with around 1,900 skills out of the box, and it can learn more than 25,000 skills through app support. In fact, Alexa even has a Skill Finder — a skill designed to help you find new skills.

Some of Alexa’s other skills include:

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  • Calling an Uber.
  • Reading ebooks.
  • Placing an order from Starbucks.
  • Balancing your Capital One bank account.
  • Ordering from Amazon and tracking your packages.

But perhaps the most significant change to hit voice search in 2017 was the huge improvements it made to local search.

Now, voice search is able to understand user intent with eerie accuracy through a contextual understanding of a user’s location, recent searches, and personal information.

4. Voice Search Is Even Bigger Internationally

If you thought voice search was a solely Western phenomenon, think again.

Recent global research found that Chinese consumers are leading the way when it comes to voice assistant usage, with a staggering 64 percent adoption rate. They’re closely followed by Thailand, with a 57 percent adoption rate.

In fact, back in 2013 when Siri was still relatively new to the U.S., China was already creating apps that could reach 93 percent voice search recognition accuracy.

Despite leading the race in voice search, Baidu, China’s most popular search engine and the second most used search engine in the world, only just unveiled their new smart home devices in November – on the heels of announcing a speech-to-text AI that can simulate over 2,400 accents and voices.

All of these advances are to push us towards a fully voice-operated future, according to Andrew Ng Yan-tak, Baidu’s chief scientist:

“In the future, I would love for us to be able to talk to all of our devices and have them understand us. I hope to someday have grandchildren who are mystified at how, back in 2016, if you were to say ‘Hi’ to your microwave oven, it would rudely sit there and ignore you.”

5. Voice Search Is Changing the Way We Advertise

Finally, in a change that promises to have a huge impact on advertisers in 2018 and the years to come, Amazon launched a restrictive ad policythat effectively bans third-party ads from Alexa voice apps.

This is a jarring change for brands used to desktop and mobile advertising, where banner-ads, pop-ups, and other ads effectively interrupt a user’s experience. However, it does fall in line how Brian Roemmele, founder of Pay Finders, foresees the intersection voice search and advertising:

“This new advertising and payments paradigm will impact every element of how we interact with Voice First devices. Without human-mediated searches on Google, there is no pay-per-click. Without a scan of the headlines at your favorite news site, there is no banner advertising. Advertising as we know it will not exist primarily because we would not tolerate commercial intrusions and interruptions in our dialogues. It would be equivalent to having a friend break into an advertisement about a new gasoline.”

Amazon’s policy change had an especially profound effect on VoiceLabs, which launched the world’s first ad network for voice assistants. VoiceLabs shut down their “Sponsored Messaging” advertisements shortly after the announcement.

But while the new policy may have quashed VoiceLabs’ current advertising efforts, the company’s CEO, Adam Marchick, is convinced that Amazon and Google will soon to find a way to make ads a more organic part of the voice search experience:

“I believe there will be advertising, but I believe that Amazon and Google will want it to be viewed as additional content, not pop-up ads. How that manifests will be a good question.”

How to Prepare for Voice Search in 2018 & Beyond

At its core, optimizing for voice search is similar to the SEO of yesteryear. You need to:

  1. Create robust, compelling content that answers your users’ most common questions and solves their pain points.
  2. Adopt long-tail keywords optimized for semantic search.
  3. Use Schema to mark up your content and tell search engines what your site’s about.
  4. And, for goodness’ sake, you must be optimized for mobile.

What might be different from your usual SEO strategy is that now you also need to pay special attention both to creating detailed answers to common questions and to answering simple questions clearly and concisely.

Brevity, context, and relevance are essential when optimizing for voice search.

A good strategy that’s already been adopted successfully by many websites is to:

  • Create content or a webpage with a headline that asks a common question.
  • Immediately after the headline, provide a succinct answer or definition to the question.
  • Use the rest of the page to provide further elaborative detail on the topic.

The genius of this strategy is that the rich, robust webpage ultimately appeals to Google’s ranking algorithm, while the short-and-sweet information at the top of the page is optimized for voice search and might even become a featured snippet.


My colleagues in Search Engine Journal’s 2018 SEO trends roundup had some great predictions for the coming year, and voice search featured prominently in many of them.

Christine Churchill predicts:

“Smart marketers will be seeking ways to prepare for this development and will need to optimize to find their way into the answer for voice searches. Voice searches tend to be more verbose so delivering more relevant responses may require different strategies.”

Many notable influences such as Winston BurtonMindy Weinstein, and Eli Schwartz agree with her.

Tony Wright, on the other hand, disagrees. According to Wright:

“Think of voice search like mobile. Every year since 2005 or so, people would predict, ‘this will be the year of mobile.’ When mobile actually did take off, we realized it wasn’t the year of mobile, but a seismic shift in audience behavior. That will happen in voice search too – but not this year.”

Whether 2018 is the year of voice search remains to be seen, but I don’t think anyone denies that voice search is coming, and it’s going to change SEO as we know it.


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