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Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and their like are undeniably on trend: Since the market launch in 2015, Amazon alone has sold well over eight million Echos and Echo Dots in the USA and now Apple has jumped on board the smart loudspeaker movement with the HomePod. According to a current Statista analysis, around 17 million people in Germany use the virtual Google Assistant, eleven million ask Siri questions on Apple devices and almost seven million communicate with Microsoft Cortana. Whether it’s on a smartphone or via a smart loudspeaker, more and more people are using voice control for searches. According to a ComScore forecast, half of all searches will be carried out via voice command in just three years’ time. At least 30 percent of people will even be searching without their own screen. These numbers are making a lot of marketers nervous. If new devices are changing our search behaviour, what will happen to SEO? Is it time to wonder once again if this is the end for search engine optimisation? No, not yet!
There’s no doubt that voice search is dramatically changing our search behaviour, as verbal search requests are very different from typing queries. Search terms and phrases can be longer, less specific, descriptive and closer to natural language use via voice control. However, this can also make them more complex, making it harder to understand the actual intention behind the search, because keywords and their attributes are no longer the primary focus as features of the search.
Is this going to give agencies and advertisers a headache? No – voice searches and changes in input behaviour are more of a challenge for search system providers, i.e. for Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft etc., as they are in more intense competition with one another to adjust to new user behaviour. If Alexa, Siri and their like cannot understand certain questions, it is up to search system and search assistant providers to find the solution. However, this challenge is nothing new for the dominant company groups. Their algorithms are getting better and better at recognising the intention behind a search and delivering the right results. For example, Google prepared itself for the trend five years ago: with its ‘semantic search’ and, since 2015, the RankBrain system based on artificial intelligence. With one small exception: Try asking Siri about SEO. It does not come up with the right match, even on the fourth time of asking.
When it comes to search engine optimisation, I find one thing far more interesting than the questions that can be asked using voice search and that is the answers that are given as a result. Is there one answer, multiple answers or does the initial question then lead to a conversation between the search system and the searcher? In principle, the process is the same with a virtual assistant as it would be with a physical advisor: do you want a quick result or a full sales pitch? Do you want to be left alone to browse quietly or do you need the help of a sales assistant? Is a brief answer enough or do you want to break down your query more specifically in stages until you get the right result?
The challenge for SEO experts in future is therefore based on these conversations between the searcher and the voice assistant. Clear, direct answers are only possible for a small proportion of search queries, e.g. the weather forecast for the weekend, the opening hours of a doctor’s surgery, the number of people who live in Madagascar or traffic reports. The sources for Google’s ‘featured snippets’ already provide the answers for such questions. However, there is no need for general reorientation for voice-controlled searches when it comes to the identification, preparation and answering of such questions. In future, it is local search queries using voice search that will take on a prominent role in particular. Tagging geo-local information on a website is already part and parcel of basic SEO work today (keywords: semantic markups). The integration of local data for businesses, hotels or restaurants into existing search engines that specialise in such queries, such as Yelp or Kayak, is even more vital. Both providers already have skills on Amazon Echo and also use search assistants like Siri and Cortana as reference.
Open-ended questions and statements where the person asking the question is looking for advice are harder to deal with. They are similar to those we would ask in a shop: e.g. “I would like to buy a TV” or “I’m looking for a dress”. It’s not easy to simply counter this question with an answer. Questions have to be asked in return – for example: “Do you need the dress for a particular event?”.
These days, good SEO means optimisation relating to the intention of the search. In the voice search era, it will become even more vital for website operators and search experts to understand and handle the search intentions of their target groups. Only by doing so can they provide added value and tailor the information they offer precisely to the demands of their potential customers. Voice-controlled search will therefore not kill off SEO, but it will make us think more than before about what’s beyond Google. In future, SEO must also look at defining information in the context of content and presenting this automatically.