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SEO Search Research

Is your brand really speaking the same language as voice searchers around the globe?

By Damien Robert and Chloe McKenna, international resource manager and social media strategist

May 11, 2016 | 6 min read

There is an increasing global trend for utilising voice search over typing queries into search engines. Ravleen Beeston, UK Head of Sales at Bing, explored this theme in her recent article for The Drum where she discussed the prediction that by 2020 half of all searches will be made through voice.

The differing semantics of voice search behaviour in comparison to written is, in itself, a fact requiring serious consideration from brands wanting to maintain and grow their online visibility moving forward. But, when we consider how this impacts global businesses whose customers speak multiple different languages and dialects in a broad range of accents, this becomes an even more complex proposition.

Are voice search queries really that different from written queries?

We don’t voice our search queries in the same way that we write them. Across the board, voice searches tend to be longer, conversational in tone and use more natural language. For global businesses this disparity between written and spoken search language can be even more extreme, as written and spoken dialects are often diverse and distinct.

China is a perfect example of this. Mandarin is the most common language, but is only spoken. So, until recently, when considering traditional written search engine optimisation in China, Mandarin as a language simply couldn’t be optimised for. When targeting mainland China, the only options were either to focus on Simplified or Traditional written Chinese, depending on the appropriate region being targeted:

But, with the rise in popularity of voice search, this is set to change quite drastically. When verbal regional dialects are taken into consideration we can see from the visualisation below just how much more complicated the picture becomes. At least 11 different regional languages are spoken all over mainland China, with lots of variations. Unlike written search, where people understand the expectation of entering a universal type of query and can adapt their written style, spoken queries will remain distinct region by region:

This means an added dimension of consideration for SEO strategies is that they optimise for voice search. This is also relevant in cases where languages are spoken in more than one country, such as German which is spoken in both Germany and Switzerland. German and Swiss German are both written and spoken differently with variations in preferred vocabulary, expression and pronunciation.

It highlights the need, when optimising for voice search, to consider regional language variations and localise for specific groups of people, not merely languages.

Motivations behind the global rise in voice search and evolution of the search engines

Statistics around why users, internationally, are preferring to use voice search over written search reveals that speed, convenience and the fact that voice search is more ‘fun’ and interactive than regular search all feature prominently. No doubt the growing popularity of wearable devices such as smart watches, which don’t feature a keypad, is also having an impact.

So if we are to understand that the rise in voice search is, in part, due to the changing way people use and interact with search engines (expecting them to answer long tail conversational queries accurately), how are search engines facilitating this?

Google has developed concepts such as the knowledge graph which answers conversational search queries in a more intuitive way. This is part of a bigger shift from Google towards placing greater emphasis on understanding semantics and user intent, which naturally relate to conversation. The biggest actuation of this being the ‘Hummingbird’ algorithm update which rewards content that answers user search intent effectively as opposed to simply matching keywords.

Voice search demands a rethink

Rethink the markets you want to target. When you want to expand your business globally, think country (or area) and language, not just one or the other. With voice search, we will probably have to target areas within multilingual countries.

Be conversational in your content. Unfortunately, no official nor relevant voice search tool exists yet. Which means that it is impossible to get data from queries that people are voicing with their Google Now, Cortana or Siri. It’s almost like we’re back in the 90s when we needed to guess what people could write as queries in search engines!

Providing your audience with quality content and FAQ-style information is the key to attracting voice search users. Common-sense will always be your best keyword research tool!

Local experts wanted! Voice search will be absolutely impossible to achieve without working with local experts of the country / area you want to target, i.e. culturally rooted. When it comes to languages and cultural habits, we can’t assume a single thing.

Future-proofing for voice search

As we can see from the examples of China and Germany, for brands wanting to future-proof their online visibility in the wake of the rise of voice search, localising digital marketing strategies on a region by region basis will be essential. At best failing to do this could mean you become less visible to your customers and at worst could mean failing to reach your intended audience entirely.

Damien Robert and Chloe McKenna are international resource manager and social media strategist respectively at Oban Digital

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