Alexa was a hit on Super Bowl night. Siri’s a household name. And everyone from the usual suspects — Google, Microsoft and Samsung — to unknown upstarts (Mycroft, anyone?) is trying to dip at least one finger into an increasingly tempting pie.
Voice assistants are no longer “the next big thing” or “the wave of the future.” They’ve hit the mainstream. In two years’ time, Gartner reckons that 75% of American households will own at least one smart speaker. And 50% of online searches will be voice searches.
If you were still on the fence about the importance of voice search, these numbers should convince you. Clearly, the way we look up information on the web is changing before our eyes and — ahem — ears. Our interactions with electronic devices are becoming more and more like everyday conversations with fellow humans. Which means that optimizing your online presence for natural language search has never been more crucial.
But Wait A Second. What Is Natural Language Search?
The answer’s in the heading.
If you wanted to find out what “natural language search” is, what would you google? Would you search for “natural language search explanation” or “what is natural language?” Most likely, it would be the second option. Right?
Well, that’s exactly what natural language search is all about. Put simply, it’s phrasing a search query just as you would if you were talking to an actual person, rather than Google (or Bing. Does anyone use Bing anymore?).
How Does Natural Language Search Work?
Natural language search isn’t a new concept. Back in the 90s, Ask Jeeves encouraged users to submit their queries in question form, instead of using keywords. Unfortunately at the time it just couldn’t compete with more powerful keyword-based search engines like Google, so searches based on keywords became the norm.
Over time — alas, too late for Ask Jeeves, which shuttered its virtual doors in 2010 — search algorithms have greatly refined their abilities. And they can now produce relevant results even when the keywords aren’t an exact match.
Case in point, following the Hummingbird update, Google started focusing on user intent and contextual relevance. Put simply, the algorithm tries to deliver results based on what you mean, instead of just looking for keyword matches. In addition, it’s also able to understand longer, more complex queries. For example, it can identify superlatives and ordered lists.
The long and short of it is that we no longer need to search for the exact keyword to find what we want. We can ask long, multi-part or even downright wacky questions and expect to find what we’re after on the first try.
Let’s Have A Look At A Few Natural Language Search Examples
Here’s a fairly straightforward query to begin with:
So far so good. And we didn’t even have to type “capital city.” “Capital” on its own did the trick.
Let’s move on to something a bit more difficult, like this two-part query:
Again, we left out “in history.” And we used the present tense. But this didn’t make any difference. We still got the result we were after. Contextual relevance, baby.
And now, for some fun:
Turns out clown paint is toxic to cannibals. Who knew, right?
While Google is the mother of all search engines, it doesn’t have the exclusive on natural language processing. Bing can also detect natural language. And so can Yahoo, Yippy and others.
Of course, the inherently conversational nature of voice recognition technology lends itself perfectly to natural language search. According to Google, 70% of Google Assistant voice queries are made in natural language. As voice search becomes more commonplace, it stands to reason that search engines will refine their algorithms even further in this direction.
So how do you optimize your online presence so that Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant and others have a better chance of finding you?
The good news is that there’s no need to rebuild your entire SEO strategy from scratch. However, you’ll need to think carefully and make some small, subtle changes. Here are 10 tips you can start implementing in your voice search SEO strategy today.
Tip 1: Understand What Your Audience Wants…
This is a biggie.
As individuals, we have an idiolect — a unique way of using vocabulary and grammar in everyday conversation. It’s unlikely that your audience will all use the exact same words in the exact same order when they carry out voice searches.
This doesn’t mean keywords aren’t important. They are. But if you want a better chance of getting found via voice search, you have to make sure you understand what your audience actually means, not just what they’re saying. And then you have to give it to them (which we’ll tackle in tip 2). In other words, you have to understand user intent and provide contextual relevance.
A good starting point is to brainstorm the type of questions a person would ask about your business if they were to meet you face-to-face. Then, once you have a basic list, use a service such as Answerthepublic.com, StoryBase or Question Samuraito make sure you’ve covered all the bases. By typing in the main topic of your website, you can get incredibly detailed insights into the kind of questions people who might be interested in your products or services are asking online.
For example, typing SEO into Answerthepublic.com turns up this huge list of questions:
And that’s just one of the diagrams a single search turned up for us.
Tip 2: … And Give It To Them
Once you know what your audience wants, you have to deliver the goods. In other words, you have to answer the questions you’ve thought up or turned up when you searched Answerthepublic.com, StoryBase, Question Samurai or whichever other service you used (incidentally, Quora and Reddit can also be very useful resources when looking up user questions to answer).
There are several ways you can do this.
You can weave in the answers to the most important questions naturally on your static pages.
You could group other common and related questions together in an FAQ page. Voice searches are usually in Q & A format — you ask and your voice assistant answers. So an FAQ plays right into that.
And, of course, you could answer more complex questions on your blog. This has added benefits — it builds your authority, it keeps your website continually updated with fresh content (which also helps your SEO), it connects people to your brand and it creates opportunities for social sharing, which expands your reach.
Don’t worry too much about trying to hit the same keyword phrase repeatedly. It’s more important that you go for natural-sounding questions and answers, as these have a better chance of getting picked up in a voice search. For example, here’s a look at 99Design’s FAQ page:
Tip 3: Create Conversational Long-Tail Keywords
You probably already knew you should target long-tail keywords to improve your search rankings, right? Long-tail keywords are usually less competitive, so they’re easier to rank for. But in voice search, long-tail keywords are also important for another reason: they sound much more conversational.
The best keywords for voice search are called long-tail keywords, plus. The “plus” is basically the additional words you have to add to a keyword phrase so that it mimics the way real people talk.
So what are we on about?
Typically, this means taking an SEO-style long-tail keyword and turning it into a natural-sounding question. So, instead of using “web designer in Connecticut” as our primary keyword, we’d use “Where can I find a web designer in Connecticut?”
For best results, build your long-tail keywords around “what,” “how to,” “how,” “when”, “who”, “where” and “why.” These are the question words most strongly associated with voice search queries.
Tip 4: Make Your Questions As Specific As Possible
Most voice searches tend to be very specific. Think about it. Typically, you’ll ask for a particular piece of information, like the address of your bank’s nearest branch, a store’s opening hours or the price of a specific product.
It sounds simple and bleedingly obvious, but making these snippets of information readily available on your website can give you a huge advantage in voice searches.
Keep in mind, that the whole idea behind voice search is to get the best results in the shortest time possible, typically for someone who’s on the go. So it stands to reason. The simpler it is for search engines to find basic information about your page, the likelier you are to turn up in voice search results (and the sooner it’ll happen).
Tip 5: Increase Your Contextual Relevance With Related Keywords
Use keywords that are related to, similar, or synonyms of your primary keywords. They help search engines get a better idea of what your website is about. And this helps them decide whether your page is relevant to a user’s search.
Realted keywords are especially important in voice search because speech is unique to individuals. Using them alongside your primary keyword increases your page’s contextual relevance. Which means you’ll have a better chance of ranking for a query even if it isn’t an exact match.
So how do you look up related keywords?
You simply key in your main keyword in this LSI Keyword Generator. For instance, if we type “Where can I find a web designer in Connecticut?” we get this list:
You can see that the list includes words such as “development,” “image” and “media” that are related to “web design.” We can weave these words into our content alongside our primary keywords to increase contextual relevance and improve our ranking.
Tip 6: Answer Follow Up Questions
Virtual assistants can process questions in the context of previous questions. This means you can have actual conversations in which you ask a question, get an answer, ask a follow up question and get another relevant answer.
Google made much of this new ability during a two-hour presentation in October 2017. For example, you can now ask Google Assistant where your nearest bank branch is and follow that up with “How do I get there?” which prompts it to send directions to your phone.
This is where related keywords can really pay off.
Look up words related to your primary keywords which people would use when asking follow up questions and weave them into your content. Voice assistants will have a much easier job turning up information about your company double quick.
Tip 7: Use Schema Markup
Schema markup has been around since 2011. And yet, 80% of websites still aren’t using it. If you’re one those 80%, there’s only one thing we can say to you: what the heck are you waiting for?
Schema markup is a snippet of code that gives search engines additional information on your website’s content. This helps them understand what your website means and its context, not just what it says.
So, for example, if we look up restaurants, schema markup helps Google turn up all sorts of relevant and useful information, such as the type of cuisine, the address, how expensive it is and even whether it’s cash only or accepts credit cards:
Since user intent and contextual relevance are so important in voice search, it isn’t hard to see how schema markup can help you stand out. And, because it’s so underutilised, it can boost your visibility quite quickly.
Tip 8: Go Local
Mobile voice searches are three times more likely to be location-based than text searches. So if you have a location-based business, you really have no excuses. Claim your Google My Business listing and start optimizing it. Today.
The idea is to let Google know as much information as possible about your physical location, so those who search for it can get there easily. Even information such as whether there’s free parking available can make a difference.
Oh, and photos. Don’t forget photos.
Once you’ve done your Google My Business listing, it’s also worth getting on other online directories such as Yelp. The more places search engines can find information about your business online, the better.
Finally, if you’re based close to a landmark, it’s worth mentioning this somewhere on your website. That way, if someone asks “Where can I get a snack close to the Science Center?” their voice assistant could lead them right to your door.
Tip 9: Optimize Your Website For Mobile
60% of searches are made from mobile devices. And, as a result, Google started favouring mobile-ready websites in search rankings in 2016. So you’re probably saying, “Yes, I know that. What’s your point?”
Well, when it comes to voice search, optimizing for mobile is even more important.
According to Google, up to 25% of mobile searches are voice searches. Clearly, there’s little point in putting in the work to rank well in voice searches if your website offers a poor mobile experience.
Optimizing for mobile doesn’t just mean having a responsive design, either. You also have to structure your content so it’s easy to digest on the go. Think larger fonts, short paragraphs, clear subheadings and bulleted lists.
Tip 10: Optimize Your Content For Featured Snippets
Featured snippets are the results that sit in a box on top of the SERPs. There’s no guarantee that a featured snippet will become a voice search result. But a recent study found that about 50% of search queries involved a featured snippet in some way.
Given the 50-50 odds, we’d say that optimizing for featured snippets is worth the effort.
So how do you go about it?
According to Moz, text rich snippets are the most likely to become voice search results. This is no accident — text rich snippets are usually answers to specific questions. Typically, you’ll also need to rank in the top 10 for a particular search query. However, you don’t have to be the first result.
What you need to do to get a featured snippet is a whole topic unto itself. However, here are a few quick tips to get you started:
- Answer the question in one paragraph. According to AJ Ghergich, the average featured paragraph snippet is 47 words long.
- Try and combine as many related questions as you can in one place. This is because, once a page gets a featured snippet, there’s a good chance it’ll also start appearing in other searches.
- Add an image and optimize it by using your target query word in the file name, the alt text and title tag. This is because featured snippets can sometimes include images from other sites, which will pull traffic away from yours.
If you implement these 10 tips, your online presence will be well on its way to voice search success. So, now that you’ve done all the hard work, it’s time for some well-deserved rest.
Lay back, relax and say: “Alexa, play me some chill out music.”