Prepare For Voice Search Now

If there’s one thing that digitally-mediated marketing does well, it’s reduce friction.  Since the advent of the Internet, digital marketing has eliminated points of friction like a drive to the store, a trip to the bookshelf, waiting for the mail, making phone calls or, yes, getting opinions (face-to-face) from friends.  In this way, digital marketing has often led brands themselves to better ways to serve the consumers of information, products and services they’d like to reach.

Where will technology lead us next in the quest to reduce friction?  Most brands have already had their mobile moment – when a majority of their site visitors adopted mobile devices to remove the friction of a desktop from their search experience.  The next, similar move, will be when a majority of searches are conducted without manual input – via voice search.   Why enter a search on a tiny iPhone screen when technology will allow us to say what we want and be understood?   Importantly, as it was in the past, it’s the technology that’s leading brands to achieve what is ultimately the brands’ ultimate goal of catering to consumers without friction.

We Can See the Future Today

While 2017 has been another year chockfull of less valuable marketing buzzwords, voice is not one of them. We are pathing towards a voice-first future, and that future is much closer than we think – some might even say it’s already here. By 2020, it’s estimated that 50% of all searches will happen in a voice-based scenario, rather than the traditional search engine box. Time-strapped consumers want the easiest, fastest, and most importantly, the right answers for them when it comes to their “how to”, “near me” and product-finding questions.

What is crucial to understand is that while those questions may currently be happening on a non-voice platform, search providers like Google are preparing for a voice-mediated future with what they include in non-voice search today.  Meaning, we can see the future of voice search in what search engines are doing today: use of machine learning, inclusion of direct answers, increased localized results and leading consumers through product selection by providing the ability to drill down into facets like color and style in their image searches.   Search engines’ move to greater personalization and an understanding of what “you”, the individual consumer, needs in any given moment in time is setting the stage for a voice-search reality.

Practical Application

Knowing that the future of voice search lies in what’s emerging in search today, what focus areas emerge with both near and long-term impact?

Let’s start with the kind of queries that are going to be performed via voice. We see these as queries with local intent, informational queries and transactional queries.

  1. Queries with local intent: “near me” queries or queries related to inherently local services (plumbers, pizza, etc.)
  2. Informational queries: “how to?” & “are there?” type queries relating to brands’ products/services
  3. Transactional queries: queries where the consumer is looking to price or buy for a product… like a toaster

Believing voice’s role is to reduce friction in these kinds of queries, what should we do to help grease those wheels of progress? The audiences and types of search queries dictate what brands should focus on in terms of tactical SEO and content strategy. We see the most important areas as:

  1. Queries with local intent: focus on local optimization and local integration with paid. (We feel it is very likely search engines will monetize local listings in the near future.)
  2. Informational queries: focus on long tail copy development (particularly Q&A type content).
  3. Transactional queries: this one requires a bit more guesswork. It is unlikely that people will query their voice devices for a single, short tail keyword like “toaster”. It is more likely voice-based product searches will include many facets, like “stainless steel, 4 slice toaster”.  With that in mind – or if voice search needs to guide consumers from a short tail search to a single, longer tail result – our focus lands on thoughtful and orderly implementation e-comm faceting and products’ schema markup and descriptions.  We need to give voice-based search the means to understand how to guide consumers through product refinements.

To help with items “b” and “c” above, in particular, we recommend brands conduct a comprehensive linguistics analysis to understand how your customers are searching, including top facets, questions asked, semantically-related topics along with your site’s content and optimization gaps which can be used to set priorities.

What don’t we know?

It is unlikely there will be (say) four paid and ten organic results presented via voice search.  Accordingly, something we don’t know is how SEM and SEO listings will interact or be prioritized in a universe where it’s likely there will be only one search result.   We have predicted, above, that voice search will help consumers drill down to a best product or answer, but how it will choose whether that best result is paid, organic or local is another matter.  As much as it hurts us to say, we can’t imagine Google in particular will choose to completely de-monetize voice search by presenting an organic result as that single, best answer.

The tech is leading brands in the right direction

Voice search creates a much more conversational, personal format that requires marketers to get smarter about their customers’ needs and intent.   In this way, the tech is leading brands in the right direction.  Importantly, the mechanisms that make voice search “work” are not going to be rolled out as a single product one day – those mechanisms are being developed and refined now as new and/or improved search features like direct answers.   As we continue preparing our clients for the increasing emphasis on voice search, we’ll be monitoring the changes made by Google and other players in the voice-activated device space, as well as the changes in behavior and adoption of by consumers.

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