When Apple introduced the first version of Siri, the interactive and intelligent personal assistant on the iPhone, many people thought it was a novelty or gimmick. But for others, including Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, this advancement represented a serious threat to traditional ways of searching the Internet.

“Apple’s Siri is a significant development—a voice-activated means of accessing answers through iPhones that demonstrates the innovations in search,” he said at the time. “Google has many strong competitors and we sometimes fail to anticipate the competitive threat posed by new methods of accessing information.”

At first, searching for online content through voice commands alone felt a bit strange and perhaps slightly unnecessary, as there was nothing wrong with the old way. However it was also very amusing, especially when you got to grips with Siri’s sense of humour. On top of that, iPhone users benefitted from a feature and technology that no other mobile device manufacturer had really explored before.

As a result, Google and Microsoft with their respective Android and Windows platforms began to develop alternatives due to the rising popularity of smartphones coupled with user demand for voice search applications. Before long, it became commonplace and is now more accurate, quicker and intelligent than ever before.

With people more willing to conduct searches this way, will voice search change the way we access online content?

Using natural language

As the accuracy of voice search applications increases, so too does the power of search engines. This is partly down to Google’s 2013 Hummingbird update and its continued pursuit of implementing semantic search. Therefore, users don’t have to think as carefully about what words to type into a search engine, instead they simply ask questions in a natural way. For example:

  • Regular search – “Cheap Italian restaurant south London”
  • Voice search – “Are there any cheap Italian restaurants near me?”

Although both searches are looking for the same thing, the voice search has greater intent and is much more personalised. Therefore, search engines are able to deliver more accurate and relevant results, as updates like Hummingbird want to discover the meaning behind specific words.

Predicting what the user wants

Over the past decade, the world’s biggest search engines have made huge advancements. There is now no need to scroll through endless pages to find what you’re looking for, as more often than not, it appears on the first page. But voice search is now going beyond that.

For example, ask Siri or another voice assistant a question like “What was Manchester United’s last game?” and it will give you the result, who scored and where it took place. Then if you ask, “When is their next game?” a schedule of upcoming fixtures appears. But if you were to type this second question into Google, Bing or Yahoo!, an abundance of random results would be returned.

Voice search learns and retains information to improve the user experience. Applications like Google Now also gain an understanding about a user’s interests, schedule and preferences too.

The diminishing influence of keywords

Even though keywords are fundamental foundations of SEO, they may not be as important when it comes to voice search as Google’s head of webspam Matt Cutts testifies to:

“It is definitely the case that if you have something coming in via voice, people are more likely to use natural language. They are less likely to use search operators and keywords and that sort of thing and that is a general trend that we see.”

Innocent and unaware users might not realise they use keywords in a regular search, but marketers do and this is how customers are determined. But if voice search isn’t concerned by keywords and concentrates on intent instead, marketers will have to spend time on more personal identification methods such as geotargeting.

Website traffic numbers will tumble

Another aspect of receiving geo-local results through voice search is that businesses could see website traffic drop. This is because results are acquired and delivered through Siri or Google Now, meaning that users do not even need to visit that business’ website. As long as customers can access and find information about the business, this is not necessarily a problem.

However, this does mean it is imperative for entrepreneurs and enterprises to have up-to-date details about the business online, such as a phone number, address and opening hours. Reviews on sites like OpenTable, Yelp and CitySearch are also highly advantageous.

It isn’t just mobile users that are starting to benefit from voice search either, as Google Now is available on desktops too. And while this doesn’t spell the end for SEO, online search will need to adapt to the growing needs and habits of Internet users.