Winning at Voice-Assisted Search

Voice-assisted search came onto the mass market in 2011 with the initial release of Siri. Since then, there have been ongoing improvements and expanded options in natural language technology and experience. A better user experience made consumers comfortable with voice search and increased its usage, further fueling development of the technology and data architecture that makes the information we crave voice accessible.

The Walmart and Google cooperative voice-shopping partnership announced a few weeks ago heralds more than just the first real challenge to dominant e-commerce giant Amazon. It punctuates the growing prevalence and importance of voice-assisted searching and shopping behaviors.

Voice-assisted search came onto the mass market in 2011 with the initial release of Siri. Since then, there have been ongoing improvements and expanded options in natural language technology and experience. A better user experience made consumers comfortable with voice search and increased its usage, further fueling development of the technology and data architecture that makes the information we crave voice accessible. Personal assistants are now a default on smartphones but in the past couple of years smart homes, home devices and technologies like Amazon Alexa/Echo, Google Home, Google Assistant and even Microsoft Cortana (which powers both SIRI and Alexa) have become commonplace in American households. Amazon doesn’t divulge numbers but unit sales estimates for the Echo devices vary from 8-11 million since its 2014 introduction.

People use their voice-activated devices, most commonly their phones but increasingly smart speakers, for a number of purposes. They listen to music, control smart appliances, research products, play games, set alarms, enjoy audio books, catch the news and a thousand other things. Partnerships with other internet driven companies, like Uber, amp up the productivity and use cases for a voice search or shopping experience. Consumers can check ball scores, the weather, flight status or order a car, a pizza, a replacement part or any number of very useful queries. Add context — as in where you are located, what device you are on and a search history and the search utility goes way up. How will marketers pay for that level of relevance?

Marketers need to quickly understand how to optimize for voice search and voice assistants as the volume and share of mobile searching continues to rise. Hitwise says that almost 60 percent of searches currently take place on mobile devices with their tiny screens and keyboards. This makes voice search an attractive alternative to thumb cramps and typos. To date, Google has not announced a paid voice search product but organic results will be in sharp demand as comScore predicts that 50 percent of searches will be done through voice by 2020. Gardner further predicts that 30 percent of web browsing will be done sans a screen. Need more proof? Bing’s market share has rebounded in recent years, in part due to all the Android and Google powered voice searches that utilize their data. Moz wisely cautions that voice search volume is additive to typed search and not to neglect your typed search SEO as it continues to be important.

Search behavior is naturally altered between text and voice. Voice searches take a more conversational approach and are much more specific. Users typically ask a long question to a device where they might type a short string of keywords in a screen based search. Often taking place in a mobile environment and on a mobile device, voice searching skews to local queries. The results also differ. The search result can be returned by voice and is not always delivered with or by a long laundry list of possible search results to scroll through. The top one or two places in a search result will become all the more important, as the goal of a voice search is not to provide options but to provide the best response. THE answer.

As our population gets more and more connected, voice search will play a larger and more important role in commerce. A recent report revealed that in the last 12 months 19 percent of consumers have made a purchase using a voice-controlled device. That purchase percentage soars to 43 percent for Millennials. Marketers and sellers, in particular, should tread carefully. If consumers are voice shopping on an Amazon device in the Amazon marketplace, that closed environment provides Amazon the ability to skew the search results to Amazon products or their preferred partners. It’s not a level playing field. It’s the Amazon playing field and they have the home advantage. Voice assisted shopping can also devalue brand as both searches and search results are often generic.

Many experts suggest that becoming THE answer to relevant voice searches will take a combination of new skills and tactics that recognize that SEO is no longer entirely about SERP position though, happily, it appears that optimizing for voice searchers also improves overall SEO.

What steps should marketers take today?

  • Rewrite your site copy to mimic natural language. Listen in on customer calls or utilize a natural language tool (Question Samurai is one) to help you translate product or brand speak into natural language.
  • Optimize your site for questions including lengthy, long-tail queries that include the Who, What, When, Where, Why words.
  • Create an FAQ page that lists the most common questions along with the answers as well as very specific landing pages for key questions/queries.
  • Incorporate local/regional language as well as previously meaningless hyperbolic terms like “best” or “top” as these tend to be used in voice searches.
  • Use featured snippets
  • Claim your business in all relevant local directories, especially Google Pages.
  • Revise your search results to include a timely CTA with an immediate click (Book Now. Call Now.) to take advantage of the mobile mindset and the perceived immediacy of the need.

Voice search combined with data and preferences revealed by smart devices, wearables and other IOT should be able to take real-time data, add it to voice searches and better interpret our true search intent. Our voice searches should then lead to better, more convenient, more relevant results than typing. If not THE answer, then a closer approximation than our typing reveals.

Don’t wait to consider your voice search strategy. Giving real people real answers to their questions can have an immediate impact on your search relevancy and your business.

Tuning Into Voice Search

The big question for search marketers is: What must be done to make sure that a site comes up in answer to voice search queries? This is both a simple and difficult question, but one that must be addressed.

SEO Is Dead — 5 Rules for Winning in the New World of SearchHave you met Siri, Cortana or Alexa yet? If you haven’t, you will soon. Perhaps you’ve used Google Voice or Amazon Echo. The market for voice-activated search is poised to explode. Users are rapidly embracing this technology.

I expect that we will see rapid adoption, because voice-activated search doesn’t have a huge user learning curve and the devices are increasingly affordable. It’s their simplicity of use that will drive rapid adoption.

The big question for search marketers is: What must be done to make sure that a site comes up in answer to voice search queries? This is both a simple and difficult question, but one that must be addressed.

In previous posts, I have urged site owners to prepare their sites for mobile search. My admonitions have been to increase site speed and to make sure that the site is mobile-compatible. This is the underlying technical architecture needed for search success in 2017. Faster is better, and not to be fast and mobile-ready is to be left behind from a technical standpoint.

Unfortunately with search, no matter how wonderful the content and offering is on a site, technical miscues can doom it to obscurity. With the technology challenges met, it is time to turn to the offering itself, and this is where voice search enters the picture. Voice search is all about the user, the user’s intent and the user’s challenges in articulating the query.

Voice Search Adoption Will Be Faster Than Mobile

Voice-activated programs have been in the technology marketplace for a number of years. They are finally maturing.

The original versions required extensive training before they would recognize the user’s commands. The results were sometimes comical. I once tried an early version when I was writing a book and decided that it would require more editing to make the results coherent than just keyboarding the text.

Fast-forward to today, and we have technology so simple to use that it is prudent to safeguard it from toddlers likely to place orders on their parents’ Amazon accounts.

Estimates suggest that one in five consumers use voice search on a mobile device. Younger users have adopted the technology faster and use it more often than older users. As mobile searches increase, so too will voice searches. However in my opinion, the proliferation of voice-activated devices with search capabilities will add a booster rocket to the adoption rates and the volume of searches.

How Can Search Marketers Respond?

The key to an effective response is to ensure that your content addresses the questions a user might pose.

This may require rethinking your content approach. Most SEOs have used keyword-based strategies for search. These have been quite effective; however, in the future they must be linked to what the user wants.

This requires an inside-out process. Content must be able to answer the types of questions users pose. Where, when, why, how, and what are often starting cues for a voice search. Searches for directions are “where is” something; events are the answer to “when is” queries; “why” and “how” are often signals for factual information. There are a number of other signals — best, near, open, etc. An individual searching on a voice-activated device is unlikely to search for a giant head term — computer. The user is much more likely to pose a question that would fall into the realm of long-tail search.

As site owners create content, they should carefully consider if the content does address these cues and what other questions might a user ask. This will result in voice-search-relevant content.

If you haven’t already done it, now is the time to implement structured data on your site. This provides a framework for the presentation of data in a format easily consumed by search engines and returned in answer to voice queries.

One More Tip

Here is a bonus tip — extra credit, if you will. Years ago, many sites included FAQ pages. They fell out of fashion, but it is time to dust them off, make sure that they are up-to-date, linked into the site structure (not orphaned, as happens with older, unloved content), and the SEO reviewed to make sure it isn’t outdated.

These pages often provide just the type of information a user wants and seeks on a voice-activated device.

Voice search will change how we search. Instead of keying in keywords, we can expect search to become more conversational. If we expect to succeed, we need to think about engaging in an informative conversation with our site users.