The way we interact with the internet is changing. Many of us now use voice to search online and the answers we get are increasingly being spoken to us. This isnâ€™t just happening on smart speakers, which are becoming commonplace, it is also being used on phones, computers and even on devices like smart TVs. If this is the future of how we use the internet, it is obviously going to affect the content that organisations place on their websites and in this post, weâ€™ll look at what changes are likely to be needed.
Why you need to act now
It is estimated that by 2020 over half of all internet searches will be done by voice. This is due to a number of factors. First of all is the low price of smart speakers. You can pick up a basic Amazon Echo Dot or a Google Home for around Â£30; cheap enough to put several around the home so voice searches can be done anywhere without having to touch a keyboard.
Hand in hand with their low price are the consistent improvements in natural language processing. Computers can now understand what we say and speak back to us in intelligible ways and their ability to do so is getting better all the time. While, for the time being, what we can do with voice search is fairly limited, the scope of their abilities will no doubt expand to help us in ways we currently havenâ€™t begun to fathom.
For website owners, this means that what you publish on your sites will increasingly be read out to the searcher rather than being presented to them visually and this will impact how that content is created in the first place.
Voice search results
One of the biggest differences between voice and keyboard searches will be in the way that search results are presented. As we all know, when we search using a keyboard and screen, we are shown a list of search results and click on the one that most appeals to us. This is why most websites strive to be on the first page of results.
With voice search, this isnâ€™t always going to happen. Where there is a screen on which to view the results, for example when using Cortana, Siri, or Google Assistant on a computer or phone, the results may show up as we are used to. However, on smart speakers and other devices, reading out a long list of titles and snippets would not be user-friendly; instead, the google search engine will make the choice for us and read out what it considers to be the most appropriate answer.
Indeed, even screen-based search is moving in this direction. Type a question into Google , today, and before it presents a list of websites to look at, it will show you what it considers to be the best answer in the knowledge graph at the top of the page. This is a move which keeps the visitor on a Google page and reduces the chances of any other web page being visited.
Whatâ€™s the solution for website owners? It means that for voice searches, it is even more crucial that the titles and metadata are focused on the search query and, in doing so, provide answers in themselves that can be read out. Websites that can feature in the knowledge graph are the ones which are most likely to be visited.
The rise of natural language generation
With the use of AI and machine learning, the information supplied by voice searches is going to get more sophisticated. At present, it uses natural language processing to understand your enquiry and then uses this to identify the most relevant content to speak back to you. In the future, it will go beyond this. With natural language generation and AI, the search engine will be able to gather the essential information from the internet, perhaps taking small elements from many different sites and will reformulate these into a single, cohesive and comprehensive answer. So, rather than speaking out verbatim what it finds, it will generate specific answers to specific questions. For example, if you ask what restaurants are the best in your local area, it might search all the various review sites, looking beyond star ratings, to consider the actual text individuals write in their reviews. In addition, it may also take into consideration the browsing and purchase history of the customer in order to offer what it considers the appropriate response. In this sense, search engines will morph into concierges offering personalised customer services.
Will there be an end to screen searches?
There will always be a need for screen searches. If consumers want to purchase something, they usually want to see it first. Indeed, it goes against freedom of choice not to give a customer options and if they removed these, google search engines will lose massive revenues from their advertisers. This is perhaps why so many smart speakers with screens are already being produced, in order to give us the best of voice and screen searching.
How will this affect content creation?
All these developments point to several changes that websites need to make to help them stay relevant in the age of the voice search.
Firstly, the content published on a webpage needs to be structured and written in a way that makes sense when read aloud. This means writing in a way which sounds natural and using vocabulary that communicates information clearly. Accurate punctuation, which is essential for ensuring meaning is communicated clearly, will become more vital than ever.
Another factor is in creating different content for different searchers. The use of subject orientated terminology might be suitable for some readers but not for others. A search engine could determine the level of understanding that a searcher has and look for search results that the user could understand when the website was read out to them. For some businesses, therefore, the solution would be in creating both a laypersonâ€™s and a subject specialistâ€™s page.
Graphical data is one area, in particular, which needs to be looked at carefully when considering voice searches. Tables and lists work very well for visual searches and can save users lots of time when they look for information on your site. However, when read out, they donâ€™t always make the best sense and it would be easier to understand if the information was put into sentences and paragraphs. The obvious answer to this is the development of a new type of responsive site â€“ one which provides different versions depending on whether the results are shown or read. This, however, is a development for the future. For the time being, it may mean making both sets of information available.
SEO also has a part to play in helping websites do well in voice searches. Indeed, Google recommends that SEO focuses on making it simple for the search engines to understand what the content is about. This should be done through the use of titles, meta descriptions, headings and subheadings as well as using proper descriptions rather than just keywords in image alt-tags. Just remember that most of these things need to work for visual consumption at the same time.
With the advance of voice search technology and the popularity of smart speakers, we are moving into a new era of internet use where there is less need to be stuck to a screen to find the information we want or to carry out actions. For website owners, this will push you towards creating content that is suitable for both kinds of search and which makes sense when read aloud.