Voice Search: Bringing Web Accessibility and Convenience Together in 2020

how voice search works

By Sam Stemler

A dramatic increase in internet-connected devices such as smart speakers and smart tvs has brought voice search into the mainstream. However, web usability through voice commands and readouts is not brand new technology. Many people who don’t use computers or the internet in traditional ways have been using this technology for years through screenreaders. As voice search becomes more common, it invites changes to the web landscape that can benefit all users.

What You Need to Know About Voice Search in 2020

More Devices Than Ever Use Voice Search

Though most of us probably don’t think about it very often, computers aren’t very versatile from a mechanical perspective. A computer requires a clear and visible screen to display a result, and a mouse or keyboard for inputs. Though we’ve changed these things to make them very small (your smartphone) or very large (your smart tv), these changes are far from perfect. Plugging a keyboard into your smart tv isn’t practical and watching videos on your small smartphone screen isn’t much fun. Moreover, other devices present more challenges. How could you possibly type into a wearable device? How could you see a result on a device without a screen, like a speaker? This is where voice search and voice commands come in.

In 2017, experts estimated that voice search would account for 30% of search activity by 2020. These projects appear to be on target, with 35% of smartphone users alone reporting using voice search at least once a week. This doesn’t include searches made on the 118 million smart speakers now in use, wearables like the smartwatch, or a long list of other connected devices. As internet connectivity becomes a larger and larger part of various devices we use everyday, voice search will continue to expand.

How Voice Search Results Work

Ask a smart speaker like Google Home or Alexa a question, and it will read out an answer derived from online search results. How do smart speakers and other connected devices decide what to read?

Smart speakers determine which search results to read out in similar ways that search engines determine which results to display. An algorithm determines content that is reliable, relevant and easy to understand, and then organizes results. A smart device can only read out one to three results, so it generally chooses the three best. A part of this automated decision-making process is whether or not the device can actually interpret the results. This is where optimizing for voice search comes in.

By developing Featured Snippets in 2014 and expanding them in later years, Google started to solve this problem early on. Featured Snippets displayed a quick blurb to answer a user’s question as directly as possible, then displayed the rest of the results underneath. This is very similar to the requirements for a brief response to a voice search. Many of the responses Google Home and other smart devices give are based on Featured Snippets.

Some voice searches require a longer list of results. In an effort to solve this problem, Google released Speakable. This markup makes it easier for devices to read out the content on a website. Though it is currently in beta, Speakable has the potential to make more search engine results accessible through a voice search. This can also make complex voice searches easier to ask and complex results easier to provide.

How to Optimize for Voice Search

You don’t need to know Speakable to get your results on a voice search. Optimizing for a featured snippet can be a good way to get your content seen as well as heard. This involves restating the question, using lists and snippets where appropriate, and utilizing accessibility best practices to ensure a device can recognize and read your content. This allows a smart device to parse through the content and code on a page to find an answer to the user’s question.

Even if your content doesn’t show up on a voice search, optimizing this way is likely to increase your SEO value regardless, and provide other benefits. As the top results of typeable searches and the top results of voice searches grow closer together, this optimization will become increasingly important.

The Internet is Changing—Again

Up until the last five or ten years, the internet was primarily a text-based world accessible through a computer. However, the wide availability of internet access, smartphones, and cameras changed it. There are now more videos and images than ever. These changes brought a host of accessibility problems, many of which have yet to be fixed.

The expansion of internet-connected devices relying on voice search has the potential to change the landscape again, and solve some of these accessibility problems. Those who have difficulty reading a computer screen or typing a search can utilize the same voice search technology that millions of others use. And while internet connected devices are still expensive, they’re often more affordable than expensive screenreading software and other assistive devices. As webmasters vie for top search spots for voice search, they’ll also be making changes for accessibility. Though there will certainly be other challenges, this is a change that will continue through 2020, and one webmasters should pay attention to.

6 Benefits of Web Accessibility

benefits of web accessibility

By Sam Stemler

Web accessibility primarily helps people with disabilities to use websites equally with abled users. However, instituting a web accessibility policy can also have other benefits. Your user experience, SEO, the versatility of your site and your site’s speed can all improve when you use web accessibility best practices. If you’re not sure if web accessibility testing is worthwhile for your business, here are 6 benefits of web accessibility you should know about.

6 Benefits of Web Accessibility You Should Know About

1. Improved Mobile Usability

web accessibility with mobileFor your website accessibility to be successful, users should be able to magnify the screen. This helps users with vision loss see a website more clearly. This capability can also help with mobile usability. Magnifying content on a large screen and showing content on a smaller, smartphone screen are very similar. If your site can do one of these, it can easily do the other.

Responsive sites are made to easily switch between mobile and desktop interfaces. If your site is responsive, it can also be easily magnified. Since the majority of Google searches are now made from a mobile device, this is a great additional benefit of web accessibility. If your site isn’t mobile-friendly yet, now is a good time to make the change, and improve your web accessibility at the same time.

Download the free Web Accessibility Checklist to get started with web accessibility

2. Usable on a ‘Bumpy Bus’

Another important benefit of web accessibility is the ability to access the site under less-than-ideal conditions. A common scenario is the ‘bumpy bus.’ A user may be trying to access your site on their smartphone while riding a bus, but the bumps in the road cause them to continually tap the wrong button. A user who struggles with motor control might have a similar experience. The ability to magnify the screen or use alternative controls to scroll through buttons can help make this experience easier for both users.

3. Better User Experience

better user experience with web accessibilityWhen color contrast is low, fonts are too small, menus don’t open properly, and links aren’t clear, the result is a bad user experience for everyone. When users visit your site, these elements immediately jump out of them, and they’re unlikely to linger on your site unless they absolutely have to. These types of sites are frustrating for everyone to use, and particularly frustrating for people who use the web with assistive technologies.

4. Improved SEO

Many different factors play into search engine optimization (SEO), including a good user experience, content, links, and keywords. By improving the user experience on your site, users will want to stay longer, which can improve SEO. Adding alternative text (alt text) to images, removing broken links, and linking text properly can all improve SEO and improve web accessibility. Fixing many of the most common accessibility problems have the added benefit of improving SEO.

5. Less Liability

In 2018, over 2,250 web accessibility lawsuits were filed in the U.S. This number will likely continue to grow. By improving web accessibility now and creating a plan for maintaining it, you reduce your chances of a costly and time-consuming lawsuit.

6. Usable for All

The primary and most obvious benefit of web accessibility is that your website and web services are accessible to all patrons. By making a few changes to your website layout or how you add content, you can make the difference between a site that is easy to use and enjoyable for everyone, or frustrating and difficult. By keeping web accessibility in mind, your website and online services are available to the maximum number of users.

Web accessibility is a part of online best practices, and using the principles of web accessibility has multiple benefits. Web accessibility does not have to be complicated. With basic testing and a few proactive policies, you can make your site accessible.