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Voice Search is a strategic priority for Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. Why is it so crucial, who looks likely to win the race for voice search supremacy, and how will it affect SEO & PPC in 2017?
Voice Search: How Will it Affect Search Marketers in 2017?
RAISING YOUR VOICE IN 2017
● Executive Summary
● What is voice search?
● Who uses voice search today?
○ How do they use the technology?
○ Which demographics use it most?
● Who are the main players in the voice search market?
● Which industries will be affected most by this trend?
● What does it mean for the search industry?
● What does this trend mean in the longer term?
● Key Takeaways
Both the Amazon Echo and Google Home have made myriad headlines this year,
driven by their use of voice search to understand and respond to user commands.
Though voice search is not a new phenomenon (Apple’s Siri has been around for
years now, for example), it has become deeply embedded in our increasingly mobile
world. Google’s new Pixel phone is dependent on the Google Assistant for some of
its functionality, and there can be little doubt that the major tech players view digital
assistants as a central part of the battle for market share.
Though voice search has been dismissed as a gimmick in the past, the stats show
that recent adoption is very significant:
So this is certainly a trend we need to pay attention to now. However, there are
some questions we need to answer if we are to understand (and avail of) this
Is the hype justified? Who will voice search affect most? And is there a danger that
we have built our hopes up too early on this still nascent technology?
These are exactly the questions we will endeavour to answer within this study.
WHAT IS VOICE SEARCH?
Voice search allows users to speak directly to a search engine via their mobile or
desktop device. The search engine then looks for data that responds to the user’s
query based on the voice command.
Voice search providers understand a user’s intent not just through what question is
being asked, but through geo-information, browsing history and behaviour with the
goal of instantly answering that query.
Natural language processing has been an area of focus for a significant number of
artificial intelligence companies over the last decade. The task of taking meaningful
spoken units (morphemes) from a person, converting them to text units (graphemes)
on a computer, and finding the corresponding information to answer the original
query, is an incredibly complex one.
As such, the list of possible voice commands for a search engine still looks
something like this:
However, industry developments like Google’s Hummingbird algorithm have moved
us closer to conversational search than we have ever been before. Voice search
therefore seems likely to be the area that will develop in syllogistic lock-step with
advances in conversational search.
We are already seeing this with Google Assistant. This technology has the ability to
ask questions to the user to better understand their intent and perform actions as a
result e.g. book tickets. This is a fascinating and impressive development that has
implications far beyond just search marketing. When combined with Google’s
integration of apps into its search index, we can gain a clearer view into just how
significant voice search could be in shaping user behaviour. However, Google is far
from monopolising this territory - Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all investing
heavily and there is no clear winner yet.
Consumers, too, will need to demonstrate some patience while this development
occurs. Voice search is still far from the finished article and we have seen just
tantalising glimpses so far of what it could achieve in ten or twenty years.
We will return to this topic later; but first of all, who uses voice search today and in
which contexts do they use it?
WHO USES VOICE SEARCH TODAY?
Though voice search still can’t be segmented from text search in SQR reports,
Google estimates that roughly 20% of mobile search is now completed via voice,
rather than text.
Moreover, Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends study claims that Google voice searches
have risen more than 35-fold from 2008 to today:
As the efficacy of the technology - and its availability to a mass audience -
increases, so too does its level of usage.
This requires further investigation, as we can see from the graph above that the
biggest increases fall within two categories: Navigate and Call.
As a result, we should not be surprised to learn that 61% of voice search users say
the primary reason for using voice is that it is useful when hands/vision are
And although the primary setting for voice search usage is at home (43%), a
significant number of respondents use this technology in the car (36%), on the go
(19%), and at work (3%).
Crucially, Google Voice and Assistant are increasing their recognition accuracy
levels, which has previously been one of the important barriers to widespread
uptake. In fact, the difference between 95% and 99% accuracy is where use goes
from occasional to frequent. These margins may seem relatively inconsequential,
but when it comes to speech they are the difference between natural language and
very stilted communication. It is this 4-point increase in accuracy that has seen voice
search go from gimmick to everyday staple for so many users.
Certain types of queries and searches are likely to require more than just one instant
answer, as they require a visual element e.g planning a trip, or deciding which winter
coat to buy. It is imperative that business do not over optimise for voice search, and
are instead cognisant of where their consumers and customers are likely to be using
voice search in relation to their brand / product. In general, most voice searches still
have relatively little relation to retail. The graph below shows the different ways in
which teens and adults reported using voice search.
This generational gap is telling, as it strongly suggests that voice search will become
more prevalent over time. Google reported in Oct 2014 that 55% of under 18s use
voice search daily for their search queries, whilst 45% of adults “felt like geeks”
when using the technology.
It is worth bearing this in mind when we decide whether to optimize specifically for
HOW WILL IT IMPACT THE WAY USERS
ARE ADVERTISED TO?
Many of the changes that will affect both consumers and businesses as a result of
increased voice search usage (fewer results → single-answer results, featured
snippets being read to the user, answers drawn straight from the knowledge graph
rather than referring websites) could be seen as a continuation and heightening of
the changes experienced with the increase of mobile searches.
Featured snippets, which we’ve been seeing with increasing frequency on desktop
and mobile, are the building blocks towards voice search.
The vast majority of voice search results are drawn either from Google’s knowledge
graph or from the information drawn from the featured snippets. This and other
steps (such as active advertisement and encouragement to use voice search
features) are an indication that Google is trying to shift much of the use on to voice.
Google does seem to be parsing content deeply for relevance, and they've been
improving their capabilities constantly since the launch of Featured Snippets. As
such, we shouldn’t need to focus too heavily on providing the ‘one correct answer’
to a question at the top of our landing pages; Google will be able to analyse larger
data sets than this and authoritative content should come to the fore in its results.
An important consideration for advertisers is that there does seem to be a word limit
in terms of the length of answers that Google Home or other voice assistants can
provide. This may change in future, but for the moment it is better to err on the side
of brevity when answering simple queries.
The information in the chart below is taken from a Hitwise study on the level of
penetration of voice search across different verticals:
Unsurprisingly, the search categories that are more likely to be interacted with “on
the go” (Sports, News, and so on) lead the way, with Banking at only 39%.
This is perhaps another warning for industries that are not so heavily influenced by
this trend. Before viewing voice search as a central tenet of a Search strategy for
2017 and beyond, it is worth asking whether it will have a transformational effect on
the way consumers source information in your industry.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE
SEARCH MARKETING INDUSTRY?
At present, it has little impact on the search marketing industry due to the nature of
the (largely informational) queries.
However, it will lead to an increased growth of instant answers i.e. search engines
returning the content themselves within the SERPs, rather than returning a link to a
site that can answer the query – the so called “Position Zero”.
This has the potential to remove the need for the user to interact with any websites,
providing the instant answer is sufficient. After all, if the user has to start clicking
into different websites it defies the whole point of being hands free. This places
significantly more emphasis on sites having the highest quality content to be able to
rank in the Position Zero and bypasses traditional paid search ads and high organic
As it becomes more widespread, it will change how people search – users will use
longer, more conversational queries and this could change how metadata and
content are optimised as voice search usage increases. One example would be the
difference between “Cinemas Brighton” and “What cinemas are in Brighton?”
Furthermore, answering queries directly within the content in a simple way will give
sites an edge in ranking the instant answers, as well as including schema (more
As queries become more commercial, this is going to lead to more aggregator sites
dominating the big commercial keywords as they can offer more accurate unbiased
answers e.g. “What is the cheapest insurance policy for my VW polo?”
Independent insurance providers don’t have the data to answer that query, as they
only have their own insurance prices, whereas aggregator sites like Money
Supermarket can provide the answer. This applies to other verticals such as travel,
for example. This may lead to less search traffic to non-aggregator sites as well as
other sites that do not rank for the instant answer. In terms of strategy, this may
place less emphasis on link building and more on content quality and engagement
as Rank Brain becomes a more important factor to provide accurate answers.
Voice search will also place more importance on local search results: non-local
intent queries e.g. “I need IT support” might return the highest rated IT support
company near the user, but what about national or global IT support companies, it is
likely they will be bypassed completely. This is great for smaller local businesses that
would normally be overlooked in the SERPs, but not so good for larger national or
This would mean larger companies would need to create a more local online
presence e.g. city based service pages for each locality the business operates in,
which includes its physical address in that locality and its own local based content
and reviews, alongside Google My Business pages (more info).
From an SEO industry perspective, it may shift the focus from overall content
strategies, to more granular, local based content strategies. What of businesses that
operate nationally but have no physical presence? Potentially they will miss out from
increased voice search usage unless they have a correctly optimised national My
For paid search, information is a bit scarce on the future impact voice search when
the SERP is effectively removed from the equation via Google Assistant – how will
paid search factor into this for more commercial queries, for example? At the
moment, due to the SERP still being involved in voice search queries, paid search
campaigns need to follow similar rules to organic search and optimise to capture
more conversational terms as well as local (more info).
With a push towards mobile usage and the proliferation of ad blocking, especially
with the support of iOS for this (a move that is directly impacting Google’s revenue),
there may be a shift towards native advertising.
HARDWARE: Google Home, $129
SOFTWARE: Google Now (slowly phasing out and becoming Google Assistant and not to be
confused with Google Voice, a telephony service)
POPULARITY: We don’t have figures yet for the number of Google Home devices sold but around
50% of mobile phone users report using Google Voice once a day and Google reckons it
comprises around 20% of all mobile searches.
Google Home also retails at around $129, making it an attractive alternative to the Amazon Echo,
retailing at around $179 dollars.
Google Now uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations
and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of web services. It seems to be the next step
in achieving Google’s aims which is [...] to organize the world's information and make it
universally accessible and useful. Google also has plans to make its AI assistant more personable
and relatable, even going so far as to giving it a personal backstory and even childhood, as well
as the ability to respond playfully and jokingly, as with Apple’s Siri (source). The idea being that
the more comfortable people feel interacting with a virtual assistant, the more frequently they will
Most of the results seem to be drawn from Google’s own knowledge graph, and when not
available are fetched from rich snippets. When providing the answer, most of the results tend to
have attribution appended, except when one world answers are provided (eg. How many planets
are there in our solar system).
Results tend to read verbatim from featured snippets or knowledge graphs, so issues in markup
or presentation here are carried over into voice search.
This is how Google describes its new product:
"The assistant is conversational - an ongoing two-way dialogue between you and Google that
understands your world and helps you get things done. It makes it easy to buy movie tickets
while on the go, to find that perfect restaurant for your family to grab a quick bite before the
movie starts and then help you navigate to the theater."
Google also has by far the best personalisation service, and will proactively provide information
based on past searches and user behaviour. Because accounts are linked, it is also able to
respond to queries such as “where is my package”, by going through your emails in order to find
It connects with a bunch of impressive third-party services like Ticketmaster, Pandora, Spotify,
Uber, OpenTable, and WhatsApp.
HARDWARE: Amazon Echo, $179 (also Echo dot and Amazon Tap)
SOFTWARE: Amazon Alexa (Currently only available in English and German)
Amazon Alexa is an intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon.com's Lab126. She is
capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming
podcasts, playing audiobooks and providing weather, traffic and other real time information.
Alexa can also control several smart devices using itself as a home automation hub (in the form
of Amazon Echo). It also features a smart home API allowing it to do things such as control
temperature, lights and door locks.
POPULARITY: By April 2016, Amazon Echo had sold 3 million units - more than the Kindle sold
over the same period.
Alexa Skills Kit - 3rd-party developed voice experiences that add to the capabilities of any
Alexa-enabled device (such as the Echo). Examples of skills include the ability to play music,
answer general questions, set an alarm, order a pizza, get an Uber and more.
A side by side comparison of some of the functions of the Amazon Echo and Google Home
SOFTWARE: Siri and now Viv (early stages)
Viv is apple’s newest release of AI software that claims to understand the intent of the user and
can interact with ‘natural’ conversations. For instance, instead of ‘what is the temperature at 5pm
today’, your question can be more conversational and long-tail such as ’will the weather be warm
after 5pm this afternoon?’ and Viv should respond within seconds with a ‘conversational’
response such as ‘No, it won’t be that warm after 5pm this afternoon, you will need an umbrella.’
Viv works by analysing the nouns that are used when a person speaks to their phone and
formulating a response of the back of this. Apple claims that Viv is also an open system, hence
businesses and apps are able to become part of the AI system.
HARDWARE: Siri is integrated into all Apple mobile devices and Apple is working on a stand alone
device. They are also planning to open up the software to 3rd party apps. This move comes after
a new focus by Apple from Iphone sales into software income.
Siri is a built-in "intelligent assistant" that enables users of Apple iPhone 4S onwards as well as
the sirnewer iPad and iPod Touch devices to speak natural language voice commands in order to
operate the mobile device and its apps.It will also soon be coming to Macs and will have the
ability to search on YouTube.
POPULARITY: As of Q2 of 2016, Android held 87.6% of the market share with 11.7% going to iOS.
HARDWARE: No specific hardware, although it is integrated with any device that runs on Windows
10 and up.
Powered with the help of Bing (though it is said that is uses Firefox as its default browser),
Cortana is (just like Google Now/Assistant) able to understand not just queries but also the
context. Some of the features include:
● Connects with PCs (Windows 10 and up).
● Understands follow-up questions. Example: “Directions to the airport” followed
by, “How long will it take?”
● Creates a “notebook” of your preferences to serve up more relevant information.
● Computes contextual questions.
INTEGRATED WITH: Cortana will be integrated with wearables, Xbox one, numerous products such
as Microsoft Edge, and Microsoft has announced its planned integration with Skype.
Around ⅓ of Cortana searches come from voice.
In line with what we see in Google studies, Microsoft research also shows that voice searches
tend to be longer than text searches:
As such, they can be a much richer source of information for search marketers as we try to gain
insight into search intent. Combined with the increasing accuracy of location, demographic and
behavioural data, this should allow us to serve much more relevant content to answer our
WHAT DOES THIS TREND MEAN IN THE
We know that voice recognition and voice search are of strategic importance to the
world’s biggest tech companies and a recent quote from Google reveals exactly
“Our goal in Speech Technology Research is twofold: to make speaking to devices
around you (home, in car), devices you wear (watch), devices with you (phone,
tablet) ubiquitous and seamless.”
To be both ubiquitous and seamless, within this particular context, means being
driven by a unified software solution.
Long term, building hardware probably isn’t the business Amazon and Google really
want to be in. Rather, they would have other hardware makers to incorporate their
voice services into as many devices as possible. That will help Amazon and Google
get their virtual assistant and services out into the world. Both companies are
working hard on this front.
However, in the short term the onus is on grabbing this particularly fertile land - and
the way to do this is by producing popular hardware. This paves the way for a
widespread use of a company’s software and, therefore, promotion of their products
and services. Making this a “ubiquitous and seamless” experience will be hard for
consumers to resist and will make it even harder for them to move to another
provider and start over again.
IN SUMMARY: HOW WILL VOICE
SEARCH AFFECT BUSINESSES?
We can draw a lot of useful insight from this research. From our perspective, the
below are the main takeaways for businesses as we consider what the direct impact
of voice search will be over the coming months and years:
● Search will adopt a more natural, conversational approach.
● Long-tail keyword terms will become the focus of content strategy.
● Content will provide direct answers to questions - but the focus will be
on accuracy, rather than just brevity. The importance of being the
one, correct answer to a query will be of paramount importance.
● Sentences and phrases will be at the center of the content and we’ll
see less keyword targeting.
● Digital assistants will share data on search queries.
● Schema markup for voice search will be essential.
● Optimized videos will see a rise in the search results.
● Although voice search is not perfect yet, the indications are that
consumers are willing to get on board with this technology now. As
such, we should be having detailed discussions about how to make
the most of this new opportunity.