Voice Search SEO hinges on one word…


Whether it’s Alexa, Google Home or Siri, this simple exclamation can wake up a smart speaker device and give you instant access to the information of the world.  

You can ask questions from the most pressing to the most mundane. And you’ll get answers. Some great and some not so great. And why is that? 

Let’s talk about how we as marketers can use voice search SEO to ensure our organizations, brands, and customers are well-represented when it comes to voice search. This article provides an overview of the voice search SEO universe, presents a case for why it is imperative that all marketers engage in it immediately, and then outlines a roadmap with the first steps necessary for you to get started. 

With an estimated 21% of American adults owning a smart speaker in 2019 – according to NPR’s Smart Audio Report – it seems clear it’s time to take voice marketing seriously. 

How do we make sure your company, association or nonprofit is not falling behind and missing out on this inevitable, one-of-a-kind marketing opportunity called voice search SEO? Let’s start by describing what it is and what it isn’t. 

What is Voice Search SEO?

“Voice” in marketing circles today has become an umbrella term labeling any number of things related to voice-triggered technology. You may have heard phrases being thrown around like voice search, voice marketing, skills, assistants…and more. Let’s explore how SEO plays a role in all of it.

As a marketer, you’re likely already optimizing your web pages for Google. The elements that help your web pages rank include thoughtful keyphrases, good use of imagery, context, intent, and length of the page itself (to name just a few). The question then becomes: are these same elements enough to help you rank well within the voice search ecosystem? In other words, when someone asks Siri a question on their iPhone or queries a Google Home device, will your content make the cut for what those devices choose as the best answer?

Watch this quick video to see a simple exercise illustrating just how differently Amazon Echo, Google Home and Siri react to the same question and where they are each getting their data.

As you can see from the video, there are quite a few variables at play when it comes to how smart devices answer even the most basic search requests. 

In short, the goal of voice search SEO is to optimize your web content in a way that is not only friendly to Google.com, but also stands out in a unique way so that the voice assistants that power smart devices present your content as the chosen, singular result for a particular voice query. 

Why Voice Search SEO Matters

The main reason voice SEO matters is the rate of adoption. This isn’t something that will “be huge one of these days,” it’s here now and growing quickly. 

According to voicebot.ai, 58.6% of online adults in the United States have used voice search. That adds up to around 148 million adults in this country that have voice search experience. As you can see in the graph below, adoption by smart speaker owners is even higher.

Voicebot Consumer Smart Speaker Graph

The voicebot.ai report also states that most voice searches – 91.3% – are currently conducted on phones, This is not a zero-sum game, however.  People have smart devices at home and perhaps in the office as well. So while voice search is predominantly done over phones today, 44.7% of people additionally use smart speaker devices like Amazon Echo for voice searches. And this number continues to rise. 

Four reasons, according to Susan and Scot Westwater at Pragmatic, why users are adopting voice search:

  1. Eyes-free/hands-free experiences 
  2. Natural – You don’t need to educate yourself on how to use it
  3. Minimal effort – No clicking, tapping, swiping 
  4. Fast & easy – An answer is often simply a spoken question

Not surprisingly maybe, the age of the end-user is a factor in this story. According to PwC, 65% of 25 – 49 year-olds use their voice assistant once a day. And 61% of a larger group (25-64 year-olds) say they’ll use their voice assistants even more in the future. Couple this with voicebot.ai’s numbers on voice search of U.S. adults and you can see how these numbers of adoption are hard to refute.

An interesting twist from the NPR report states that 44% of people use their voice assistant while surfing the Internet. Could it be to supplement what they are viewing online? If so, what opportunities does that present?

Interestingly, the primary activity (at 74%) that people are doing when they interact with their smart speaker is household chores. If you sell Swiffers, this is good to know.

Like any hot new technology, the data continues to unfold in real-time, but you can see from the bits shared here that it’s hard to refute that adoption to voice search is something to take seriously. 

The question we need to answer then is how does each device determine what content to provide in their search query results?  There are actually quite a few components at play to answer that, so read on to learn more. 

How Voice Search SEO Works

The working parts of voice search include the devices, the assistants, and the data sources of their results.

While Google is the go-to search engine for the web, with voice we need to broaden our scope and consider a wide range of devices and the assistants that power them.

While Amazon Echo and Google Home are top-of-mind for most of us, there are actually many devices available today that are considered “smart speakers”. A couple from a pool of dozens include Riva Concert Speaker and JBL Link 20. Probably not devices you’ve heard of. So then the question becomes, what makes these particular devices “smart”? What operating system – or assistant – powers them? This is where, much like smartphones, we see that only a few operating systems are actually involved. 

Much like the Android OS for mobile can be found on Samsung, LG and Motorola phones, so can Google Assistant be found on devices like the JBL listed above and Lenovo. Amazon’s Alexa has also been commissioned out to other devices including the Riva Concert Speaker and a Motorola home landline phone among others.

Here is a list of the primary voice assistants:

Siri – Apple’s assistant found on iPhones, iPads and more. This assistant, like many technologies from Apple, is exclusive to them and only found on their devices. Voice search results sources vary, but Siri relies heavily on Wikipedia and Yelp.

Alexa – Amazon’s assistant can be found on multiple devices, but does focus its results, when it can, on driving the user to buy from Amazon. If you tell Alexa you want to buy a book, for example, she’ll drop it right in your Amazon cart and give you the option to buy. Amazon’s partnership with Microsoft makes Bing a major source of results, for better or worse.

Google Assistant – Obviously, it powers Google Home and its other related devices as well as several other speaker brands. Gets results from, well, Google. Wikipedia is also prominent in results but any featured snippets or knowledge graphs pertaining to a topic have a strong chance of being favored as the primary voice result.

Cortana – Cortana’s prominence is anchored in Windows 10. Having learned from the Zune vs. iPod mismatch, Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, has declared Cortana a skill to be played on Alexa and Google Assistant more than an assistant itself. Look for Cortana to go big-picture enterprise soon. Bing plays a strong hand in its results, not surprisingly.

Bixby – This is Samsung’s voice assistant. It aspires to have integration with Google Assistant to satisfy user demand, but given Samsung’s vast device and appliance footprint, Bixby will surely be the voice that powers your Internet-of-Everything refrigerator and more.

The graph below from voicebot.ai shows where four of these five assistants fall in their proliferation among devices. 

Voicebot Assistant Graph on Voice Search SEO

Upon inspection, what we learn is that just because an assistant like Cortana has wide distribution doesn’t mean it is actually highly active with users. In fact, Cortana is silenced during Windows 10 set up which, of course, keeps usage low, coupled with the fact that people are not generally talking to their laptop the way they do their phone.

According to eMarketer’s graph below, Amazon Echo holds penetration in 2019, but will predictably slip in 2020 due to the integration of Google Assistant with a wide swath of devices coming to market. And even those devices that started with Alexa only, like Sonos, have incorporated Google Assistant to give users more choice. 

eMarketer Graph of Smart Speakers

What we can gather today is that the market for devices and their assistants is highly competitive and will affect how your business executes on voice search SEO over time.

So that’s what’s happening with devices and assistants. But what about the sources that the assistants get their content from? 

Each assistant uses a proprietary algorithm coupled with different data sources which means the same query can pull different results depending on the device – very similar to web search results being different on Google and Yahoo, for example. Having said that, we have also learned that many of the assistants are currently using reliable, diehard sources like Wikipedia and Yelp for many of their results.

Before we get too deep into the mechanics of voice search SEO, it’s worth mentioning a factor in the mix that is vitally important to be aware of. It’s what’s called a “Skill” for Amazon Echo and an “Action” for Google Assistant. These are completely separate from voice search SEO, but it’s important to know they exist because they are a viable alternative if the circumstances are right. Skills or Actions are to voice devices what apps are to iPhones.

So, for example, a Skill can be coded and then submitted to Amazon so that when a user asks Alexa a certain question, the Echo device doesn’t go search the Internet for the right answer, but instead plays the pre-programmed Skill (or app) for that keyword. So, let’s say you’re getting ready for your big night on the town and realize you didn’t order a Lyft yet. If you have the Lyft skill enabled on your Echo you can simply say, “Hey Alexa, ask Lyft for a ride” and presto your driver is on the way. If you want more information, check-out more about Alexa Skills.

SEMrush did a Voice Search Study that yielded some interesting statistics about the state of where voice search SEO is today. Here are a few that begin to paint the picture. Keep in mind these are Google Assistant specific, but can be extrapolated within reason to what is likely comparable with other assistants:

  • Close to 80% of the answers returned were from the top three organic Google results.
  • 70% of all answers returned from voice searches occupied a Google SERP feature (with 60% of those returning a featured snippet result)
  • Text length of the answers returned was nearly the same for every device (around 41 words on average).
  • Page speed is very important for all devices — for a majority of questions, the answer chosen by Google loads faster than the average page speed for all other results in the same SERP.
  • Well-linked pages (internally and externally) are favored within Google Home and Home Mini searches.

Amazon, Google and other assistants check inside multiple data sources before referencing the index of Google or Bing, including proprietary systems for specific terms that they’d like to control the results for.

Here is a graph by Perficient Digital that shows why people prefer using voice commands. It will be interesting to see how these figures vary over time.

Perficient Graph of Reasons

Before we get into the “how” of voice search SEO – providing you tips and tricks to make sure your business is executing correctly – here are a few great articles to check out with more information about voice search:

Why you should optimize for voice search now

Voice search statistics for 2020

A beginner’s guide to voice search – SearchEngineLand

How to Optimize for Voice Search SEO

Here are 5 key things to consider when you’re optimizing your website content for voice search.

1. Get basic SEO right first

Many of the factors that drive good voice search SEO are nested in the fundamentals for web SEO, so make sure you’ve got that right first. According to a study done by Backlinko – as is relates to Google Assistant – here are some common web SEO factors that affect voice results.

  • HTTPS enabled
  • Solid domain authority
  • High social engagement
  • Good mobile optimization

As we’ve seen, voice search results – outside of setting up a Skill or Action – are driven from the web (for now), so continuing your diligence around the basics of SEO is critical. But, of course, there are always some exceptions….

2. Some SEO best practices don’t apply

According to Backlinko, Google minimizes the importance of a page’s title tag when it comes to voice search SEO. This makes sense for two primary reasons. 

First, about 20% of all mobile searches are voice searches. With so many voice searches – and the number is always growing – it’s tough for Google to find a page related to every possible query. Its answer is to search for content across all the words on a page, not prioritizing web-based SEO signals like a title tag. 

Second, voice and desktop searches are different in nature. Voice searches are 76.1% longer than web searches, says Backlinko. These longer searches make it less likely that the search term is going to appear in the limited space of a title tag.

So when you’re writing your posts or web pages, make sure to be thorough and create in-depth content that can answer more than one potential voice search query. 

3. Voice queries are conversational

What we know for sure about voice search is that the query – because it’s spoken – tends to be more conversational. In other words, not just “Steve Jobs,” but “Who is Steve Jobs?” Think about voice queries that could start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how” and optimize for them. Maybe your next blog post can have a title that is more question-focused.  Also, when it comes to local voice searches, they tend to be something like “good barbeque restaurants in Chicago” so keep those types of phrases in mind when writing the home page copy for your barbeque restaurant in Chicago. (Though as a side note, local search has a whole other world of factors that you should make sure you’re familiar with).

Quick tip: According to SEMrush, the average word count for voice results is 41.4 (across Google and Android devices) So, put your vitally important stats high on the page and keep your sentences short and to the point so the assistant is more likely to pick them up. 

4. Think long tail

One of the tenets of web SEO is that long tail optimization – setting up your pages or posts to display in search results for longer search phrases like “the best way to engage your members in 2019” over a simpler phrase like “member engagement.” Based on what we’ve been discussing, you can tell why this method of optimization makes sense for voice search SEO. Queries are more conversational and we generally speak more words than we type.

Long tail results also generally result in better, more relevant traffic because the search term is so specific, and there are fewer businesses vying for the terms, so you’re more likely to rank higher.  Moz states that 70% of all search results are long tail. Couple that with what we know about the voice search algorithm encompassing the whole page’s copy and it’s clear that considering long tail is a savvy move. 

5. Keep your expectations in check

According to the Backlinko study, high ranking desktop search results are also very likely to appear as a voice search answer. Approximately 75% of voice search results rank in the top three for the same query. Also, showing up in a featured snippet can help you rank in voice search. In fact, 40.7% of all voice search answers come from a featured snippet.

So, if you’re not ranking well on Google.com for your keywords, don’t expect Google Home, Siri or Alexa to pick your content for a voice search result. It’s all connected. And like all marketing endeavors, it’s good to be optimistic about what’s possible, but also to keep your expectations in check. Voice search, despite its widespread adoption, is still in its early stages in many ways. So much still to learn.

Voice Search SEO – In closing

We now better understand the power of “Hey.” Voice search SEO is a massive opportunity that companies, associations, and nonprofits should strongly consider. Like web SEO, it’s an art as much as a science and requires some creative thinking and serious testing to make sure you’re getting it right.

This isn’t something that is on the horizon to think about down the road. It’s here now and, especially if local search results matter to you, voice search is the next tactic to employ in your marketing strategies.

If you feel like you’d like to take your voice search SEO to the next level, reach out and we’d be happy to chat. We also have an amazing partner, Pragmatic, who specializes in voice strategy. Check them out.

Written by

Chris Bonney

I’ve enjoyed my years in web design partnering with organizations to harness the power/coolness/connectivity of the Internet. Outside of working on websites, I’m also a soccer evangelist, music junkie, and perpetually in a state of FOMO thinking there is a Netflix show everyone is watching but me.