If you've been keeping an eye on future trends, voice search will already be on your radar. If not, be prepared. The increase in voice-activated searches will have a significant impact on the way web users find information and interact with search engines.
Using voice to search might seem a novel concept to those of us used to attracting web traffic via the words people type. However, in many ways it's a natural evolution of the world's growing passion for the mobile web. After all, small touchscreens with even smaller buttons can make typing a challenge – especially on the go.
Yet while mobile users will continue to benefit from the ease of voice search, it doesn't stop there. Google's Chrome browser now offers voice searching for desktop users too. Selling points include the convenience to use away from your desk or when your hands are full, and its usefulness for longer queries. Google also mentions that it's easier to search by voice when you're not sure of a spelling.
Where Google leads, we can of course expect other search engines to follow.
What will voice search mean for SEO?
Search engine optimization for voice search presents new challenges. To deal with them effectively, it's critical to understand and adapt to its differences.
Most notably, the way people talk to a search engine takes us away from the terse language used for typed search. This is reflected in the natural language interfaces of Apple's voice-activated interface for iOS, Siri, and in Google Voice Search. Both are set up to interact in a more conversational way, answering users’ questions. In fact, Apple encourages users to “talk to Siri as you would to a person”. With each search engine response being limited to a single piece of information, it's also likely that many queries will have follow up questions – just like a real conversation.
This new way of interacting has consequences for search engines themselves. They will need to interpret these conversational phrases and queries, matching them to relevant keywords in the search index. Rather than serving up a collection of search results, their aim is to provide a direct response (e.g. a weather report in response to a question about the weather).
This clearly has consequences for online businesses and brands. With typed search, ranking well involves predicting the keywords people use to search, guided by statistics on search term popularity and competition. Voice search doesn't rely to the same extent on classic keywords. Online businesses and brands need to instead think about what kind of questions might be asked, and how their sites can provide the best response.
Even here, there is another challenge. With search engines aiming to create a conversational experience, the hard fact is that users are less likely to need to click through to a web page for information. This will have an impact not only on search traffic but also on the data that website owners rely on to monitor their search marketing campaigns.
However, there's still a window of opportunity for businesses. The key is to offer a service, product or in-depth information that can't be delivered in a search engine response.
Other considerations for global businesses
Voice search also offers opportunities to multilingual businesses, as the technology is developed to cover ever more languages. Google already supports an impressive 42 languages. In Asia, these include Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Yue Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian, and most recently, Filipino and Vietnamese. The search engine also offers a variant of English optimized for Indian users. Meanwhile, Chinese search engines Baidu and Sogou have created voice assistants with search capabilities for Android.
Given that web users prefer to search in their native language, going multilingual seems a wise move for businesses with markets across Asia or worldwide. Alongside supporting more languages, search engines such as Google are working to refine accent recognition to include even more users. Follow their lead by localizing your content for different regions.
At the same time, bear in mind the benefit of voice search mentioned by Google: it doesn't matter if you don't know how to spell it, as long as you can say it. English-language web content will itself become more accessible to people with a limited knowledge of written English. This could be a good time to make sure your website is clear and easy to understand for non-native speakers, with any alternative languages clearly signposted.
Although voice search is not yet as popular as traditional typed search, expect it to grow in importance. The changes it brings might seem unwelcome from an SEO point of view, but it also brings in opportunities. If your customers want to talk, be ready to listen to them.
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Christian Arno is the founder of translation services provider Lingo24, Inc. Launched in 2001, Lingo24, Inc. now has more than 200 employees spanning four continents and clients in more than 60 countries. Follow Lingo24, Inc. on Twitter: @Lingo24.
December 12, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT