Got a question?

Long gone are the days of typing a query into a search engine, trawling through pages of results to find the suitable answer.

Today, you simply ask. Google will answer you. Google, or Alexa, or Siri, or whomever you have delegated the task of seeking out information for you online.

Thanks to the rise of virtual assistants like Google Home, Amazon Echo and the dozens of up and coming challengers, voice search is becoming more and more embedded into daily life.

Over 100 million Alexa-powered products have been sold, according to Amazon. Google boasts that its voice assistant is running on a massive 1 billion devices, and that four times as many people are using the assistant than last year.

Even at the start of 2018, research from NPR and Edison Research found that 1 in 6 US adults owned a smart speaker, and that the rise of these gadgets has outpaced the adoption rates of smartphones and tablets over the last three years. In fact, 65% of people said they wouldn’t go back to life without their smart speaker.

Deemed one of the top trends for 2019 at the annual Consumer Electrics Show (CES) recently, virtual assistants are certainly not going anywhere soon. And their impact on search marketing has only just begun.

Speaking to search engines

As more people speak their questions or commands into search engines, the search engine itself is adapting to better deliver on user needs.

Since launching the Hummingbird update of 2013 – which improved Google’s ability to understand spoken search queries – Google and other search engines have continued to fine tune their algorithms’ abilities to understand natural, contextual questions and deliver relevant results.

Already, this has shifted the focus of SEO from individual keywords to longer-tail queries, phrases and natural language. Where previously Google was prepared to answer a search query like “womens shoes Nike”, post-Hummingbird, it was better equipped to answer “Where can I buy womens Nike shoes?”

In fact, long-tail keywords now make up 70% of all search traffic and are still less competitive than one- or two-word keywords. That means by optimising for these, websites may just draw the users they’re looking for.

Seeking “position zero”

The search engine results page is now a more competitive place than ever.

Using voice search, users are only given the top result on a search engine page. This search engine ranking, dubbed “position zero,” is what every marketer covets. But to get it – and maintain it – websites need to ensure their SEO is top notch.

Although Google still uses more than 200 unique ranking factors to order its results, some are more important than others in the voice-activated world of today (and tomorrow):

  1. Questions and answers. Most voice searches are a question, and most virtual assistants answer using a Google feature called “featured snippets.” This feature pulls the most important bits of a page, including specific answers to questions at the top. If your page appears to answer a specific question or common query, you have a better chance of ranking (and being read aloud by a virtual assistant!). Format these with header tags for best results.
  2. Page speed. This is still important, especially when you consider that the AI behind virtual assistants will not wait around for your page to load – it will simply move onto the next result.
  3. Structured data. This code, added to HTML markup, can improve the quality of your featured snippets, making them more likely to rank in position zero.
  4. Local SEO. 78% of smart speaker users perform local searches at least weekly – 53% daily, according to a study by BrightLocal. Plus, this is info that is also pulled into featured snippets to provide users with quick responses. Keep your Google My Business page up to date with your location and hours to provide helpful info to humans and AI alike.

Although voice search does not yet make up all queries online, Gartner has predicted that 30% of searches will be done without a screen by 2020. And it’s impossible to deny the user desire is there – in a recent PWC report, a whopping 71% of respondents said they would rather use their voice assistant to search for something, rather than typing it into a search bar.

This is the world we’re rapidly moving into. Fortunately, with a few tweaks, your website will ready to rank in the voice-activated landscape of tomorrow.

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