Voice: the future of next-gen search – expert predictions

The expansion of digital systems has resulted in the recent rise of voice search.

More people today are using various digital assistants created by the major players of the technology market, such as Apple’s Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Amazon’s Alexa.

The development of these systems and the recent improvements in their ability to interpret natural language queries have made voice search easier and more accurate.

By examining the 2016 edition of Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends Report 2016, we can see an explosive growth in voice queries, according to Google Trends.

In her report, Meeker notes that queries associated with voice commands have risen more than 35-fold since the launch of the iPhone and Google Voice Search.

To adapt your digital marketing efforts to this trend, you should pay attention to how people are searching.

voice search semrush

Recently, SEMrush had a roundtable discussion on voice search with three industry experts: Will Critchlow, Chris Marentis and Neil Walker.

During our talk, they shared some great insights into how voice search is shaping today’s digital marketing, as well as their own predictions for the next generation of search. Below you will find some new opportunities for capitalizing on voice search growth.

1) Voice search isn’t a big thing – yet

Mobile devices have already changed the world of search engine optimization in many ways. But now, there’s a lot of talk about the impact that voice search will have on the SEO landscape.

Some experts believe that the full potential of voice search has yet to be seen. “For me [voice search] is still in that uncanny valley where it’s not quite good enough to rely on,” Will Critchlow explains.

It’s still too early to tell how voice search has influenced SEO, but it’s constantly evolving. “We’re still in the very early days, but I can see voice search literally changing the search landscape in some way over the next few years,” says Neil Walker.

Chris Marentis points out that it’s really interesting how accurately artificial intelligence (AI) voice control interprets what users ask for. “I think it’s a conceptual framework that we are going to think about a lot, test and validate over the next few years,” he points out.

blue brain

Nevertheless, voice search is on the rise. Its popularity is increasing, because providers are improving text-to-speech technologies. Will Critchlow believes that the quality of speech recognition is going from strength to strength.

Just in one year – between 2014 and 2015 – voice search grew from “statistical zero” to 10% of overall search volume globally, according to Timothy Tuttle from MindMeld. This shift accounts for the incredible number of voice searches per month – 50 billion.

Millennials and Generation Z are more likely to engage with voice search.

In 2014 a study from Northstar Research revealed that 55% of teens (age 13-18) use voice search more than once a day. And it comes as no surprise, because computers and technologies are quite indispensable to younger generations. They have grown up with these things, as Chris Marentis points out.

Takeaways: 

Voice search is still evolving. One of its major problems is related to its ability to understand different users, including their accents and inflections. Nevertheless, digital assistants are getting better at understanding these differences, and search continues its shift towards mobile devices.

This will result in the further growth of voice search, and businesses can’t ignore it.

2) Voice search has changed the way people interact with search engines

Obviously, the human brain structures written and verbal information differently, which means that written search queries differ from verbal ones.

Today users expect to find exactly what they’re looking for on the first try, because Google is constantly improving its search capabilities.

Search engines today, especially Google, are working to align the process of online search with so-called “natural language,” or everyday speech. Voice-based queries are different in nature. They tend to consist of longer phrases, as well as complete sentences and questions.

It’s also interesting that experts are expecting another significant change that has nothing to do with voice search.

“Alongside voice search, we are going to see a huge growth in query-less search,” Will Critchlow says. Platforms like Google Now, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana are improving the way users interact with search in a predictive, query-less manner. This principle is based on a semantic prediction of needs.

In other words, search engines return results based on the user’s historical behavior and the current context. “I think that’s where voice search really comes into its own – when your device is saying to you some things you might want to know,” suggest WIll Critchlow.

The growth of voice search is leading to more natural language queries. These queries contain larger amounts of contextual information about users’ intent.

Takeaways

Will Critchlow told us how he was just searching “breakfast.” Years ago, this type of search would have probably turned up a Wikipedia article on the subject. But if you searched this term today, you might get a list of highly rated restaurants that are currently serving breakfast.

google breakfast search

Also, AI technology is evolving to better understand user intent and context based on various elements, such as previous search queries, location, past user’s behavior and actions.

3) Google continues to learn

As we have already discussed, today digital assistants are more advanced. Although these systems might not understand exactly what we want at first try, they’re getting better, thanks to the improvement of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Neil Walker believes that voice search is just the beginning, and there’s no doubt that Google is always learning.

Voice-activated search systems, including Siri, Cortana and Alexa, are based on similar technology that provides searchers with direct results, rather than a search result page.

A screenshot of a conversation with Siri in which the user (our editor Christopher Ratcliff) tells Siri "Open the pod bay doors HAL", a reference to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Siri wearily replies, "Oh, not again."

It’s interesting that today we can already get some information we need without actually visiting a website because of Google’s special featured snippet block at the top of SERPs, which shows a summary of the answer to a user’s question.

“We are already getting used to the fact that answers are being delivered straight to us without having to click on any sites,” Neil Walker explains.

Soon there will be no need for users to type blunt queries into their smartphone’s browser, because they will be able to pick up their phone and literally ask it what they want. And digital assistants will start focusing on the meaning behind a particular query, rather than a set of query keywords, and provide users with instant answers to their questions.

Because of the development of machine learning businesses will have to rethink their content, make it more conversational, focus on sentence structure and use natural phrases, rather than basic keywords.

Takeaways

Google, along with other technical giants, is investing in artificial intelligence, transitioning from text-based search algorithms to more semantic systems that can deliver more relevant results to searchers – results that they really want.

Today the search engine is making efforts to serve up results that are more in line with the real intent behind a user’s search, rather than the actual words they use.

4) Conversion rates decrease

We also asked our guest experts what opportunities voice search can provide for online businesses that are looking to increase their conversion rates.

Will Critchlow expects to see lower conversion rates. And here’s why… Voice search will continue to get better at natural language. The whole process of search might shift from the current model towards one that looks more like a chat bot, for example. SERPs might not look like a classic web interface in Chrome. Instead, users might see images, buttons or even dropdowns.

“I think we’re going to see a different kind of conversion and, probably, lower conversion rates,” Will Critchlow pointed out. He also added: “I’m more interested in increasing an absolute number of conversions without worrying necessarily about conversion rates.”

Neil Walker agrees with his point and thinks that the major challenge for digital marketers will be to predict what elements are going to be displayed in SERPs without users visiting a website.

Takeaways 

In fact, we don’t know exactly what changes voice search will bring to digital marketing and search strategies. But voice search is not a thing of the future. It’s here today.

To capitalize on voice search, businesses should grasp new technologies and be open to exploring new avenues in the search industry.

5) Intent search

We already know that RankBrain, Google’s machine learning artificial intelligence system, was designed to help the search engine provide users with the most relevant search results.

According to Danny Sullivan, it’s mainly used as a way to interpret the queries that people use to find pages that may not even contain the exact words that were searched before. What sets it apart from other existing algorithms is its ability to learn.

Will Critchlow suggests that online businesses must rank for user intent. RankBrain technology doesn’t try to match the words on your webpage to the words that a person spoke. When trying to figure out the best search results, it has to do with interpretive step.

What’s more, in the future, Google might return more limited results. For example, if a user wants to know the nutrition facts for a banana, they don’t actually need to read a full page of content to find their answer.

google banana search

In this example, they’re just looking for some brief information, some numbers, and maybe even a couple of simple sentences. Google doesn’t send you to the website and might not even show you the website. Will Critchlow believes that increasingly the search results are going to be an answer or an action.

Chris Marentis also feels that search is moving away from simply displaying websites. Especially when it comes to local search, your strategy should involve more than just creating a contact page for your company. Businesses should consider encouraging their customers to leave reviews both on their site and through platforms like Yelp.

Chris Marentis suggests: “If you are a local window replacement contractor and you don’t have a great presence on Yelp, then you’re not going to rank on the first page of Google organically.”

Takeaways

Today, marketers need to be as customer-oriented as ever. If you don’t understand what most users mean when they use a certain query, you might be targeting the wrong keywords.

It’s important for companies to rank for the user intent. Businesses should consider using more long-tail keyword phrases that highlight user intent and create user-intent models to better understand where the searcher is in their customer journey.

Needless to say, voice search is already changing the SEO and search landscapes. The only question that remains is, how are brands going to handle this shift?

Image credits: SEMrush design

Olia is a PR/Content Manager at SEMrush and a contributor to SEW. You can connect with Olia on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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