What is voice search and how does it work?

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Google processes over 40,000 searches per second, and that number is growing steadily every year. While our need for instant answers has not changed, the way we search for those answers and the way Google presents answers has changed. For example, marketing is now focusing much more on things like natural language processing (NLP) and its impact on voice search.

As internet search has moved from primarily desktop-based to mobile-based search, the most notable change is the way people search with voice assistants. Whether it’s Apple’s Siri device, Google Home, or Amazon’s Echo device, people use their hands free when searching. As voice searches increase, here are a few things to know about optimizing your website so that you can continue to reach your valuable customers.

What is voice search?

Voice search is the use of speech to ask questions and give commands to compatible devices such as smartphones or smart speakers. The browser talks to the device and the device executes the command or answers the question.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on question-based research, as it will be more interesting and valuable to businesses (as opposed to actions like setting timers or playing music).

How does voice search work?

Without going into too much technical detail about voice search, digital voice assistants work as follows:

  • Process and transcribe human speech into text
  • Analyze the text for questions and commands.
  • Connect to external data sources, such as search engines, to find relevant information.
  • Translate this information into a digestible format to meet the user’s intent

How voice search works is obviously more complex than that, and there is a lot of machine learning going on for these programs to better understand natural language and the real intent of the search engine. These programs are incredibly sophisticated and they are improving tremendously.

Who are the main players in the voice search market?

The major players in the US smart speaker market are as follows (in order of market share):

  • Amazon (63.2%)
  • Google (31%)
  • Other (5.8%)

However, it’s important to note that most voice searches are done on mobile devices, not smart speakers. For smartphone assistants, the top 2 competitors are Apple (Siri) and Google.

Where do voice assistants get their information from?

Voice assistants and smart speakers pull your information from multiple data sources including search engines, Wikipedia, and other major websites. In order for a business to optimize its content for voice search, it’s imperative to understand where different voice assistants get their information.

Alexa gets her information from a variety of third-party sources including IMDB, AccuWeather, Yelp, Answers.com, and Wikipedia. If a user invokes a specific Alexa skill, that data will be pulled from the database related to that skill.

Unsurprisingly, Google extracts information from Google search and its trillion page index. So if your content is discoverable and trackable on Google search, you’re in good shape. If you’re worried that your content might not be crawlable, tools like Google Search Console can help you diagnose potential issues. Our experiments have shown that most of the time, the answer returned by the Google Assistant corresponds to the snippet presented that a user would see if they typed in their question… but this is not always the case.

Siri also extracts your data from Google search. Previously, it came from Bing, but switched to Google at the end of 2017. However, for local businesses, it relies on data from Apple Maps, which in turn uses Yelp to review the information.

How can you optimize your website for voice search?

Our internal research has shown that successful content optimization for voice search comes down to 3 things:

  • Make sure your content is indexed and present in all important data sources (Google search, Google Maps, Apple Maps, Wikipedia, etc.)
  • Use traditional SEO best practices to rank your web pages and / or ads high in search engines. Your content may be perfectly structured for voice search, but if it’s not on page 1, it’s unlikely to show up as a response.
  • Keep your content concise and just answer the question. Our data has shown that targeting 30-40 word responses at a grade 6-7 reading level works best.

We conducted this research by developing a technology at Wpromote called Bixby, Fetch! which automates the asking of questions to voice search devices, transcribes the answers, and then analyzes the web pages from which the answer was provided. This allows us to collect data on thousands of requests without needing to lock someone in a room for a week with a Google Home speaker. All we need is an initial list of questions to send to Bixby, Fetch! and do the rest.

In addition to the above, there are two types of structured data introduced in 2019 which is automatically supported by voice search on Google devices. The how-to guide and FAQ automatically creates an action for the Google Assistant (actions are equivalent to Alexa skills). You can find the full documentation and eligibility requirements for these types of programs here and here. If you have this type of content on your site, we strongly recommend that you take advantage of this markup.

Final words: what is voice search and how does it work?

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Brandon D. James