SEO – How much should we care about voice search? It depends on target audience

SEO - How much should we care about voice search? It depends on target audience

In 2018, voice search was one of the hottest topics in the SEO community. A popular article by Wordstream listed a handful of statistics around voice search, starting with the misconstrued Comscore statistic that by 2020, 50% of searches would be done through voice. It turns out, this statistic was related only to voice search in China. Despite the inaccuracy in the U.S. and overall global market, the quote has reverberated through the SEO industry and pushed digital marketers to frantically prepare themselves by learning everything they could about voice search optimization.

As 2020 approaches, marketers are now skeptical voice search will actually cause a cataclysmic shift to our marketing strategies. At BrightonSEO in April, Patrick Reinhart’s presentation was dedicated to questioning whether voice should be the main focus in SEO, with statistics to support that, so far, voice search has made a much smaller impact on searcher behavior than we anticipated.

At the same conference, keynote speaker John Mueller from Google had this to say: 

“From my point of view, I see it as people are searching with voice. Obviously, these voice interactions are getting more and more common. But at the moment, I don’t really know what we would do with those [metrics.] If you knew for my website, these and these queries are getting voice queries, what would I change at the moment? Because I think for the most part if you make a website such that the information is easily accessible and useful for search engines and for users as well, then you don’t need to do anything special for voice.”

– John Mueller (transcript)

At Path Interactive, we wanted answers. How many people are really using voice search, and how are they using it? Has the rise in voice search changed or replaced how users search for things on desktop and mobile? How many searches will actually be replaced by voice in the next year?

We set out to answer these questions by conducting a 600–plus person survey that attempted to answer the SEO question of the year: Is voice search optimization really a crucial marketing strategy, or just a big nothingburger?

Survey respondents

We surveyed 620 respondents ages 13-85 from the U.S. (57.4%), India (21.6%), Europe (11.4%), Canada (4.1%) and other countries. Respondents generally considered themselves to be somewhat tech-savvy: on a scale of 1 to 5 for “tech-savviness,” 47% of users scored themselves as a 4 out of 5, 19% as a 3 out of 5, and 30% as a 5 out of 5.

Voice search usage

The majority of respondents have incorporated voice search into their day-to-day lives: 70% of respondents report using voice search at least a few times per week. 27% of respondents use voice search 1-3 times per day.

Layering on the age of the respondents reveals some interesting trends. The age group with the heaviest voice search usage is the oldest group, ages 65-plus. 88% of respondents aged 65 or older use voice search at least a few times a week. 50% of users ages 65-plus claim to use voice search 1-3 times per day! For companies targeting this age group, voice search should absolutely find its way into their marketing mix.

(Side note: Many incredible resources already exist to help marketers target voice search, so I won’t get into the specifics here, but I recommend Aleyda Solis’ recent slides from SMX London on optimizing for conversational search).

Interestingly, the age group just below this one – 55-64 – had the lowest voice search adoption rates among all respondents, with 32% of respondents indicating they rarely or never use voice search. Perhaps this age group is more accustomed to searching for things using screens, whereas the oldest age group is less technologically-savvy and enjoys the ease of searching and interacting using voice commands.

The youngest respondents (13-18) represent the second biggest category of voice search users, with all respondents in this group claiming to use voice at least a few times a month, and 40% of 13-18-year-olds indicating that they use voice more than 3 times per day. If this trend continues, we can certainly expect voice search to be much more pervasive among future generations. For marketers targeting young users, voice represents a big area of opportunity – which shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

In terms of where voice searches are usually done: 42% of users generally use voice search when they are at home or in the office, and 30% of users prefer using voice search when they are on the go. Only 27% indicate that they use voice search both at home or work, as well as on the go. However, 56% of respondents indicate that they prefer using their mobile devices for voice search over smart speakers at home (30%). This may indicate that respondents are more likely to adopt voice search habits when those capabilities are built into devices they already own, such as voice-enabled mobile devices. Access to voice-enabled devices may be a barrier to adoption, or some users simply might not want to buy them for their homes due to privacy concerns, price or other reasons.

Which devices are most used for voice search?

Google’s suite of voice search devices are the most used voice search products by survey respondents (37% usage), followed by Siri (25% usage). At just a 4% adoption rate, Cortana has significantly lower usage than its competitors.

Layering on age illuminates the popularity of different devices with each age group. Most notably, Amazon (Alexa) is overwhelmingly popular with 65-plus users, with a 57% adoption rate among voice search users in that age group (which is probably why Saturday Night Live made a hilarious skit about it). For marketers targeting a 65-plus audience, Amazon SEO should be a core focus (if applicable), along with developing Skills for the Alexa marketplace. 

Looking at the other devices, Google Home and Google Assistant are popular among users 45-54, with a 41% adoption rate in this age group. Siri is also highly popular among the youngest users (13-18), as well as users ages 55-64.

Privacy concerns and frustrations with voice search

Our next questions related to users’ trust of voice search devices and privacy concerns. 79% of survey respondents are at least somewhat concerned about the privacy implications of using voice search devices. Only 17% are not concerned.

The youngest voice searchers (13-21) are significantly more concerned about privacy than their older counterparts. The youngest age group is 515% more likely than the oldest age group to feel “very concerned” about privacy issues related to voice search. Relatedly, 13% of the oldest voice search users have never considered these privacy concerns, and 25% are unconcerned.

This is a trend marketers should pay close attention to – while younger users may be open to adopting new technologies, such as smart speakers, they are also becoming increasingly aware of the privacy implications. To resonate with younger audiences, transparency and accountability will be crucial for brands leveraging voice search as a marketing channel.

Next, we wanted to know if users had any frustrations with using voice search. The bulk of responses indicated that users were frustrated by their voice search devices not understanding the spoken query, suggesting that these devices still have work to do to understand the complexities of natural language fully. A relatively small percentage (8%) indicated that the devices provided incorrect information, and only 12% indicated that the devices don’t answer their questions well. 16% of respondents had no frustrations related to using the devices.

Breaking this down by age, both younger and older users claim to struggle with their voice search devices not understanding what they are saying. Interestingly, the youngest respondents are not frustrated by the fact that voice search responses are often limited to just one answer, whereas 29% of the oldest searchers find this point frustrating. This coincides with the results of a similar study we conducted that found that older searchers prefer browsing multiple options in the search results, or even visiting deeper pages of the results to find answers to their queries, whereas younger users are more inclined to be satisfied with one answer to their query.

Incorrect information in voice search results

In terms of the quality of voice search results, the majority of respondents (45%) find voice search answers to be “mostly reliable,” answering the user’s question within two to three tries. However, a combined 24% of respondents find responses to be either somewhat reliable or not reliable at all, which likely relates to why voice search adoption rates have been slower than originally anticipated. 

We also wanted to know how users in each age group felt about the accuracy of the answers provided by voice search devices. 88% of the oldest category of searchers (65-plus) claim to occasionally hear incorrect information. 50% of the youngest searchers, ages 13-18, claim to frequently hear incorrect information in voice search answers. Only a small percentage (7.8%) of the overall survey respondents claims never to have never heard incorrect information in voice search. This means approximately 92% of voice search users have heard incorrect information in voice search results. Looks like Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and other voice technology companies still have work to do before these devices are consistently providing users with accurate information.

Will voice search overtake desktop and mobile search?

We knew that it’s probably unrealistic to imagine that 50% of all searches will be done by voice in 2020, given that it’s only six months away. But we wanted to get an idea of what voice search usage might really look like, and how respondents think they’ll be using voice search in the next several years.

The majority of respondents (78%) do believe that within the next 5-10 years, at least half of their searches will be done through voice search devices. Among these, 26% of respondents believe desktop and mobile search will become irrelevant. Among 13-18-year-olds, 40% believe desktop and mobile search will become irrelevant and voice will be the predominant way that they search within 5-10 years. The age group that is most reluctant to imagine voice search being the predominant method of searching in 5-10 years are 55-64 year olds, 76% of whom believe that voice will only account for up to half of their searches.

We also asked respondents whether they find that voice has replaced the searches they conduct on desktop, mobile and tablet. Only 17% indicate that voice search has entirely served as a replacement for the searches they are doing on other devices. However, 43% indicate that voice has replaced more than half the searches they are doing on other devices – so this is certainly a number worth paying attention to.

While these are only estimations based on individual feedback and not based on actual voice search usage, the results still indicate that we should not underestimate the role that voice search will play in our lives – and in our marketing strategies – in the next 5-10 years.

So, should digital marketers be alarmed? Do these trends mean SEO professionals won’t have a job in 10 years? We thought answering these questions requires us to focus on how respondents used voice search devices, given that not all voice searches are searches that would have ever been done through a desktop or mobile search engine.

We asked users about the main ways in which they use their devices, and found that the most common response (22%) came from users who use their devices for home functions such as turning off the lights or playing music. We then distinguished between searches that are specifically intended only for voice devices and those that replace the need to use a search engine.

Grey area: queries that are done both on smart speakers as well as on search engines on desktop, mobile or tablet.

Among the categories we provided, 55% of respondents say they are most likely to use voice assistants to perform actions rather than return information via a search behavior. Instead, they prefer to use these devices to help execute daily activities such as messages or calls, reminders, and home device control. This is promising, as it indicates that we should be thinking about voice devices as an additional marketing opportunity, not necessarily as a replacement for traditional SEO. Leveraging voice actions and Skills is a marketing channel we didn’t have before, and this can present big opportunities for brands to integrate into the daily routines of their audience seamlessly. 

For the marketers who offer products and services included in the other categories, such as local businesses, or websites providing recipes or informational content, it’s important to think about voice search optimization to ensure their content is eligible to be selected as a voice search answer. Tactics such as optimizing content for Featured Snippets, implementing relevant Structured Data, improving page speed and ensuring well-structured content can all work toward this goal.

How should marketers think about the future of voice search?

While voice search may not yet be seeing the explosive adoption rates marketers originally anticipated, it is also not something that should be ignored. With 70% of our respondents using voice search at least a few times a week, marketers should be paying attention to how their brands are reflected within voice answers.

Paying attention to how users in different age groups leverage voice is also key and can help marketers to make sure they are focusing their voice search marketing efforts in the right place. The oldest searchers love their Alexa, making Amazon SEO and developing Skills a smart initiative for companies targeting that audience. Searchers under age 21 conduct most of their voice searches using Siri, which underscores the importance of optimizing one’s business listing on Apple Maps, or ensuring apps are optimized for the App Store, to reach these searchers.

The youngest category of searchers are paying close attention to privacy concerns, which may be hindering their adoption of voice search. Transparency and accountability should be a focus of any company hoping to resonate with a younger audience, who is becoming increasingly aware of when, where and how their personal data is being collected.

Most importantly – marketers should not fear that voice search will be putting them out of a job anytime soon. For one, the lack of reporting metrics for voice indicate that voice is still in its infancy as a marketing strategy. If and when these metrics become available, they will need to be interpreted and translated into meaningful strategies, like all marketing data. This will become another tool in the digital marketer’s toolbox.

Don’t fear voice search – think of it as a new area of opportunity for your business. Get creative with how you can leverage this new technology to reach your target customer wherever they are looking – or asking – for you.

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

About The Author

Lily Ray is the SEO Director at Path Interactive, where she provides strategic leadership for the agency’s SEO client programs. Born into a family of software engineers, web developers and technical writers, Lily brings a strong technical background, performance-driven habits and forward-thinking creativity to all programs she oversees. Lily began her SEO career in 2010 in a fast-paced start-up environment and moved quickly into the agency world, where she helped grow and establish an award-winning SEO department that delivered high impact work for a fast-growing list of notable clients, including Fortune 500 companies. Lily has worked across a variety of verticals with a focus on retail, e-commerce, b2b and CPG sites. She loves diving into algorithm updates, assessing quality issues and solving technical SEO mysteries. In 2017, Lily was nominated by Search Engine Land for Female Search Marketer of the Year, and she continues to provide SEO thought leadership and industry updates through online publications and speaking engagements.

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