4 steps to prepare your SEO strategy for voice search from epiphany.

This article originally featured on The Drum here.

SEO has always been a changing landscape. While the fundamentals of performing well in search remain the same on a surface level – is your site technically compliant? Do you talk about the right topics in your content? Do you have links? – how we go about each of them changes dramatically on a regular basis.

All Google has to do is introduce a new set of tags – like schema – in order for technical SEOs to incorporate something new into their knowledge base. The growth of mobile has changed what we prioritise. In terms of content, all your competitors have to do is improve theirs for you to need to step up. And backlinks, historically an easily gamed system, now must be genuine, earned, and relevant to count.

Voice search doesn’t change people’s need to search, so again – our fundamentals remain strong. But what does change, and to be fair has been developing for a few years, is our need to pay attention to our audience’s requirements and adapt our strategies to account for more than just money keywords.

The challenge that voice search throws at us is the advent of the single default answer. It’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” but on a wide, landscape-changing scale. In 2016, 20% of searches in the Google app were conducted through voice – it hasn’t been updated in the last two years, so if anything it’s higher. In 2017, almost 70% of requests to the Google Assistant were expressed in natural language, not using the same keywords people might type in a web search.

Moreover, we know people’s behaviour changes as soon as they expect something to fulfil their needs. Searches including “near me” didn’t grow as much in 2017 as those local searches without the qualifier and, in the United States, searches including zip codes (a qualifier like a postcode) actually declined by 30%.

We expect local to work now, so we’ve stop qualifying searches. As soon as we expect voice search to work and it becomes part of our lives, so too we might expect to see a decline in typical web search queries.

All that is speculation, but what do brands need to do in order to remain relevant and visible for customers as the way they search changes?

1. Keep complying with Google’s best practice guidelines

It almost goes without saying, but websites that are speedy and built well for people and crawlers, with content that properly answers user needs, backed up by authoritative links and mentions, will always be favoured in search. The advent of voice search doesn’t change this, it makes it more important than ever, as this is simply the basics required to be considered for being the correct answer.

2. Understand your audience and what they actually need from you

Every website, whether they’re ecommerce or service based, should consider what problem they’re solving for their users and how they are doing so. Once you’ve confirmed you are the best choice - and this is an important step – you need to identify how people are finding you. The highest search volume keywords in your industry are only a starting point.

If you’ve identified the problems that your customers or clients have, you have an excellent springboard for looking at common, natural language queries and creating content to fit those. Use common question keywords and tools like ‘Answer the Public’ to research queries combined with Search Console to see where you might already be ranking and just need to tweak.

3. Use that knowledge to power voice search

Featured snippets are the best current way to gain success in voice search. Identifying queries that trigger a featured snippet and working to optimise your site for them is a strategy that has worked very well for our clients in the past. There are a number of guides online that can help you develop featured snippets for your site. But in brief, the main way to gain them is as follows:

    - Identify the terms you’d like to perform for and their most appropriate pages

    - Place a heading tag on the question you’re answering

    - If you are using a list, make sure the correct tags are used

    - Ensure your answer is the best option

Google tends to test up to three featured snippets at a time. You can use search modifiers to change what Google shows to help you ensure your snippet is the “best” option. Try removing the current featured snippet domain from search results using “-“ and see what comes up next.

This does work – we overhauled a FAQ section for one of our clients and saw a 3000% increase in traffic, from less than two hundred visits to thousands per month, alongside a substantial number of new triggered featured snippets.

4. What about the world outside of traditional search?

Virtual assistants and the “skills” they’re taught have the power to change the way we seek out and find products that are relevant to us. Google will even suggest a relevant app if a suitable one isn’t installed on the device. Skills are very much in their infancy, however; some of the most popular skills include asking Alexa to bark or meow.

While most skills are poorly rated and not thought through, this represents a first mover advantage, but I’d strongly recommend considering the audience research you’ve done to find whether you can genuinely offer added value via a skill. Otherwise, there is more long term value in simply improving your website to better capture relevant search queries via mobile and voice.

In summary, there are opportunities to capitalise on voice search now, but that doesn’t mean any brand should abandon their website or current activities in favour of running towards voice optimisation. Instead, put another layer of thought over your current audience research and keyword plans to create a strategy that works on all platforms.