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How voice search and Google 'direct answers' are changing SEO

James A. Martin | May 8, 2015
The art and science of search engine optimization (SEO) changed dramatically in recent years, thanks in no small part to big Google algorithm tweaks, including the recent mobile friendly update.

The accuracy of speech-recognition tech improved markedly in recent years, which is helping to increase the overall volume of voice searches. As of April, Google had an error rate of 8 percent compared to about 25 percent a few years ago, according to USA Today. The accuracy increase is largely related to faster processing power, along with enhancements in machine learning and natural language processing.

Direct answers to voice searches on the rise

In a recent evaluation of more than 850,000 search queries, Google served up some form of direct answer 19.5 percent of the time, according to Eric Enge, CEO of Stone Temple Consulting, the company that conducted the test.

Two years ago, Google wouldn't have delivered any direct answers, Enge said at the Search Marketing Expo (SMX) West conference in March, where he presented the company's findings. A year ago, Google users would have received direct answers about 4 percent of the time, according to Enge. In comparison, Microsoft's Bing search engine currently delivers direct answers just 1.1 percent of the time.

Google is likely to respond to voice searches with direct answers, rather than links, because most voice searches are currently performed on mobile devices and mobile users want immediate answers on their small screens, Enge said. (Google comprises nearly 65 percent of the overall search market, so it's no surprise that direct answers were a hot topic at SMX West 2015.)

Google presents direct answers in various ways, according to Enge. In some cases, the search engine provides tabbed results. For example, queries related to movie showtimes or menus could receive tabbed results. And Google could provide answers within tables when a user asks, "Which teams played in the 2014 World Series?" Google also uses lists, Wikipedia entries, charts, forms, and carousels in its direct answers.

Tips to help marketers, publishers capitalize on direct answers

Voice search and direct answers have a number of ramifications that website publishers and digital marketers should keep in mind. Here's a quick breakdown.

If you're hoping to draw traffic based on information that's within the public domain, you'd better have alternative plans, according to Enge. Of the 850,000 search queries Stone Temple Consulting evaluated, Google supplied direct answers to 42,160 of them using "public domain information," or basic facts, such as the capital of the state of California.

If you publish song lyrics on your site, you'll soon be singing the blues, because Google increasingly responds to song lyric queries with direct answers, Enge said.

A site's "authority" has always been crucial for SEO, and it could be even more important in the future.

Google chooses direct answer responses for "natural language" search queries, which can be performed via voice or text, from authoritative online sources, according to Bill Slawski, director of search marketing, Go Fish Digital. Sites that are frequently chosen in search results and that consistently rank highly in results for relevant queries are often deemed authoritative, based on a natural language search patent Google Israel filed in 2014, Slawski says. 


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