Jan 7, 2019
There are plenty of impressive statistics regarding digital assistants and voice search. To cite just a few:
Clearly, this is a growing industry and the physical evidence of the marketing opportunity is all around us.
Devices such as Google Home and the Amazon Echo range are increasingly prominent in living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms in Western countries. Furthermore, anthropomorphic assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant are embedded in a wide range of smartphones, cars, and even fridges.
It is a trend that sits at the intersection of increased mobile use, sophisticated machine learning algorithms, and the symbiotic relationship between people and technology. As such, its continued rise seems inexorable.
But what does this really mean for brands? Does voice search require a separate strategy? And if so, what does it entail?
After all, despite the grandiose noises about the seismic shifts voice search will bring, 62% of marketers have no specific plans in place for voice search.
This article will therefore examine what we know about voice search today, before listing some best practices to put any website in the optimal position for future success.
The usual communicative evolution begins with speech and moves on to written language. However, search engines have experienced this in reverse.
The signals that we innately pick up on, such as intonation or memories of past interactions, are exceptionally difficult to incorporate into a search engine.
When I ask a friend, “What would be the best smartphone for me to buy?”, they can tailor the recommendation based on my preferences.
Scaling that level of insight requires very significant natural language processing power, along with the information retrieval technology to sift through billions of results and locate the right one. Smartphones provide more contextual information than desktop computers, but a search engine still needs a reliable way to process and utilize so much data.
The image below highlights the levels of difficulty for a search engine and the technology required in each case:
This matters when we consider voice search strategy. People adapt their behaviors based on the possibilities at their disposal. As marketers, understanding those behaviors is essential if we want to cut through the noise and connect.
Brands create the content that leads a consumer from question to answer. A search engine is the interlocutor that makes the connection.
Google’s Hummingbird algorithm ushered in the age of semantic search, making use of the Google Knowledge Graph to understand the relationship between entities and deliver something approaching conversational search.
Ask Google “Who is the king of Spain?”, and it will respond “King Felipe VI”. Next, ask “Who is his wife?”, and it will respond “Letizia of Spain”.
Google infers that ‘his’ refers to King Felipe. This is a subtle but significant shift that affects how we should create and promote content through search. We can now have conversations through search engine optimization (SEO), rather than one-off exchanges.
Semantic search is changing how people find information and it is heightening their expectations. As the search engine’s capabilities change, so should ours as marketers.
In essence, this development is a natural and vital component of voice search’s rise. Google reports that people are increasingly searching for queries using words such as ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘I’.
As an indicator of the modern consumer’s requirements from online content, this is very telling. People would only ask these questions if they expect the answer to be personalized and unique to them. These searches are typically carried out by voice, rather than text.
Once more, this points to the difference between voice search and traditional search. Consumers are treating digital assistants as exactly that, a personal helper to get things done quicker and easier than before. We expect the assistant to ‘know’ us.
Another question that is often raised is just how genuine the commercial opportunity is for voice search.
A 2017 study from iProspect revealed that while people predominantly use voice search to get information or enable actions like turning on lights, they are also using them to find stores, research and purchase.
Moreover, the distinction between voice search on mobile and with a smart home device is rather marked. This is perhaps to be expected, given that we carry mobile devices with us and they have screens, whereas home devices tend not to, but it does bring important implications for brands. Mobile phone screens provide a canvas on which to display choice and information, while a home device must deliver one, authoritative answer.
From this, we can start to understand the drivers – both technological and human – that have seen voice search grow so rapidly.
“In order to fulfil news queries with results people can count on, we collaborated on a new schema.org structured data specification called Speakable, for eligible publishers to mark up sections of a news article that are most relevant to be read aloud by the Google Assistant.”
The application of this format is limited for now, but it’s not difficult to imagine a future where digital assistants read content directly from all landing pages. Early movers will seize the advantage in this field.
Furthermore, Google offers the following areas for assessment when it comes to this kind of voice search: