As Google promotes voice search – how should we optimise?

More than 30% of searches now come from mobile devices - so it's clear that understanding smartphone users online behaviour is only going to get more important as time goes on.

Google is now actively promoting voice search features on Android devices and its Google Search App, by reminding users that they can say Okay, Google or tap the microphone icon to search.

Voice search isn’t new for Google: it’s been around on their iOS app since at least 2008, but seems to have had a huge uptake recently, with the company reporting an increase of more than double over 2014 alone. And along with the current promotion in-app, there’s been a huge traditional marketing push – we’ve all seen the advert with the ladybird birthday cake!

Google’s voice search is growing in popularity simply because it’s so good, and the way it works reflects Google’s movement away from a traditional keyword approach and into the realm of more natural, conversational queries.

For example, ask Google ‘who is Kim Kardashian?’ and it’ll answer with details about her family and career. If I then say ‘who is she married to?’, Google understands we’re still talking about Kim, and throws up Kanye as an answer. Finally, if I ask ‘when did they get married?’, I’m given the exact date of the Kimye wedding.

I left this exchange feeling distinctly like I’d had an actual conversation with my phone – a far cry from my attempt with Siri, who treats every question as a brand new query (and told me she didn’t know who my husband was when I asked my second question). Google’s innovative approach to voice search is only going to change the way we interact with our phones – and with search engines in general – as use becomes more widespread.

Ok, Google. If voice search is set to change the way we use search engines, how can we shape that? 

In my Kim Kardashian experiment, all the spoken answers came directly from the knowledge graph. Using the graph, Google can currently have a decent chat with you about such topics as the weather, directions, famous people and big brands. Searches for anything outside of the knowledge graph (‘how do I make pancakes?’) yielded no conversation, and a results page identical to the one I received from a traditional search. However, as the knowledge graph expands, so will Google’s vocabulary.
This means that in order to optimise for voice search, we need to optimise for the knowledge graph by marking our data up correctly. Currently only 0.3% of domains use the Schema markups needed to appear on the knowledge graph, as they’re tricky to implement – but ultimately this could work in our advantage as it means less competition to potentially appear at the very top of the voice search results. Fortunately, there are some great Google guides on how to do this for not only your brand information, but to promote your content for common queries.

Mobile search

Currently, it seems, the vast majority of voice searches come from mobile devices. You can utilise the service on a laptop using Chrome, but there doesn’t seem to be much research done into this aspect yet – probably because no one is really using it. This means we can safely assume the same rules apply when optimising for voice as when optimising for mobile – and with Google’s recent crackdown we should all be fully optimised for mobile by now, right? If not, another incentive to build a mobile-friendly experience is the increased visibility in voice search.

As mobile search generally has a strong local intent (‘dry cleaners near me’, for example), we can assume that if most voice searches are coming from mobile devices, a good percentage of them will be local. So ranking well locally is also must if you want to appear often for voice queries. There’s a myriad of resources out there on how to optimise for local search, and if you haven’t started yet, Moz’s Local SEO guide is full of tips.

So what can we take away from this? Voice search is certainly going to become more important in the future – and as more people begin adopting it, probably far more intuitive, too. Now is definitely the time to begin optimising for voice search, so that we can capitalise on a mainly untapped area of the search market that’s only really beginning to take off. However, the actions needed to rank well for voice searches aren’t really much beyond what we should be doing to ensure a good user experience and decent rankings in other areas of search, either – a properly marked up, mobile optimised site, with proper local listings for any physical locations.