Alexa is a household name. With smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home increasingly prominent in our homes, accessing the internet through voice commands has become second-nature to many users. On mobile devices, virtual assistants like Siri make it possible to get answers anywhere, without even looking at a screen.

These voice-based systems rely on a vast reservoir of web content, with each question being a search engine query relayed via speech rather than text. Of course, content creators and marketers still want to get their material in front of the largest audience possible – so how is voice affecting search engine optimisation?

Screen vs voice searches

Looking at current trends, voice could easily overtake keyboard and touchscreen searches. Virtual assistants are becoming more sophisticated, and the devices they run on are becoming more affordable. comScore, the US-based measurement and analytics company, predicts that voice will account for over 50% of all search traffic by 2020.

There are some big differences to how content is accessed via voice compared to screen, and major consequences for SEO. While a screen can display a full page of results, a virtual assistant will typically only use the top few entries. In this context, there’s even more pressure to get to the top for a specific keyword or topic, especially in the form of a featured snippet – a go-to source for virtual assistants.

There are also obvious, though often neglected, elements of SEO that are even more important in a voice-first world. When someone asks Alexa or Siri for your shop’s address or opening times, that information needs to be easily available, not buried under navigation menus. So simple things like an up-to-date Google business listing are vital.

People tend to speak and type quite differently, so it’s a good idea to reflect this in your content. Text should be easy to understand when spoken out loud, and should use natural speech patterns. To maximise the performance of your content in voice-based search, sounding human is more important than ever.

Local and vocal: “near me” voice searches

Asking for directions makes up a huge proportion of voice search. This makes sense, with drivers obliged to use hands-free devices on the road.

Voice search is more likely to be locally focused than traditional screen-based queries, with users on the move so often. Even at home, smart speakers provide a huge volume of “near me” search results. For SEO, this makes location-based keywords all the more important, and as mentioned above, accurate local listings are essential.

Is AI helping SEO become more human?

Virtual assistants are becoming more sophisticated all the time. They’ve pretty much mastered simple questions, and while more complex queries are a mixed bag, it’s still fairly simple to get useful info via voice search.

Expect to see rapid improvement in this area over the next few years, as artificial intelligence and natural language processing technology matures. Virtual assistants are constantly enhancing their ability to accurately decipher the intent behind voice searches and deliver results accordingly.

But as voice search evolves to cope with more complex queries, will individual keyword phrases become less important for SEO? This is already the case to an extent, and it’s long been Google’s stated aim to connect users with useful content, rather than just keywords.

As AI improves its ability to accurately pick up the general intent behind a question, a more nuanced approach to content will be required.

Play the long game with content and keywords

For traditional text searches, it’s already been established that long-form content is beneficial to SEO. But is this also the case for voice?

In the context of natural language processing, long-form content fits in with the idea of providing information that matches the user’s intent, not a narrow set of keywords. Long-tail keywords are also important, since they tend to reflect more specific queries and needs.

FAQ content, already widely used for SEO purposes, has an enduring appeal in a voice-first world. With so many voice searches taking the form of queries posed in a conversational style, FAQs offer the ideal way to cater for those, well, frequently asked questions.

Summing up, the logical extension of all this is that, eventually, the importance of traditional screen interfaces will decline dramatically relative to voice. But screen-based SEO is still a huge part of online marketing, and it’s not going anywhere fast. Even so, as AI and conversational interfaces come to the forefront, it’s critical to stay informed – and to ensure your content strategy reflects your audience’s behaviour and the reality of how people interact with technology.