How Voice Search is Going to Change the Role of SEO

Sep 11, 2018 8:08:06 AM
Author: Kieran Flanagan

What we cover in Episode 9

For most companies, Google is still one of the best channels for growth.

But SEO is changing, it's becoming more competitive, click-through rates are declining on mobile and in developed countries, search volume is flat.

And there is more change on the horizon, 20% of all mobile searches on the Google app are already done by voice.

Voice search is growing rapidly and will present real challenges for businesses who are dependent on Google for growth.

In episode 9 of the GrowthTLDR, we speak with Brian Dean, one of the most influential SEO's on the planet to ask how we should be preparing for voice search.


Podcast Transcript

1. The Future of SEO Has Never Been Clearer (nor more ignored)

Kieran: Let's get into our first topic and that is the thing that everyone in search loves to do, and that's to predict the future of SEO and there are two core articles we are going to talk about to start off with.

We are going to talk about an article Rand Fishkin wrote about the future of search and how it's being ignored and an article Will Critchlow from Distilled wrote about the future of voice search.

There are a number of interesting points from the article that we're going to discuss with Brian:

- In Rand's article, he talks about how the number of searches in Google have flattened in developed countries, which I don't think is that surprising.

- He shows how the click-through rates for organic search results on mobile are decreasing, which he puts down to the rise of 'no-click' search results, where the person searches for something but doesn't click on the result.

- That there is a lot more competition for search listings.

Will Critchlow's article discusses how he feels voice search is going to be incremental to desktop and not cannibalize current search volume on desktop computers.

Let's start with the first question, Brian what are your thoughts on the declining search click-through rates on mobile?

Does SEO in the future start to take on some sort of brand aspect where the goal is to appear in the search results but those results don't result in a click or a conversion.

What are your thoughts on that trend and the impact it may have on SEO as a rule?

Brian: Here's the deal. Google is slowly transforming from a search engine into an answer engine. Like you pointed out, click-through rates on mobile especially are down but even on desktop they are down.

It's not really ads, a lot to people blame ads but if you look at click-through rates across the board, ad click-through rate has been flat-lined. It's pretty standard and organic click-through rate has gone down despite that.

What's going on? It's because of featured snippets. That's the answer. Featured snippets are a great feature for users. You search for something and you get the answer right there without having to click on anything.

That is not going to go away because users love it, Google loves it, it keeps them on their platform to search for something else or to see people also search for searches, keeps them on Google which is what they want.

That said, the goal of SEO can't be a branding exercise. It's just not worth it. There is so much effort that goes into SEO, you have to find keywords, create great content, optimize it, build links to it, promote it. All for free.

You know you're doing all this stuff for nothing and at the end of the day, you're going to say, “Oh, X amount of people saw that I answered their question about which way toilet paper rolls should be put, up or down.” It doesn't make any logical sense that you do all the for that result.

At the end of the day, it's just simply not worth it. You need to get traffic to your site. My take is that yes, clicks are going down but it's not a doomsday scenario. Why? Because what else is there? You have Facebook, you have Twitter, you have Snapchat and YouTube. These are jokes compared to Google when it comes to traffic. It's like the Warren Buffett. He gave away 98% of his money and he was still the tenth richest guy in the world. It's the same with Google.

Even if clicks go down, it's still going to be the number one source of traffic from most websites. The traffic is going to convert extremely well because those people have an intent to search for what you sell or what information you provide, so even if clicks went down by half, it would still be number one with a bullet. I'm not worried at all.

Scott: Yeah, sure. A lot of things are being captured by featured snippets but how can we adapt? How can we go forward? What can we do to keep our traffic numbers going up?

Brian: Basically, you have to do more to get the same results, which kind of sucks. It's kind of like if you had to exercise three times a week to get in shape and as you get a little older, this is happening to me. Three times a week is not cutting anymore, so it's got to be four times a week to look the same as I did with three times a week. It sucks, but it's the way it is.

If you just do the same thing, your results are going to get worse. On the other hand, the other thing you can do is try to get in the featured snippets, so play the game. This is something I've been experimenting with mixed results because I'm just starting it but honestly it helps, of course, to get in the featured snippets, but it's not a magic bullet because the fact that the featured snippets exist just means zero people are going to click on anything.

Those zero clickers what you talked about Kieran are legit, but if you can get in there at least you're making progress in terms of getting more clicks to your site from Google.

Kieran: Two things. there is a really great stat in your voice guy that we are going to get into that again references the fact that organic click-through rates have dropped 37% which speaks to the impact on featured snippets.

We have done a lot of testing on featured snippets as well, we've had mixed results. We've added different modules to blog posts and things like that to structure the content to easily answer questions and we would see an increase in the amount of content that gets added to the featured snippets and over time you'd start to see that content go out of that featured snippets box and there is no rhyme or reason to why that happens.

Brian: Yeah that's what I'm trying. I'm having the same experience. Testing is hard because it fluctuates a lot more than the normal search results. At least, right now I think it's more them not us in a relationship. It's them. They are doing all these crazy stuff in the background we are not seeing, so it's not ... They are testing things I think, to measuring user satisfaction.

Kieran: As you said it, Google is still the number one place to grow a business and there are not many other channels that are going to get you the kind of growth that Google can, but it's certainly more competitive.

Actually, people like yourself and Neil Patel have kind of created some of that because if you are going to compete in some of the keywords that you rank for, it's a different ball game now, like how do you compete with some of the guides that you have created.

What do you think are the things that separate SEOs who will still have jobs, will still have rankings, above those who may not? What are the core skill sets that great people have who can still win in this space?

Brian: I think there would be two groups that do really well in the future. One will be the technical SEO folks. Those are people who can take an eCommerce site with 500,000 pages, and just crush it like Justin Briggs style.

That's the type of person that's always going to be in demand because no matter how sophisticated Google gets, they always kind of need your help with the site and how to structure it and things like that are so super important. I was just reading the other day about trailing slashes on URLs and how Google considers a URL with the trailing slash different than one without. I thought to myself, "Man, they still haven't that built that into the algorithm.

Stuff like that, I think there will always be a need for that.

The other side will be more of the content person. That's more like me and Neil. We are focused on keywords and content and user intent and promotion and branding. All that stuff is going to be huge in the future.

It's going to be even more important as content becomes, like you said, more competitive. You are going to have to step up your game. You are going to need people that are going to be able to do that which is few and far between so the days you'll just grab in the closest freelance writer, sitting in front of a laptop and say write 500 words about this keyword, that's long gone.

That's a thing that'll work now but it's going to work even less in the future.

I think those two a technical person and a strong content person, they will always be in demand.

Kieran: Do you think that skill set is lacking? That content marketers still have not figured this out, that their job is to go through the type of process you go through because you approach content with an SEO brain and you can still create amazing content, you have that creativity, you have an eye for design.

I have found that a lot of content creators I talk to, still don't really have an idea of how Google works or how to do keyword research and everything they go ask customers for insights and what content to produce which is great, but do you think that's the skill set that's lacking from the companies you work with and the people you speak with?

Brian: Yeah I would say so. I think you said it best Kieran. I come from an SEO point of view first and then the content is a means to an end. I love creating cool stuff, don't get me wrong, but at the end of the day, the point of it is to rank in Google and get traffic.

A lot of people come from content for the content sake and they produce something cool which has merit but maybe it's not optimized on anything people search for or maybe it's cool but there is very few Google searches where that's going to actually satisfy the person's user intent.

I actually think if I like to work with SEO people more on projects because they just get it. It almost seems like there's an unspoken thing and they get kind of what you are getting at. It's kind of unspoken knowledge of I want to rank this thing. If you can get that person first with that mindset, you can train them or help them or coach them create great content. Doing it the other way seems to be a lot harder.

Kieran: Right. I think what happens is people who work within content and are quite precious about it being a creative art form are like, “Hey, SEO person. You are going to come and kill my creativity. What you are going to do is slap keywords everywhere.”

What an SEO person is actually going to do is get you some actual people who will actually read this and set you up for success so they can tell you before you even create the content, are you onto something that's just going to fail like deemed to fail because no one wants this. I think that's the part that companies need or people need to get better to blend in those two skill sets.

Brian: Yeah absolutely. I think a good SEO makes your content better, a bad SEO makes your content worse.

Kieran: The last question is all about voice search. Will Critchlow wrote a very good post where he talked about the future ... he made a bunch of predictions.

I think it was 2013 and he was doing a 10-year prediction and he is trying to figure out how well he's doing against those predictions. He made an interesting point like, “Hey, there is a lot of talk around voice search and people are losing their minds about voice search but maybe the opportunity is not as big as we think it is or it's not going to be as disruptive as we think it is because the things that people search using voice are incremental to desktop," so things like “What's the weather like?”, “Google set a timer” things we just couldn't have done before with voice search.

What are your thoughts on that, Brian, given that you are deep into that space? You've done a lot of work within voice search. Does that resonate with you? Are more bullish that voice search is going to be pretty disruptive?

Brian: Yeah, I am more bullish. I agree and disagree. I think that there are searches that are like extra searches. They don't add anything really. They don't take anything away or cannibalize what people are searching for on their desktops or their phones.

Weather, I would disagree because people do search for that on their phones or they use an app so there is definitely a replacing factor there. Stuff like “Set a timer”, “Buy this and that.” maybe some things they wouldn't have bought usually.

But for the most part, voice is additive. People are using voice to replace searches as well.

A good stat that is from Google actually, is that 20% of all mobile searches on the Google app are with voice. This isn't like a device at home, this isn't people asking “Play Led Zeppelin” to their Google Home. This is real searches that are happening on the street. People looking for businesses, people looking for information and they are searching with their voice. Bing also has data on ... or Microsoft has data that 25% of Cortana searches on desktop PCs are voice searches.

Kieran: That's one of the stats saw in your guide that I thought was most shocking.

Brian: I mean, granted it's PC so people are probably just yelling at their computers to work. It may not actually be voice searches. Like “Oh, this is Cortana.”

Kieran: God knows what's coming up, "God damn this PC."

Brian: I think they are replacing traditional searches and once desktop voice search becomes big, which is not big on Google yet, but I think that's the next big thing is some sort of integration with voice, maybe your home device will display results on your screen or something like that.

That's when it's going to get really big. Yeah, more searches are done on mobile but half are still on the desktop. 20% right now of mobile searches are voice.

When it hits Google on desktop, that's when it's going to be really big because it's just so much faster and easier to search with your voice than with the keyboard.


2. Voice Search: The Definitive Guide

Kieran: Yeah, exactly. Given how important it is, I think we need to get into the next topic to tell people what are the important things they need to consider about voice search and how do they actually do this?

Scott: Brian you wrote a pretty epic guide on voice search and we have talked about 10x content before. First, I want to say thanks for writing that. We learned a lot.

Brian: Thanks man, I appreciate that.

Scott: We learned a lot from that. There's a lot of really interesting takeaways when reading this guide. Just kind of want to honestly just jump straight into it with you. You talk about two fundamental ways voice search is changing and how people search. Could you just touch on these for our listeners and the impact that they have on how SEOs do their job?

Brian: Sure. The biggest thing for an SEO to keep in mind, in terms of what voice search changes, is it changes how people search. That's the biggest impact on my mind that voice search has from an SEO point of view.

For example, back in the day, if you want to learn about SEO, Scott, Kieran, me learning about SEO. At some point in our lives, we typed SEO into Google. Now, it might have been ten years ago or whatever, we all typed into Google.

With voice search, you are not going to be like, “Hey, Google. SEO.” You know what I mean? It just doesn't make sense. Your search is going to be a lot longer so you are going to say, “Hey Google, how can I rank my website higher on Google?” which is eight or nine times longer than just SEO. But it's the same, really, user intent.

One of the ways it changes keywords is that they just tend to be longer searches because mostly they are more conversational. Instead of robotic keywords like “Get more email subscribers” or just “list-building” which is one of the keywords I'm targeting, that's like an old-school keyword, “list building”.

In the future when voice search takes off people are going to be like “Hey Google, how can I build my email lists?” That is going to be a keyword that's going to be rising in popularity and robotic keywords like “list building” are going to decrease. They are longer and more conversational. In terms of keyword research, that's the two biggest impacts that voice search has.

Scott: A question for you on keyword research. How should SEOs adapt their keyword research process, strategy etc., to account for any potential voice search volume that they might be missing out on today?

Brian: That's a good question. The issue is it's hard to see voice is the possible voice search volume. Google teased that they might include some stuff from the search console that's done with the voice search, but even then that might be just Google Home.

We don't know if that's going to tell you how they actually perform the search. They used their phone, typed it in or used their voice on their phone. In general, this is good.

It's good practice to move slowly away from robotic keywords and move into more conversational stuff. I am not saying you should avoid these keywords altogether, of course, but if you have a choice between two keywords and they're pretty close, I think a tie-breaker is that one's more conversational than the other, go with that one.

Google will ultimately understand the conversational keyword and match it to the robotic one anyway. If they haven't already, you can always search for each keyword and see what the intent is, if they match. I would go with the more conversational one because that one's going to be more likely to rank in the voice search keyword.

Kieran: In your guide, you also cover some interesting things around how voice search should impact the way you create content. One of the cool things you have done for some of your own content is created Frequently Asked Question pages to answer a bunch of questions.

I think you have created this amazing hub for YouTube because you do really well on YouTube, as well. You rank for a ton of keywords because of the Frequently Asked Question pages you have created. Could you just take us through some of the top things, you think, content creators need to take account of when they think through voice search?

Brian: Sure. One thing to keep in mind is that you don't need to create a page for every keyword. Before the voice search guide, earlier in the year, we did a study of 10,000 voice search results. It was the biggest voice search study that had been done. One of our findings was that the vast majority of voice search queries didn't match the title tag.

Basically, Google can source a voice search result from anywhere. It typically tends to be a top ten result, it typically tends to be a feature snippet, if there is one, but not always. But the good thing to keep in mind is that you don't need to start creating hundreds of pages for voice search.

You can use your existing content and re-format it for voice search. Like you mentioned Kieran, FAQ pages are a great way to do that because it's pretty much a voice search. It's like someone searching for something conversationally as a question and the answer is right below.

It's like a feature snippet, basically, in voice form. The more conversationally you can make that conversation with the question answer, the FAQ, the better. I've been doing some experiments with that. It works well. In our study, we also found that compared to normal desktop search results, FAQ pages tended to bubble up above average, probably because Google relies on them for voice search answers because they are formatted perfectly for that.

Kieran: I think that is a really great point for people to truly understand is that Google can pull multiple answers from the same page and so it doesn't need to be the title of the article or whatever it is. You can actually have multiple questions answered on the same page.

How do you think Google is determining the best answer for voice search because speaking to Rands's point of things becoming more competitive, with voice search there is really only one winner.

There are no ten blue links. There tends to be one answer. How do you think it's determining the answer for voice search? Anything different than the way that it determines standard search results?

Brian: Oh definitely. In that study, we compared a lot of side by side of desktop search and voice search for the same exact keyword. Sometimes the fifth result would be the answer for the voice search but it would be number one for voice search but number five on a desktop, which doesn't really makes sense.

If it's the best result for a keyword, they should just source it from the number one spot or the feature snippet spot every time. There were a surprising amount of times where that it didn't happen. I don't work at Google. I don't pretend to know what's going on behind the scenes there.

All I can say is that basically, it's like a feature snippet. A lot of feature snippets come from the fourth spot, the fifth spot, the seventh spot, you see it all the time. Why does it happen? They have a better answer, quick answer than the number one result. The number one has all the other stuff but this has that particular thing. It's the same idea.

If you have something that's formatted perfectly and tends to answer your question, you are going to be good. Also, user intent. People are more conversational with voice search. They say, “Hey, how do I get a new social security card?” and then they get an answer.

Google is going to take that into account because they know people are not satisfied with that first result, they are going to try something else. Obviously, the better you can answer it in that quick 29-word answer, which is the average Google Home answer, 29 words, the better off you are going to be.

Kieran: I think the other thing you pointed out in the guide is that sites with high domain authority are still going to be favored by Google.

Google is still going to favor sites that build up trust and authority within its search engine and the other thing, I thought was interesting for people who really care about these things is that you felt that page authority doesn't matter as much for voice search. If you have an authority of domain but the pages aren't authoritative, that page can still have multiple results pulled from it for different voice searches.

Brian: Yeah. That was originally from the study that we did. There was a weird discrepancy where the domain authority was much more important for voice search than it is for traditional. Of course, traditional search domain authority is super important but page authority, at the end of the day, is what ends up, usually, making the difference between ranking number one and five or whatever.

In voice search, it seemed to be more reliant on domain authority and what's interesting is that a lot of really low page authority pages were ranking in the voice search. They might be a number nine in desktop but these voice searches all, like you said Kieran, there is only one. They rank number one in voice search even though their page authority was low. My theory behind that is that because there's only one result and it's coming from Google, they need to be more confident that the answer is going to be legit, so they rely more on trusted websites versus individual pages.

Kieran: Voice search could further decrease opportunities for sites. It could narrow the focus of Google than to these kinds of really big authoritative sites in each niche. I do wonder about that because they decrease the opportunity for companies to get more traffic because you're just going to have these historical sites who are still big and have so much authority that it's going to be hard to ever get ahead of them.

Brian: That's definitely legit. It's going to be harder in that sense. The other side of it is that you can rank in voice search in the eighth spot and before, in traditional search, if you are number eight and you looked up and if you saw few sites above you, you would have a hell of a time outranking them, even in traditional search.

There's a way to sneak to the top, in that way. Yeah, there is no doubt that it's harder because if this stat plays out in the long term, that domain authorities are more important, which does make logical sense, then it's going to be harder because they're not going to want to say, “According to a random guy site..blah blah blah.”

They don't want to say that. They want to say, “According to HubSpot”, they want to say “According to Wikipedia” because imagine if you are a user and it's like “According to Joey's fitness blog, blah, blah” right away, users are going to be like, “What?"

Kieran: The world we live in today, Google can't be seen to be spreading misinformation. They already have Donald Trump today calling them out on their own search results. I don't know if you have seen that but he searched his name and he was really unhappy about the results. He has complained to them about the algorithm. He should try to rank the car insurances to see how pissed off he gets.

Scott: Yes, we have talked a lot about voice search. One quick question we wanted to cover is video featured snippets and impacting. What are the ways how that shapes how we create content, how we optimize videos to rank in search and grow our search traffic?

Brian: Yeah, Scott. The video feature snippet is pretty interesting. I noticed it first a year ago. I will say even maybe it was probably like almost 18 months ago. I was making prawns and I never made prawns before, straight up, not the shrimp, proper big tiger prawns. I didn't know how to peel them properly so I googled, “How to peel prawns?” and the first result was this weird video thing that had one part of a video on how to peel prawn.

The whole video wasn't about that, only one part. I was like, “Wow, this is pretty cool” and I clicked play and it magically had the right moment that showed me how to peel prawns and ended at the moment that it stopped, and I wanted to see the rest of it. I was pretty impressed. Why it didn't roll out faster, who knows? But now it's pretty big because there's a difference between video featured snippet and just videos in the results, which are a little bit different than it used to be. It is like a carousel feature.

The video feature snippet is usually a video but not just a video but a specific time in the video where is the thing you are searching for. It's the answer. They have blown up over the last six months, partially because it's really useful and partially because the video doesn't have to be about that.

It's like voice search. The video can be partly about one topic but if it covers it really well, Google can take that part out and display it to people. My takeaway is, one, your video probably has to get tons of views and all those traditional signals that YouTube and Google want to see for a video but also the better you can organize your content and make it like a list post or a traditional piece of content that's formatted for featured snippets, the better it's going to be.

You hop in the cam and like, “Hey guys, today we are going to talk about blah blah blah” and you ramble on about this mat. It's going to be harder for Google to understand where topics begin and end but if you, in your video are saying, Step one, do this. Here's how it works. Point. Point. Step two, point point point. Step three. It's going to be easier for them to parse those parts out and feature them in the video featured snippet.

Kieran: It's approaching the video in the same way that you are starting to think about approaching writing content. We think a lot about doing that one when we are creating how-to type content. How do we answer in a step by step way so we can be the best result for that featured snippet?

The other thing you can do, I'm a big believer in always learning. I believe courses reduces your time to learn. I got Brian's course on YouTube. That's the best information out there on all things video SEO. I highly recommend that.

Brian: Thanks, man.

Kieran: Last question, about your career in SEO. You are someone who has had a huge impact on SEO in general. Your SEO tactics go viral, everyone can quote them back to you. What is the thing that you think has helped you to be so successful in SEO?

What are some of the skills you look at and go, “Man, I'm so thankful for having these skills? These are the things that have really helped me to be successful in this space.”

Brian: I would say, the first one is an appreciation for content design. This is actually a lesson that I learned from Neil Patel very early on. My first version of my blog was really ugly and weird looking. He told me that he had made this advanced guide on SEO a couple of months before and it was huge at that time. Now, it's old hat, everyone is doing this but it was like a custom design, but it was like an infographic and there was text and you could copy and paste stuff. He told me he had spent thousands on this thing. I was like, "Thousands? What is the content?" It was crazy. He told me the ROI is amazing. No one is willing to spend a couple of thousand on content but if you look at how much traffic you get to it, it's totally worth it, in like a week. It made sense. That lesson, I've internalized and always tried to make the content useful but also beautiful.

It does double duty because one, more people will link to it because it has a higher perceived value than a regular blog post. Also, it separates you as a content creator. Everyone in your industry is doing blog posts and you are doing guides or whatever, they look nice. They don't have to be guides because it's just designed differently.

It's going to help you stand out. Standing out is the hardest thing to do when you are starting a new site so that helped me pretty early on. Other than, I'd say writing really helped. I was a freelance writer before I got into SEO. I wrote tens of thousands of words, from e-books and articles to ghost-wrote a book. I wrote a lot. That just helped me learn how to put things in simple terms that anyone can understand because I was usually explaining complicated stuff.

Then, when I got into SEO and people were using all these complicated terms. They kind of wanted me to make it hard so then you would hire their agency. I was like, "You know what? Let's just make it simple." It's simple but it's hard. It's like eating healthy. It's simple to eat healthily. Just don't eat donuts, eat healthy stuff, eat vegetables but it's really hard to do in practice and SEO is the same way. It's not rocket science, it's not that complicated but it's really hard to actually do. I tried to simplify that as much as possible and left the doing part out to everyone else. I would say, looking back, it's hard to know in hindsight exactly what helped the most but I would say those two things helped a lot.

What to Check Out From This Show

1. The Future of SEO Has Never Been Clearer (nor more ignored)

2. Voice Marketing Tactics: There's Only 100k Searches a Month Up for Grabs Anyway

3. Voice Search: The Definitive Guide

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