Why Voice Search Never Became A Big Deal For SEO

Voice search and SEO - Why smart speakers are not that smart when it comes to search

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Remember 2018/19? The good ol’ days before the cost of living crisis, lockdowns and general doom and gloom? Around this time, the sales of devices like the Amazon Echo really took off. Voice assistants and smart speakers were being adopted by the masses.

Naturally, the digital marketers kept up with this trend by thinking up ways they could use voice search to engage with consumers.

Spoiler: They couldn’t.

In the SEO world, there were echoes (pun intended) everywhere about how “voice search will be the next big thing” and we need to start “optimising for voice search queries.”

Except, we didn’t need to do that and it wasn’t the next big thing.

Let’s explore the many reasons why voice search never became a big deal for search engine optimisation.

1. Voice Searches Are Mostly Functional – “What’s The Weather?”

The majority of voice searches are functional in nature – people wanting real-time information about something very practical:

  • What’s the weather today?
  • Do I need to pack an umbrella for London tomorrow?
  • When is the next train to Bristol?
  • What’s the traffic like on my commute this morning?
  • What time does Tesco close?
  • “How many ounces are in 500 grams?”

None of these searches are likely to lead to content produced by a small business.

Also, people just aren’t likely to search for anything beyond that using a smart speaker.

2. Voice Searches Do Not Lead To A Satisfactory Destination

Voice searches only give the direct answer to a question, they don’t necessarily lead you to a destination.

The Amazon Echo is capable of sending weblinks to your phone via the Amazon app, but that requires further action from the user and makes the voice search element kind of pointless to begin with.

However – this comes back to the user’s intent behind the need for a voice search: they don’t want a website, they want a functional answer.

Voice assistants can only give you a limited amount of information before becoming annoying to listen too – so the detailed nature of content on websites is not well-suited to monotonous smart speakers.

3. Voice Assistants Are Flaky & Often Give Unsatisfactory Answers

Almost everyone who owns an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or any other smart speaker knows that they’re just not reliably accurate 100% of the time.

There are always going to be situations where it misunderstands you, or there’s too much background noise, the dog barking, television on, etc.

Even at the best of times it’s common to hear:

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any information on that right now.”

– Every Amazon Echo device, at some point.

Or, it completely misunderstands you and starts giving you random information about something completely unrelated.

This is frustrating unsatisfactory and an all-round bad experience for the user.

4. Voice Search Just Doesn’t Suit Many Niches

Not many industries have a great use case for voice search when it comes to SEO and digital marketing.

For example, take the health & well-being niche. No one is going to want to have Alexa loudly read out potentially serious information relating to symptoms of a potentially embarrassing illness.

Another example – if you’re wanting to know some great yoga poses – a voice search isn’t much use without images, videos and something to refer to.

For recipes – it can read out the full recipe all at once, but what if you need each instruction exactly 6 minutes apart?

Or any situation where follow-up information is required – it’s just not quite “smart” enough yet.

5. Amazon Alexa’s Machine Learning Seems Limited To Your Amazon Shopping List and Nothing Else

Every so often, Alexa likes to chime in with some special offer from your wish list, or a suggestion for a repeat purchase. It has the ability for your to order using your voice – which is great.

For Amazon.

Not so great for the other 19580358058 retailers out there who would have to build their own “skill” for Amazon Alexa.

Then, they’d have to convince your customers to install and activate the “skill” on their Amazon echo devices.

But, it won’t work natively like Amazon shopping does.

It won’t start giving your customer’s alerts or notifications when you have a sale or a new product.

It’s not that simple.

Your customer would have to say “Alexa, open [Name of your skill]” before it would even do anything.

Then, your skill could respond to a set of pre-programmed voice commands, and nothing else.

6. Alexa Uses Bing For Voice Search

I’ve mostly spoken about Alexa so far and barely talked about Google Home at all.

That’s because Google Home mostly sucks, sold far fewer units and is generally less popular than Alexa devices.

I actually own a Google Home and a few Amazon Echoes, and Alexa seems generally more capable, plus the audio quality is much, much better on even the £19 Amazon Echo.

Anyway…

Alexa only searches only Bing’s search engine, which is not people’s search engine of choice in most cases.

Side note: There is a way to make Alexa search Google. It requires creating a personal “skill” (aka voice app) using AWS Lambda. Then, you also create a cloud app in Google’s Cloud Console and connect them together.

I did this back in 2019 but barely used it and it stopped worked when node.js needed an update. The skill meant that I could say:

“Alexa, ask Google…”

Then there would be a delay of about 3-5 seconds before I got a answer. The answer was also spoken in Google Home’s voice via the Alexa speaker.

I rarely used this skill after installing and configuring it all. I mostly did this for the learning experience.

7. Google Home Usage Rates Are Lower Than Alexa

Google may enjoy the world’s biggest usage share in the search engine market, but they fall way behind Amazon in the world of smart speakers and home automation.

Google Home obviously uses Google as its search engine, which means the voice search results may contain information from the featured snippet (position 0) on the SERP.

It will also sometimes send the link from the web to your Google Home app for future reading – but it may be better if it saved it to Google Keep, Chrome’s bookmarks, Chrome’s “read later” functionality or even better if it could easily integrate your voice search history with a third-party service, like Notion.

“Hey Google, save that to Notion”

Sigh.

Essentially, Google Home just isn’t that smart yet. Perhaps it will be when Google’s new ChatGPT rival is released to the public.

Who knows?

What About Local Searches?

Ok – this is one area where voice search may have some benefits, but I still don’t think people use it as much as was predicted.

You can ask your smart speaker to:

“Find some coffee shops near me”

You will get a response with 3 coffee shops near you. You can follow up with “Is the second one open?” which sounds good until…

“Opening hours for [insert name of coffee shop here] at [full address including postcode] are not available”

It doesn’t even start with “I’m sorry…” so again, the searcher gets an unsatisfactory experience and has to reach for their phone.

The fact is that voice search is not seamless enough for it to be reliable (yet.)

Voice Search Does Have Its Uses, But SEO Ain’t It

To be fair to the capabilities of smart speakers, there are some genuinely good use cases for them, but none of them really revolve around sales, marketing, or improving your digital reach (unless you’re Amazon, an Amazon seller or have made your own Amazon skill.)

Voice search and smart speakers are excellent and have many practical uses:

  • “Remind me to take the bins to the kerb every Thursday at 7pm”
  • “Play relaxed music on Spotify”
  • “Set a timer for 25 minutes”
  • “Remind me to take my medication at 10am”
  • “Order dishwasher tabs from Amazon”
  • “What’s that film called with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt?”

This are all very handy personal assistant-y type stuff, but unfortunately none of them are going to help my business get discovered through voice search.

Voice search will surely evolve over the next few years, potentially harnessing the power of ChatGPT, using voice prompts instead of typed ones.

We’ll all just have to wait and see what the future holds for voice search 👀