Editor’s note: Updated November 2019.

Voice search is the closest humanity has come to wizardry. Speak into a digital apparatus, and presto: hear any song you want, find the nearest sushi restaurant, call your relatives in Chicago or restock your toilet paper supply.

Smartphone-based voice assistants, meanwhile, are basically like the magic mirror from Beauty and the Beast:

Only it’s more like, “Siri, show me ‘Corgi rides tiny horse.'”

Love it, hate it or barely use it, voice search is a modern marvel that will influence how content is discovered on the web. Some experts even believe voice search may one day rule the roost as far as search mediums go.

But even Alexa can’t predict the future. So for now, we’ll just have to let these voice search statistics tell the story. Here’s what we know:

1. More than 66 million Americans now own a smart speaker

This figure from March 2019 equates to just over a quarter of the U.S. population. More Americans will probably own a smart speaker (Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, Google Home, etc.) in 2020.

Why does this matter? Because Alexa and company create a more direct path between the consumer and a desired outcome. Doing almost anything on the web leaves users exposed to distractions, whether it’s playing a song on Spotify, going to an e-commerce website to place an order, or typing a query into a search engine and then manually scanning the results.

Marketers have historically benefited from the consumer’s ability to get side-tracked. But when a smart speaker plays your music for you, orders the exact product you tell it to order and reads search results from Google that answer your question, it’s that much harder to insinuate your brand into a user’s journey.

The bottom line: If you want to join the smart-speaker conversation, you’ll need to create content that solves problems and/or answers questions (which you should already be doing).

2. By 2020, 30 percent of web browsing will be screenless

Score another point for smart speakers, but also earbuds and writers everywhere. A few years ago, Gartner predicted that nearly a third of all web browsing would be voice activated by 2020 (and we’re almost there).

This is a huge deal when you consider most user interfaces on the web rely primarily on visual cues. Hands-free or eyes-free search is a tipping point for natural language processing (NLP). Programs can solve math problems, connect you to loved ones, change the playlist and supply quick answers to questions using nothing but sound.

As for why it matters – it underscores the role that keyword-optimized, topic-focused, well-written content will have in the years ahead. Whether your audience reads that content or a robot reads it to them, words are still words. Choosing the rights ones will be that much more important in screenless search scenarios.

3. 50 percent of all searches will be voice searches by 2020

Piggybacking off that idea, voice recognition can do much more than process basic voice commands like setting a timer or restocking laundry detergent via Prime. Anything that can be searched with a text query can also be asked through speech.

In fact, 50 percent of all searches could be voice activated by 2020, according to ComScore. This amplifies what we already know to be true: Voice search optimization isn’t the afterthought that it once was.

Realistically, we don’t expect business decision-makers to abandon their keyboards and start vocalizing questions about, say, the inner-workings of an industrial automation system.

It’s still worth thinking about how voice technology may serve your business, with the understanding that some industries (particularly consumer-facing brands) will be more impacted by voice search than others.

4. Everyday household items are the most common voice search-based purchases

And on that note, 25 percent of consumers surveyed said they’re most likely to use voice assistance when purchasing everyday household items. Buying apparel is a close second followed by entertainment and games. Purchases of prepared meals and local services (such as dry cleaning) are at the bottom of the pack.

Not terribly surprising.

Voice search is gaining ground in a lot of areas, but its utility in longer sales cycles is not as demonstrable (yet). Managers in B2B markets looking into data center solutions, for example, have longer consideration phases than someone restocking makeup because this happened:

 

However, voice search does play a well-defined role in content marketing.

Imagine a novice baker vocalizing this question: “Siri, how do I know when my dough is under proved?” A voice search optimization strategy for a kitchenware retailer or culinary academy might entail targeting those long-tail, how-to key phrases. This creates an opportunity to interact with potential customers.

Note that we specifically say “long-tail keywords” because people speak differently than they type. In text, I might key “dough under proved” into a search engine. Spoken aloud, I would likely ask “how do I know when my dough is under proved?”

The point is, voice search can lead to an initial contact with your brand. If your pages show up at the top of Siri or Cortana’s results, you potentially improve click-through-rates, and in turn, create more top-of-funnel leads.

5. 20 percent of mobile queries are voice search, says Google

If mobile devices put information at your fingertips, voice search puts it at the tip of your tongue. This is especially useful when you’re on the go and need to perform a quick, hands- or eyes-free query. Maybe you’re driving to work. Or maybe you’re walking to the nearest transit station and would rather not stop to type in a long tail question.

Voice search is, at the end of the day, not a replacement for text-based search, but an alternative medium for search that’s well-suited to specific user scenarios. It wouldn’t be ideal in an office where you spend the better part of your day Googling things. I, for one, would be hoarse by the end of the day. But it’s useful in any situation where you would rather not pause your life so you can get in front a screen to figure something out.

6. Most smart-speaker owners conduct local voice searches

In that same vein, research from BrightLocal found that about 75 percent of smart-speaker owners search for local businesses at least once a week. More telling is the types of searches conducted:

  • 54 percent make food and drink reservations.
  • 46 percent inquire about price of a certain product from a local business.
  • 40 percent want to find out if a certain product is available at that business.
  • 35 percent book a beauty appointment.

All of these are straightforward, location-driven commands or inquiries that you might make while cooking dinner for your kids, cleaning your bathroom or getting ready to go out. In this sense, voice search digitally empowers people in the home to multitask without necessarily tying themselves down to a specific device.

And clearly, local businesses are potential beneficiaries of this capability.

7. Google’s AI learned how to be more conversational by consuming 2,865 romance novels

This one’s a bit silly (albeit true, per BuzzFeed), and worth sharing if it means shedding some light on how voice technology works.

In essence, analog sound recorded through a mic is converted into machine-readable, structured data that voice-recognition software analyzes for meaning. The more of this data the artificial intelligence is exposed to, the more accurately it can parse sounds. It’s an incredibly time-intensive process. Even tiny discrepancies such as regional accents, idioms, intonations and background noise can confuse the software’s understanding of something spoken.

But over time, the software gets better at understanding exceptions in speech patterns and lingual nuances that help it better understand searcher intent. Eventually, it can even simulate language in a sensible context.

 

So why the romance novels?

Simply because Google saw it as a way to make its AI a little more conversational. It supposedly worked so well that Google can theoretically steam your screen with scintillating stories of its own if it wanted to.

8. Trust in voice search results declined in 2018

And now for a quick dose of reality.

Voice search is important, and it’s not going away. However, it also hasn’t developed to the extent that it can meet all user expectations. Case in point: research from HigherVisibility suggests that voice search was less used and less trusted in 2018 than it was in 2017.

Part of this is just a natural phase of any hype cycle and a calibration of expectations. Voice search won’t usurp text search any more than the motion picture usurped the novel. It’s just a new medium of digital interfacing, and one that’s still finding its place in the world – that use cases for voice search increased despite trust in the outcomes decreasing is testament to this.

Simply put, voice search is not a passing fad, nor is it necessarily going to eclipse text-based search. The truth lies somewhere in between.

9. Voice-search ranking criteria stats

Naturally, we’ve saved the best for last.

In 2018, Backlinko conducted some of the most compelling voice search research to date, and they revealed some of the key factors that influence Google Home rankings specifically.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Page speed: The average voice SERP loads in 4.6 seconds, which is 52 percent faster than the average page. This is likely for UX purposes – there’s nothing conversational about waiting a long time for a verbal response.
  • Security: More than 70 percent of Google Home pages are secured with HTTPS compared to only about 50 percent of desktop results.
  • Conciseness: The typical voice search result is only 29 words. People want quick answers, not books on tape.
  • Simplicity: The average voice search result is written at a ninth-grade reading level because verbal answers need be digestible enough to understand at a first pass.
  • Featured snippets: More than 40 percent of all voice-search answers were pulled from featured snippets.
  • Domain authority: Curiously, domain authority appears to be more important for voice search ranking than page authority (aka, link authority). The average domain authority of a voice search was 76.8, but only 21.1 for page authority. This means Google cares much more about pulling its answers from a trusted subdomain than from a page with oodles of backlinks.

How actionable is this information? It depends how you look at it.

Many of the same ranking factors used in voice search influence text search. Backlinko found that content that performed well on desktop also did well on voice search. Specifically, 75 percent of voice-search results ranked in the top three for that query via desktop. Of course, this is correlation and not causation.

Still, if you’re doing everything right from an SEO standpoint (improving page speed, using Schema markup, targeting useful short- and long-tail keywords, using HTTPS, and creating useful, instructive content that satisfies searcher intent) then you’re creating a strong foundation for a discoverable brand on the web.

For now, focus on best SEO practices above all else, but with a heightened sense of awareness for how voice search is impacting your brand.

Because it’s like we said: Voice search won’t do to text-search what Harry Potter did to he who shall not be named. But it isn’t just an old Kansas man pulling some levers behind a curtain, either.

Dominick Sorrentino is a senior writer in Chicago. He's a wordsmith who endeavors to use language, story-telling and creativity to solve problems. He enjoys pizza, the musical styling of A Tribe Called Quest, traveling, a good conversation and, of course, putting pen to paper.