SEO in 2018: Optimizing for voice search

Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller recently asked for feedback on why webmasters are looking for Google to separate voice search queries in Search Console. If you, like me, want to see voice searches in Google Search Console, definitely submit your feedback on Twitter as John requested.

I hear folks asking about voice search data in Search Console often. Can you elaborate on what you want to see there? What's an example of such a query that would be useful? pic.twitter.com/WOqS7aH4tP

— John ☆.o(≧▽≦)o.☆ (@JohnMu) December 7, 2017

I lived through the very beginnings of mobile SEO, where many people thought mobile search behavior would be completely different from desktop search behavior only to find that much of it is the same. So I see why Mueller and others don’t necessarily understand why Search Console users would want to see voice queries separately. Some queries are the same whether they’re typed into a computer at a desktop or spoken across the room to a Google Home.

That being said, there are some very good reasons to want voice search data. Optimizing for voice search requires some slightly different tactics from those for traditional SEO, and having insight into these queries could help you provide a better experience for those searching by voice.

Not convinced you should care about voice search? Here are three reasons I think you should:

1. More visibility on featured snippets

One of the interesting things about Google Home is that when it answers a question with information from the web, it will cite the source of the information by saying the website’s name, and it will often send a link to the searcher’s Google Home app.

Currently, Google Home and Google Assistant read snippets from sites that are ranked in “position zero” and have been granted a featured snippet. This is why more people than ever are talking about how to optimize for featured snippets. If you look at the articles published on the topic (according to what Google has indexed), you’ll see that the number of articles about how to optimize for featured snippets has grown 178 percent in the past year:

Understanding voice search queries could help us better understand the types of queries that surface featured snippets. As marketers, we could then devote time and resources to providing the best answer for the most common featured snippets in hopes of getting promoted to position zero.

This helps marketers drive credibility to their brand when Google reads their best answer to the searcher, potentially driving traffic to the site from the Google Home app.

And this helps Google because they benefit when featured snippets provide good answers and the searcher is satisfied with the Google Home results. The better the service, the more consumers will use it — and potentially buy more Google Home units or Android phones because they think the service is worthwhile.

If bad featured snippets are found because no one is trying to optimize for those queries, or no featured snippets are found and the Google Home unit must apologize for not being able to help with that query yet, Google potentially loses market share to Amazon in the smart speaker race and Apple in the personal assistant race.

So this one is a win-win, Google. You need more great responses competing for position zero, and we want to help. But first, we need to know what types of queries commonly trigger featured snippets from voice search, and that’s why we need this data in Search Console today.

2. Better way to meet consumer demand and query intent based on context

We saw two major things happen in the early days of mobile SEO when we compared desktop and mobile queries:

    Searchers often used the same keywords in mobile search that they did in desktop search; however, certain keywords were used much more often on mobile search than desktop search (and vice versa).Whole new categories of queries emerged as searchers realized that GPS and other features of mobile search could allow them to use queries that just didn’t work in desktop search.

An example of the first point is a query like “store hours,” which peaks in volume when shoppers are headed to stores:

An example of the second is “near me” queries, which have grown dramatically with mobile search and mostly occur on mobile phones:

The mode of search therefore changes search behavior as searchers understand what types of searches work well on mobile but not on desktop.

Consider this in the context of voice search. There are certain types of queries that only work on Google Home and Google Assistant. “Tell me about my day” is one. We can guess some of the others, but if we had voice search data labeled, we wouldn’t have to.

How would this be useful to marketers and site owners? Well, it’s hard to say exactly without looking at the data, but consider the context in which someone might use voice search: driving to the mall to get a present for the holidays or asking Google Home if a store down the street is still open. Does the searcher still say, “Holiday Hut store hours?” Or do they say something like, “OK Google, give me the store hours for the Holiday hut at the local mall?” Or even, “How late is Holiday Hut open?”

Google should consider all these queries synonymous in this case, but in some cases, there could be significant differences between voice search behavior and typed search behavior that will affect how a site owner optimizes a page.

Google has told us that voice searches are different, in that they’re 30 times more likely to be action queries than typed searches. In many cases, these won’t be actionable to marketers — but in some cases, they will be. And in order to properly alter our content to connect with searchers, we’ll first need to understand the differences.

In my initial look at how my own family searched on Google Home, I found significant differences between what my family asked Home and what I ask my smartphone, so there’s reason to believe that there are new query categories in voice search that would be relevant to marketers. We know that there are queries — like “Hey Google, talk to Dustin from Stranger Things” and “Buy Lacroix Sparkling Water from Target” — that are going to give completely different results in voice search on Google Home and Assistant from the results in traditional search. And these queries, like “store hours” queries, are likely to be searched much more on voice search than in traditional search.

The problem is, how do we find that “near me” of voice search if we don’t have the data?

3. Understanding extent of advertising and optimization potential for new voice-based media

The last reason to pay attention to voice search queries is probably the most important — for both marketers and Google.

Let me illustrate it in very direct terms, as it’s not just an issue that I believe marketers have in general, but one that affects me personally as well.

Recently, one of my company’s competitors released survey information that suggested people really want to buy tickets through smart speakers.

As a marketer and SEO who sells tickets, I can take this information and invest in Actions on Google Development and marketing so that our customers can say, “OK Google, talk to Vivid Seats about buying Super Bowl tickets,” and get something from Google Home other than, “I’m sorry but I don’t know how to help with that yet.” (Disclosure: Vivid Seats is my employer.)

Or maybe I could convince my company to invest resources in custom content, as Disney and Netflix have done with Google. But am I really going to do it based on this one data point? Probably not.

As with mobile search in 2005, we don’t know how many people are using voice search in Google Home and Google Assistant yet, so we can’t yet know how big the opportunity is or how fast it’s growing. Voice search is in the “innovators and early adopters” stage of the technology adoption life cycle, and any optimizations done for it are not likely to reach a mainstream audience just yet. Since we don’t have data to the contrary from Google or Amazon, we’ll have to stay with this assumption and invest at a later date, when the impact of this technology on the market will likely mean a significant return on our investment.

If we had that data from Google, I would be able to use it to make a stronger case for early adoption and investment than just using survey data alone. For example, I would be able to say to the executives, “Look how many people are searching for branded queries in voice search and getting zero results! By investing resources in creating a prototype for Google Home and Assistant search, we can satisfy navigational queries that are currently going nowhere and recoup our investment.” Instead, because we don’t have that data from Google, the business case isn’t nearly as strong.

Google has yet to monetize voice search in any meaningful way, but when advertising appears on Google Home, this type of analysis will become even more essential.

Final thoughts

Yes, we can do optimization without knowing which queries are voice search queries, as we could do mobile optimization without knowing which queries are mobile queries; yet understanding the nuances of voice search will help Google and marketers do a better job of helping searchers find exactly what they’re looking for when they’re asking for it by voice.

If you agree, please submit your feedback to John Mueller on Twitter.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Have a question about Will Ferrell? Google may show you a video response directly from him

Curious if Will Ferrell can actually play the drums? Or if Tracee Ellis Ross can sing? Now, when you ask Google a question about a specific celebrity, you may get a self-recorded video from them answering your question.

“When you search for your favorite personalities, whether they’re rising stars or well-known celebs, their answers will appear in the form of selfie-style videos with a uniquely personal, authentic and delightful touch,” according to Google’s The Keyword blog.

Google has taken the most often asked questions about a select number of celebrities and had the celebrities record their answer so that they can now be served up for mobile searches related to the query.

The new feature is currently only available in the US and only works on mobile. It also applies to a very select list of well-known personalities. Google says it is piloting the feature with self-recorded video answers from the following list of celebrities:

Priyanka ChopraWill FerrellTracee Ellis RossGina RodriguezKenan ThompsonAllison WilliamsNick JonasMark WahlbergJames FrancoSeth MacFarlaneJonathan YeoDominique Ansel

According to the announcement, this new feature is a “snapshot of what’s to come,” and more videos are likely to be added during the upcoming months.

Google beefs up mobile shopping results for the holidays, adds more product info & buying guides

Google is beefing up its mobile shopping experience to prepare for the holidays, now showing buying guides for broad categories like “sewing machine” and “coffee grinder” searches and adding more product-related information for specific product searches.

“When you search for a specific product, Google.com now shows you other helpful information, like related items, and allows you to compare reviews, prices and other specs, side by side,” writes Google product management director for Google Shopping, Jennifer Liu on Google’s The Keyword blog.

Google says it has added a “newer model available” label to tech-gadget product listings so searchers know if they’re browsing the most recent version of tech products.

According to the announcement, Google’s recently redesigned mobile shopping experience has helped bring more product information to the forefront with features like a “Quick View” button in Google Shopping ads that lets users preview detailed product information.

Google also noted its recent knowledge panel updates that quickly surface product photos, videos, reviews and descriptions for product-related searches.

For the announcement, Google pulled search trends for product searches happening in advance of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. According to its data, some of the more popular product searches occurring as we head into the biggest shopping weekend of the year include:

apparel brands like Vans, Canada Goose, and Nike Air Jordan Retro 11.celebrity-endorsed products like Kevin Durant’s Nike KD 10, Pharrell x Adidas and Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty makeup line.gamer gifts like Razer phones, Nintendo Switch and Call of Duty WW2.

On the Google Home device, Google says voice searches are trending toward everyday essentials such as paper towels or pet food — things people are likely to add to their grocery lists.

“We’re also seeing people using voice to find other types of products to prep for the holidays,” writes Liu, listing kitchen utensil products, toys “Or fuzzy blankets to keep warm by the fireplace.”

Google expanded on its trends data on the Think with Google blog, confirming that Black Friday-related searches have increased by 80 percent over the past two years.

“Mobile watch time of Black Friday haul videos grew by over 120 percent since 2014,” writes Google’s head of shopping ads, Emily Eberhard.

Google says it begins seeing “generic, non-branded” searches outpacing branded queries attached to Black Friday-related searches early in November. Approximately 2 1/2 weeks out from the Black Friday-Cyber Monday four-day shopping weekend, searches switch to more brand-specific searches.

“There is a switch to searches for Black Friday becoming mostly branded (e.g., “ashley furniture black friday” and “sephora black friday 2016″) as shoppers narrow down their options and begin laser-focusing their research on the specific items they want to buy,” writes Eberhard.

Branded versus non-branded search trends

Google says that in 2016, mobile searches for “black friday” peaked on Thanksgiving Day: “Overall, there were 2.5x as many searches for ‘black friday ads’ as there were for ‘how to cook a turkey.’”

It also notes that many Black Friday-related search queries center around shoppers trying to determine the best time to shop, with top Black Friday-related searches including queries such as: “cyber monday vs black friday,” “which is better black friday or cyber monday” and “is cyber monday as good as black friday.”

Google’s data showed that online conversions remain steady throughout November, with spikes on both Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Google says it sees mobile transaction rates increase 40 percent during the Thanksgiving weekend compared to the rest of the year.

“It’s a sign that mobile researchers [people researching product purchases on their phone] are likely to become mobile buyers over the four-day holiday break,” writes Eberhard.

Voice search: Content may be king, but context is queen in the new voice-first world

In 2016, Google said that 20 percent of all mobile queries were voice searches. Since that time, the number of virtual assistants in US households has continued to swell, with tens of millions of voice-enabled home devices projected to be in use.

Voice as a primary search interface — beyond mobile phones — is a reality. Marketers need to rapidly iterate on their mobile-first strategies, to adapt to the voice-first marketplace. And as the aptly titled e-book released today [registration required] suggests, voice search changes everything.

I sat down with the book’s author, Yext VP of Industry Insights Duane Forrester, to discuss the landscape of voice search, how it will impact the business of search marketing, and what marketers can do to prepare for this evolution in search user interfaces.

“Voice engagement is the most likely scenario that will challenge the biggest players in search for supremacy.”

Michelle Robbins: What inspired you to put this e-book together?

Duane Forrester: The work we do at Yext is focused on helping businesses understand what data they can control, and empowering them with ways to manage that data. So from that point of view, there was a lot of support for exploring this developing space. Personally, I’ve always been an early adopter. The last decade of my life I’ve been fortunate enough to see the leading edge of technology up close and interact with it personally, so as “voice” developed to what we have today, I’ve been engaged and watching its progress.

MR: The major players in the space have been established. Do you see room for any other competitors to enter the voice arena?

DF: Absolutely. There is a boom happening in China right now with dozens of new companies entering the smart speaker space. While most won’t survive, it’s inevitable we’ll see new devices reach our shores next year, driving prices down and adoption up.

Most of that expansion will be white-labeled products (Google Assistant built into a Samsung TV, for example), but from the consumer’s point of view, it’ll be less about buying because of the embedded assistant and more about brand awareness around specific products. People don’t buy the Samsung TV because of Google Assistant (or Siri, or Cortana, or IBM, etc.), they buy it because Samsung makes excellent televisions. The voice assistant is a nice addition. That’s our immediate future. Over time, however, this could change if one or more of the leaders make significant technology breakthroughs that bring obvious differentiation and improvements.

MR: Is there anything holding back even greater adoption of voice-enabled devices?

DF: We’re starting to see the end of people’s reluctance to speak to their devices. This was a major factor in adoption over the last five years. Couple that with less than stellar services and results, and adoption was predictably sluggish — right up until Amazon landed in millions of living rooms around the world.

The biggest factor in voice adoption remains time. As services surpass an accuracy rate of 98%+ and consumer upgrade devices, or have their first contact with new devices that are voice enabled, the growth will continue. Voice will conquer all.

MR: How can marketers, and search marketers in particular, shift from a ‘content is king’ focus to competitively prepare for the ‘context is queen’ world and surface as the one primary voice result?

DF: The beauty of this is clear. All the investment that’s been poured into content continues to pay dividends in a voice-first world. If anything, in order to truly get to the context-first scenarios we have today, you need deep, detailed, rich content. But even here, context plays a role. If the request is for the temperature, the platform being engaged will determine location as part of the relevancy factoring. The answer (let’s say “72 degrees”) in any other context might seem “thin” by nature. But as an answer to “What’s the temperature outside?,” it’s a perfect fit.

A more complex scenario might look like “Who is Harry Potter?” and “What is Harry Potter?” The former should bring back an answer about a fictional person, while the later should elicit a response about a fictional series about a boy wizard, etc. The answers for the latter would be deeper, and pull from richer “answers” provided by websites.

To be included in the “spoken answer” column, we have no set best practices from the engines to follow, but we do have some common best practices we know they respond to for things like the Answer Boxes. And increasingly, it’s those answer box contents that are being spoken aloud to inform consumer queries.

As for specific tactics people can employ, here’s a short list. This is in addition to the usual quality content production and SEO best practices.

    Adopt a long tail/conversational phrase approach to targeting what to produce content around.Build out detailed answers to common (and even uncommon) questions related to your products and services.Use Schema to mark up your content (where appropriate).Clean up your own house — be sure crawlers can find your content.Make sure your site is mobile-friendly — not really an option these days.Make security a priority — becoming more of a trust signal.

“A picture is worth a thousand words”

MR: What additional innovations in voice are coming into play?

DF: If you’ve shopped via a voice device, you’ve encountered an area that will improve significantly when visuals are added. Ask the system to buy a blue sweater, and you immediately realize without being able to see the sweater, you’re missing a lot of information needed to make an informed purchase.

This is where visual search comes into play, and it’s here now as the logical next step from voice search. We see initial products from Amazon in the market now (Show and Spot), and I expect to see more companies fielding visually-enabled voice devices soon. In terms of e-commerce, this expands the usefulness of current content investments like product videos.

MR: What kind of technology investments should marketers be making to address this new playing field?

DF: Things that were optional even just a couple years ago, are no longer optional. Being mobile-friendly is a requirement. Being secure is rapidly becoming a differentiator. Marking up your content is no longer a nice-to-have. Every day adoption of those technical items grows, which means the playing field is changing. If a search engine suggests a protocol is worth using, it’s worth paying attention.

Things like Schema markup help an engine grow trust in your website and content, so take advantage of that. Being secure shows an investment in protecting consumers, again an area the engines favor and actively support. And if you really want to walk a mile in your customer’s shoes, to really learn what their journey is like, you’ll buy the main voice-enabled devices on the market today. Set them up and use them all day, every day. This practice will uncover new features and highlight new opportunities for you to align with the customer’s journey.

MR: What kind of personnel investments should organizations be making to effectively compete in a voice-first world?

DF: It’s highly likely that a business already has the skill sets they need on hand. If they have an SEO person or team, they’re off to an excellent start. To truly take advantage of new environments like voice and visual search, though, you need to have someone who has a broad understanding of emerging opportunities, has the reach to influence across and within your company, and can offer guidance based on experiences in discrete areas. That’s the role of a Digital Knowledge Manager (DKM).

The DKM can help ensure all assets in a company are aligned to best effect, while also keeping the company up to speed on emerging technologies. From the top, it’s the DKM that guides. From a more tactical level, it’s likely a technically proficient SEO aligning efforts across research, content development and deployment. That combined effort can help a company get started and take a leadership position in their verticals.

Join us at SMX West this March in San Jose, where we’ll feature industry leaders sharing tips and tactics for search marketing success in voice search, local and mobile SEO and much more!

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Stay up to date on voice search and other industry news and trends.

Target expands voice-commerce relationship with Google to battle Amazon

Google announced nationwide expansion of its Google Express relationship with Target. Users in the Continental US will now be able to buy from Target through the Google Assistant and receive Google Express delivery. The voice-commerce relationship extends to Google Home devices.

Features and capabilities are nearly identical to those announced in August with Walmart. And while the deal isn’t yet fully operational, ultimately you’ll be able to:

order and reorder from Target with free shipping on orders exceeding $35.opt in for personalized recommendations (as an existing Target customer) and a “quick re-order experience based on past Target purchases.”shop on any device (including Android TV) where the Google Assistant is available.

Google is doing battle with Amazon on multiple fronts, and so are its Google Express retail partners. Google sees voice-based shopping from an array of branded retailers as a point of differentiation vs. Amazon. By the same token, retailers need to make themselves accessible through virtual assistants and smart speakers. There’s an alignment of interests, creating an anti-Amazon alliance of sorts.

A recent ad campaign for Google Express promotes the notion of “all your favorite stores in one place.” In addition to Target and Walmart, the service offers access to Kohl’s, Joann, Sur la Table, Walgreens, Staples, Toys R Us and numerous others.

Target is a top 10 e-commerce site, but it badly lags Amazon, and it has no voice-commerce capability today. It’s wise for Target to work with Google to leverage the latter’s distribution. However, the question in my mind is: Will Google retail partners like Target benefit in a meaningful way from these deals, or will they eventually turn into little more than suppliers for Google Express?

The rise of personal assistants

Market disruptions are times of great stress, but they also provide great opportunity. They define new winners and losers in the marketplace. And the next major disruption is just around the corner — it’s the coming era of the personal assistants, and there are many market forces that are driving this shift.

The first of these market forces is the explosion of the Internet of Things: Internet-connected devices will be something other than a PC, tablet or a smartphone. Gartner predicts that 8.4 billion connected devices will be in use in 2017 (up 31 percent from last year) and that this number will reach 20.4 billion by 2020.

What will those other devices be? Here are some of them (though there are many, many others not on this list):

RefrigeratorsAlarm systemsThermostatsWatchesCarsTVsSmart speakers

This will create a world where a connected device is always within immediate reach, and for the great majority of those devices, there will no search box and no browser. That leads us to our next major disruptive event: the rise of voice as a UI.

Voice: The UI of choice

In a world with no practical keyboard and a small screen, voice communications will become the UI of choice.

One reason for the fast rise of voice that we’ve seen already is the ubiquity of smartphones. Trying to type in commands on a small keyboard is already an incentive to speak your commands. But the explosion of the Internet of Things provides us with many devices with NO keyboards. As a result, forecasts for the rise of voice search are already quite stunning — comScore even predicts that voice searches will make up 50 percent of all searches by 2020.

There is definitely still some self-consciousness regarding speaking voice commands to phones in public. In a poll that we conducted recently of more than 900 users, we found that more than two-thirds of users polled use voice commands with their phones when at home by themselves:

From Stone Temple’s “Rating the Smarts of the Digital Personal Assistants”

Still, despite the self-consciousness around using voice search in public, many are willing to break through those barriers. Our data also showed that 13 percent of respondents were willing to speak commands to their phones when they were in a public restroom!

Smart speakers: Amazon Echo and Google Home

Amazon launched their “smart speaker” back in 2014, but it’s now beginning to really take hold. In May of 2017, eMarketer released data indicating that “[t]he total number of Americans using voice-activated assistant devices will reach 35.6 million this year, up a whopping 129 percent jump year-over-year.”

They also shared data on estimated market share:

Global Market Insights forecasts that smart speakers will be a $13 billion market by 2024. How fast these devices can become available in international markets will limit how quickly they can grow, but I still expect their rate of growth to be impressive.

What makes these devices so interesting is that they are powered by Alexa (for the Echo) and the Google Assistant (for Google Home). These personal assistants are at the core of their functionality.

The digital personal assistants

The sale of smart speakers is indeed interesting to track, but the driving forces are broader than that. The idea of having a personal assistant on a smartphone has been around since Siri’s launch in October 2011. Google Now came shortly after in 2012 and has since been superseded by the Google Assistant. Cortana from Microsoft put in its initial appearance in 2013.

The Google Assistant is what powers the Google Home device, and it’s also available on Android and iOS phones. What makes this interesting is that the goal is for each user to have one assistant that can be accessed from all your devices:

In this world, the device just acts as a portal to access your personal assistant, and that assistant lives in the cloud. Imagine being able to seamlessly conduct all your online business via your smartphone, watch, thermostat, refrigerator, TV, car, or any other device simply by speaking voice commands. This is a powerful vision, especially when you consider that the vision for these personal assistants is that they will address nearly all your online needs:

It’s the active use of digital personal assistants that I expect will reach 1 billion users quite quickly. There is no major hardware limitation to slow them down, as they already run on smartphones. In the case of the Google Assistant, it already runs on Google Home as well. How fast can they get there? Let’s take a look at recent history to see how fast consumer adoption can reach 1 billion users:

Both Facebook and smartphones took about eight years to get to an installed base of 1 billion. How quickly can the highly active use of personal assistants get to 1 billion users? That depends largely on how complete their service offerings become. I believe that this will happen quite quickly.

The bigger question is how quickly personal assistants will become a central focal point of users’ activity online. As more and more services get mapped into them, that value proposition will continue to grow, and that growth in functionality will drive the depth of users’ level of adoption.

Each of the major players (Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft) is doing everything they can to make their personal assistant offerings as comprehensive as they possibly can, and it’s this fact that creates new opportunities for all of us as digital marketers.

How can you get ready for this next era of disruption?

The first step is to get your products and services plugged into the personal assistants. One of the easiest ways to do that it to start working with Amazon Skills and Actions on Google. These are not that hard to work with, and getting in early will help you start learning how this world will differ.

Anyone can start working with these services to build their own app to plug into Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant, respectively. It’s easy to use each of them in a test mode so that you can work to debug a basic app. Once you’ve got that working, you can submit your app for acceptance into their respective ecosystems. You can submit an Amazon Skill for publication here, and learn how to distribute your “Actions on Google” app here.

While you’re doing this, one big area for you to explore is that of conversational interfaces. The first obvious difference is that users will use more natural language when they speak a query or make a request. In the early days of voice interfaces, it will be natural to ask users questions to determine what it is that they want.

Take pains to avoid questions that are open-ended; instead, learn how to ask questions that lead them to provide the type of answer you need to progress them through your navigation. Confirm that you understand the question before moving on to the next step.

In the longer term, you can imagine that these interfaces will evolve, and programs for processing language will improve. Traditional websites are based on a navigation metaphor, where users work their way to the content they want on your site on a step-by-step basis. But imagine a world where a user can state their entire need in one go. For example, imagine a query such as: “Get me a large pepperoni pizza with a 12-ounce diet coke and deliver it to my home address, please use the usual credit card,” where the personal assistant can process that entire query all at once.

We’re a long way from that day just yet, but it’s where we’re headed, and gaining early experience in these areas will be invaluable. You can get a leg up by building some initial smart speaker apps. Here is a summary of the benefits you’ll get by doing that:

    You can get plugged into those app marketplaces early, and that can gain you an edge in long-term exposure there.You can learn how to work with conversational interfaces.You can begin collecting data on how people use voice to ask for things in your market.

This next wave of disruption is already beginning to unfold, and we’re already exiting the early adopter stage, so the time to jump on board is now!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Google adds trending searches and instant answers to iOS app

With a new search app update for iOS, Google has added trending searches and instant answers. (TechCrunch noticed it earlier today.) It replicates a previously introduced Android feature which reportedly resulted in an outcry, causing Google to enable an opt-out.

In the “what’s new” discussion in the iOS App Store, Google says:

See searches that are trending around you when you tap on the search box to start a searchGet instant answers to your questions as you type them, before you even complete the search. Try it out by typing for “goog stock” or “how tall is the eiffel tower” and see the answer show up in the suggestions below the search boxEasily give feedback on any suggestions you see while typing — just swipe left and tap on the “info” icon

Here’s what it looks like:

The trending searches appear to be national rather than specific to my location. The data appear to be Knowledge Graph data, but it’s not consistent — answers don’t always appear to factual questions — or as rich as the Google Answer Box, which appears after the search is actually entered.

Apple offers a somewhat richer version of instant answers with its Spotlight Search on Safari, though there’s no trending data.

Trending searches will be interesting to some people. Others will be indifferent; still others may be horrified (“Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte”). If they were truly local queries, it would be more interesting to me.

Instant answers has some utility for quick facts. But it’s now faster, easier and more efficient to use voice search or Google Home, if you have one. I can ask for the time in London or “what’s the population of the United States?” much more quickly with my voice than my phone keyboard.

Google adds 30 languages to voice search & makes it possible to use emojis with voice typing

dennizn / Shutterstock.com

Aiming to make its voice typing technology more inclusive, Google has added 30 new languages to voice search — bringing the total number of languages supported by speech recognition via Gboard on Android to 119.

Included among the languages are Bengali, Lao, Sundanese, Urdu and two of the most popular African languages — Swahili and Amharic. It has also added Georgian, an ancient language that dates back to the 10th century.

From the Google Search Blog:

To incorporate 30 new language varieties, we worked with native speakers to collect speech samples, asking them to read common phrases. This process trained our machine learning models to understand the sounds and words of the new languages and to improve their accuracy when exposed to more examples over time.

You can see the full list of the latest languages added to Google’s voice typing feature on the Google Search blog.

Google is also adding the new languages to its Cloud Speech API and says it is working to integrate them into other apps like Google Translate.

In addition to adding more languages, US users can also search for emojis using voice typing.

“You can now say something like ‘winky face emoji’ to express yourself. Or, even ‘Colbert emoji’ to your friends when the occasion calls,” writes Daan Van Esch, Google’s technical program manager for speech who penned the announcement on Google’s Search blog.

Report: 43% of millennials have made a voice-device purchase in past year

Alexander Supertramp / Shutterstock.com

According to a new “Future of Retail” report from Walker Sands, 19 percent of consumers have made a purchase using a voice-controlled device in the past 12 months. The numbers go way up, however, for millennials, with 37 percent reporting “they ‘always’ or ‘often’ shop online via voice-controlled devices.” Among this group, 43 percent made a purchase using voice in the past year.

The data are based on a recent US consumer survey of just over 1,600 adults and can be interpreted in bullish or bearish ways for voice. More than 80 percent of the overall survey population said they had not made a voice-driven purchase and nearly half (48 percent) said they were “not at all likely” to do so.

Source: Walker Sands Future of Retail report (July 2017)

Security, privacy, “lack of visuals” and uncertainty about price/payment were the top four reasons that people were hesitant to buy on voice-first devices or devices without a screen. Of course, the Amazon Echo Show (with a screen) potentially addresses all those issues; however, the survey was conducted before the Show had shipped.

The survey asked about voice-device ownership. According to the findings, 16 percent said they owned an Echo, 6 percent owned a Google Home, and 2 percent had “more than one” (though not necessarily both). Perhaps most interesting is the finding that 20 percent said they planned to purchase one of these devices in the coming year.

Source: Walker Sands Future of Retail report (July 2017)

The numbers above should probably not be extrapolated to the entire US population. If we were to do so, it would suggest that there are more than 50 million owners of these smart speaker/virtual assistants in the US today. However, the numbers are closer to 20 million (or so), according to various third-party estimates.

Kayak adds hotel reservations by voice

Separately today, Kayak announced the ability to book a room through Alexa, which points to the future of shopping and purchasing through voice assistants.

Once users invoke the Kayak skill on Alexa devices (“Alexa ask Kayak . . .”), it walks you through a dialog wizard about location, dates, ratings and pricing. It can only discuss one hotel at a time and is best right now for booking specific hotels, rather than choosing a hotel from among many. Users must also link their Kayak accounts with a credit card to finalize the transaction.

Nonetheless, it points to a rapidly approaching future where transactions are a routine part of using voice assistants.

Featured snippets: Optimization tips & how to ID candidate snippets

Featured snippets are quickly becoming the only search results for many queries.

If a user goes to Google.com and types [what is the tallest tree], Google returns a featured snippet, followed by thousands of organic search results. However, when a user conducts the same query via Google voice search, Google responds with an audible version of the text in the featured snippet but (in many cases) no “blue links.”

Before diving too deeply into featured snippets, let’s back up a minute…

What is a featured snippet?

A featured snippet is a summarized answer to a user’s query displayed in Google organic search results. It is extracted from a results page and includes the page title, URL and link. Featured snippets can be paragraphs, lists or tables. These results display an “About this result” link near the bottom right corner of the answer box.

Google includes answers in featured snippets at the top of search because it is faster than sending users to the source page — no matter how fast the source page loads. As a result, marketers could experience declines in clicks and page views for featured snippet queries but should interpret increased impressions for these queries as a positive KPI.

In fact, from a marketing perspective, featured snippets are highly desirable. Top positioning in Google mobile or desktop search results can help URLs garner greater visibility than traditional results. (And although Google may soon change this, it is currently possible for sites to appear in both the featured snippet and the organic results, giving those sites lots of visibility on the SERPs.)

Because featured snippets typically appear above the first organic result, you may hear marketers refer to them as “position zero.”

What makes a good featured snippet?

If you’re wondering what Google looks for in a featured snippet, it can be helpful to identify existing snippets and review the pages from which they’re pulling info. By reviewing winning content, we can start to get an idea of what Google wants.

However, it can be just as illuminating to look at the content that failed to achieve a featured snippet. Following is a little-known tip to help you identify what I call “featured snippet candidates.” I think of these as pages that could have produced a featured snippet but didn’t quite make the cut.

Featured snippet candidates provide a prime opportunity for understanding more about how featured snippets work in Google organic search results. By comparing these pages to the “winning” pages, we can get clues about ideal formatting, page layout and content quality that can help inform our own optimization strategies.

To see featured snippet candidates, just add the parameter “&num=1”, “&num=2”, “&num=3” (and so on) to the end of Google’s URLs for queries with featured snippets. Currently, Google displays “candidates” for many featured snippet queries.

One thing you may notice is that featured snippets and “candidates” can change on a fairly regular basis. Depending on a variety of factors (where, when and how you search), your results may vary from the examples shown below. Even if your examples are different from mine, the process is what is useful.

Here is an example of a featured snippet for the query [hummingbird food] from the URL https://www.google.com/search?q=hummingbird+food

Here is an example of a featured snippet “candidate” for the same query [hummingbird food] from the URL https://www.google.com/search?q=hummingbird+food&num=1 — as you can see, we appended the URL above with &num=1.

If you have a page that you believe has the potential to produce a featured snippet, consider the search query (or queries) that might be appropriate and check them for featured snippets. If your desired search query does produce a featured snippet, take a look at the “winning” snippet, as well as the “candidates,” to get an idea of what you could be doing better.

How do you measure featured snippets for text and voice queries?

Unfortunately, featured snippets are difficult to detect, let alone track — especially for large sites. So far, I have not found a tool to detect more than about 20 percent of the featured snippets found by manual review. Additionally, there is currently no way to track voice queries for the 400,000 to 500,000 estimated Google Home devices.

Complicating matters further, featured snippets for long-tail queries with very low search volumes are not unusual — so there might be search queries triggering featured snippets that you (or a tool) wouldn’t necessarily think to check. And because featured snippet queries do not have to be phrased as questions, tools that filter based on question keywords like “how to” are not truly accurate.

You may also notice that Google canonicalizes some featured snippet queries. A Google patent published in 2017 states:

[T]he system can also transform terms in the questions and answers into canonical forms. For example, the system can transform inflected forms of the term “cook,” e.g., “cooking,” ”cooked,” “cooks,” and so on, into the canonical form “cook.”

And of course, featured snippets can vary (or not appear at all) based on device, time, location, previous queries and/or a combination of the three.

The bottom line? Do not trust tools when it comes to determining if pages from a site are appearing in featured snippets. Tools only find a fraction of the queries returning featured snippets for a site. The best way to investigate featured snippet performance is manually, with queries from Google Search Console keyword data or with the AdWords dimensions “Paid and Organic” report. (Search Console provides data for the last 90 days, but the Paid and Organic report in AdWords includes Google search console data for more than 90 days.)

Featured snippet observations & tips

After reviewing and comparing hundreds if not thousands of featured snippets and “featured snippet candidates” over the past couple of years, I’ve put together a few observations and tips.

Ensure that your content is as complete and useful as possible. If you compare the featured snippet and candidate examples above, it is easy to see that one is not as helpful as the other. For instance, the second featured snippet (the candidate) is difficult to understand, has more steps and does not include basic information like the amount of sugar needed.The featured snippet display can vary based on the quality of the information provided and/or other factors. The featured snippet candidate below appeared a week or so after the candidate above. Google has actually bolded the word “sugar” in the featured snippet candidate even though it does not appear to be bolded in the landing page. Notice also that the example below is in more paragraph format than bulleted list.Featured snippets appear most often for informational queries. These queries may be in the form of questions, words, fragments or statements. Notice the query [hummingbird food] is not phrased as a question.Consider your content formatting. Answers to featured snippets queries do not have to be marked up in a special way but schema.org structured data markup and elements like bullets, bold/strong, ordered and unordered lists are not a bad idea.Higher quality, better information is of little value if users cannot understand it. Ensure featured snippet content is written in a way that most people can read and understand.Instead of focusing on word count, focus on characters. The key is to ensure featured snippets can fit on the screen of mobile devices. If you do not have testing devices, try Chrome Dev Tools or make a trip to your local smartphone retailer for testing.Images in featured snippets vary and may come from websites other than where the featured snippet is derived. For instance, the image in the featured snippet below comes from SearchEngineLand.com, even though the snippet content does not.Google may add a ‘title’ to your featured snippet. Google sometimes includes a title or heading on a featured snippet box, even if it does not appear on the landing page from which it’s pulling information. This is most common when the featured snippet is providing an answer to a query that has been entered in the form of a question. For instance, take a look at these two versions of the same featured snippet for the query [what is the largest animal].

Final thoughts

Historically, Google has helped users find answers to questions on their own, one step at a time, via “10 blue links.” But today, Google is positioned to answer questions and complete tasks for users in a single step, with or without a screen.  Featured snippets may prove to be one of the most critical elements in the future of search.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.