Optimizing SEM Campaigns for Voice Search

Chelsea Norman / 16th April 2020 / Comment / PPC

Long gone are the days spent playing Snake on mobile devices to keep entertained: now you have a built-in assistant to provide you any information you desire. In fact, 41% of people who own a voice-activated speaker say it feels like talking to a friend or another assistant. And come to think of it, I do tend to catch myself saying ‘thank you’ to my Google Home.

What Is Voice Search?

It’s enabled by a button on mobile and desktop devices or through an audible “wake word” or “hotword” such as “Alexa”, “OK Google”, and “Hey Siri”. Voice search capabilities for these devices include voice commands such as setting timers or playing a song, but also literal voice search, which opens the device’s default search engine and conducts a search.

In this article we’ll discuss the mechanics behind voice search and how you can improve your SEO and SEM efforts for this growing trend!

First, let me assure you that pursuing success in voice search will not require you to optimize your web content for a wide range of new, unique search algorithms. Perhaps it would have mattered in 2016 when iPhone used Bing as their default browser, but when they joined forces with Google in 2017 it provided Google nearly all voice-search market share.

Google has also been developing their Voice Search for more than a decade through user engagements with their Google Now virtual assistant. In 2017, Google updated their algorithm at a scale unseen for several years through an update called Hummingbird. One of the largest improvements to their natural language processing technology (NLP) was a switch from lexical to semantic search, which seeks to understand searcher intent and contextual meaning of terms. It’s all based on the profile the algorithm develops for each user based on their past searches, content consumption, and purchases – in some ways, this is similar to Google’s enhanced machine-learning-based customizing of search results in web browsers, but now driven by each user’s unique voice.

Have I lost you? Let me show you:

I activate Siri (lexical) and say, “Scarlett Johansson” and it populates this result:

Great – but I want to know more. When I ask, “What was her first role?” Siri (lexical) doesn’t realize who I’m referring to and provides me this array of results unrelated to Scarlett:

Check out this clip of what happens when I use Google Voice Search (Semantic). You can see the SERP adjust my search query based on my dialect and then assumes my intent by replacing ‘her’ with ‘Scarlett Johansson’ based on my previous search.


The combination of Google’s powerful search algorithms with its latest language technology leaves Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana falling short on the query result accuracy that Google Now demonstrates.

Who’s Using Voice Search and for What?

It’s predicted that in 2020, 50% of all searches across the internet will be voice searches and 20% of mobile searches will be voice searches.

The largest trend increases for voice commands is for call initiations and directions: next, I’ll share more about how to match best to these queries.

E-Commerce through Voice

There are two ways to shop through voice search. The first is voice-based orders through a home smart-device that is connected to online inventory. Alexa is obviously connected to Amazon and Google Now uses Google Express, a one stop shop from super-retailers such as Walmart, Home Depot, and Target.

For local retailers, you can search your item and be served text and shopping ads, organic listings, and Google Map listings of stores near you that sell that item. Here are top trends for voice-based orders according to QuoraCreative:

  • Grocery shopping accounted for 20% of voice-based orders.
  • Entertainment shopping accounted for 19% of voice-based orders.
  • Electronics shopping accounted for 17% of voice-based orders.
  • Shopping for clothing accounted for 8% of voice-based orders.

The Rise of “Near Me”

If you heed no other piece of advice, please heed just this one: update your Google My Business account to verify your domain, all street addresses, phone numbers, hours, and business images. The Google Map listing is tied to your Google My Business account and you can also pay for placement within Google Maps. This will be the best way to be considered for “near me” searches. You should also implement location extensions in AdWords so that this business information is included in your advertisement.

“Near me” searches are no longer just about where, but also when. Google insights claims that there’s been a 150% growth in “near me now” searches and a 900% growth in “near me tonight” searches.

Optimizing Your Keywords for Voice Search

You can assess your own voice search competitive landscape by performing a search term evaluation based on the last six months. You can find the Search Term section under the Keywords tab in Google AdWords. Note: Wake words (“OK Google”) will not be included in search terms and there isn’t currently a way to report to the number of searches being done through voice.

You can however see questions being asked (potentially through voice search) so filter your search terms for the 4 W’s: Who, What, Where, and When. As an example, our client runs a ferry service, so I searched different question starters and found out the following:

  • “When does…” – 43 search terms, 0 conversions
  • “What time…” – 100 search terms, 12 mobile conversions
  • “Where is…” – 69 search terms, 6 mobile conversions

The average person can type around 40 words per minute, but can speak around 150 words per minute, allowing for greater specificity with less effort. So, a voice search will be phrased more conversationally than standard text search. That’s why you should also include long tail keywords in your ad groups.

Retailers should also include their general product + “near me” (+“now” or +“tonight” where applicable). Here’s an example of a results for a “near me now” voice search for cold medicine:



These simple steps can help your business thrive in this new search format that will continue growing and developing. In summary: claim your business information though GMB and on your website, enable location extensions in your advertising, and mine search terms for long-tail and question-phrased queries.

If you have cool examples to share of how you’ve optimized for voice search, or have questions on voice, SEM and SEO in general, or any digital marketing topic where you could use some help, just let us know below in the comments!


By Chelsea Norman