The Oban Blog

The dawning era of voice: search without borders

Clear and accurate figures about voice search are rare. At the end of 2014, Google said that 55% of teens are using voice search at least once a day and we know that the teens of today will shape the business model of tomorrow. At the same time, something unprecedented happened in the digital world: for the first time, mobile device users overtook desktop users in the USA, a trend which followed globally. Voice search will certainly develop alongside the use of mobile devices. The rise of the ‘Internet of things’ and smart objects (like the connected watches) with small or no keyboard facility is likely to boost voice search and shape a new search era. In this context, going global will be a bigger challenge search-wise. So let’s embrace the voice search challenge rather than fearing it!

Do we write our search queries in the same way we voice them?

Even in our own languages we don’t voice our search queries in the same way that we write them. For global businesses, it is interesting to see that the difference between written and spoken search language is extreme.

If you are looking to expand your business into China, what languages should you consider? Mandarin is the most common language, but only verbally. Targeting Mandarin as a language doesn’t make any sense for search other than voice search. Till now, if you wanted to target mainland China, the only question you had to answer was: Simplified or Traditional? There are only two ways of writing Chinese regardless of the dialect spoken. This is as straightforward as the map below:




But what about the future and the spread of voice search? The Chinese mainland map below suggests that it will get slightly more complicated. At least 11 different regional languages are spoken all over mainland China, with lots of variations. Unlike written search, where people can understand the expectation of entering a universal type of query and can adapt their written style, it’s not going to make sense to change their spoken habits. People speaking Mandarin in China will voice the search in Mandarin; Cantonese (Southern dialect) speaking people are likely to do the same.



Source: Wikimedia

When we take a look at a language shared by two or more countries, such as German, it is clear that it can be written or spoken differently but it is still called German. So, for example, one of the official languages spoken in Switzerland, particularly around Zurich, is German. However, German and Swiss German aren’t written or consequently spoken in the same way. A strategy to target audiences in Switzerland needs to consider these language variations and localise for specific groups of peoples, not merely languages.

German speakers from Switzerland (de-CH) is a clear audience to target in this example.

The Hummingbird Algorithm, the trendsetter

Anticipating voice search or not, Google, with the knowledge graph decided to take conversational search more seriously.

This means that when you’re “talking” to Google and asking a question, the search engine will offer a clear and rather unique answer first.


This implementation of the search engine is called “the Hummingbird” algorithm and takes place in the context of Conversational Web (that some experts call the Web 3.0). It’s easy to make the link between voicing a query rather than writing it.

Voice search demands a rethink

Rethink the markets you want to target. When you want to expand your business globally, think country (or area) and language, not just one or the other. With voice search, we will probably have to target areas within multilingual countries.

Be conversational in your content. Unfortunately, no official nor relevant voice search tool exists yet. Which means that it is impossible to get data from queries that people are voicing with their Google Now, Cortana or Siri. It’s almost like we’re back in the 90’s when we needed to guess what people could write as queries in search engines!

Providing your audience with quality content and FAQ-style information is the key to attracting voice search users. Common-sense will always be your best keyword research tool!

Local experts wanted! Voice search will be absolutely impossible to achieve without working with local experts of the country / area you want to target, i.e. culturally rooted. When it comes to languages and cultural habits, we can’t assume a single thing.

Facing the future

It is clear to see that your future customer, whether they are in mainland China or a German speaking region of Switzerland, will not adapt to a simplistic black and white view of languages – with the growing challenge of voice search, you could easily miss two thirds of an audience in some areas of the world.

Creating a digital marketing strategy which enables you to grow your business without borders is not an optional extra. It is how the future of global search is shaping up.



Image credits:
Smiley Shutter photo by Flickr user Blek