In 2016, Google said that 20 percent of all mobile queries were voice searches. Since that time, the number of virtual assistants in US households has continued to swell, with tens of millions of voice-enabled home devices projected to be in use.
Voice as a primary search interface — beyond mobile phones — is a reality. Marketers need to rapidly iterate on their mobile-first strategies, to adapt to the voice-first marketplace. And as the aptly titled e-book released today [registration required] suggests, voice search changes everything.
I sat down with the book’s author, Yext VP of Industry Insights Duane Forrester, to discuss the landscape of voice search, how it will impact the business of search marketing, and what marketers can do to prepare for this evolution in search user interfaces.
“Voice engagement is the most likely scenario that will challenge the biggest players in search for supremacy.”
Michelle Robbins: What inspired you to put this e-book together?
Duane Forrester: The work we do at Yext is focused on helping businesses understand what data they can control, and empowering them with ways to manage that data. So from that point of view, there was a lot of support for exploring this developing space. Personally, I’ve always been an early adopter. The last decade of my life I’ve been fortunate enough to see the leading edge of technology up close and interact with it personally, so as “voice” developed to what we have today, I’ve been engaged and watching its progress.
MR: The major players in the space have been established. Do you see room for any other competitors to enter the voice arena?
DF: Absolutely. There is a boom happening in China right now with dozens of new companies entering the smart speaker space. While most won’t survive, it’s inevitable we’ll see new devices reach our shores next year, driving prices down and adoption up.
Most of that expansion will be white-labeled products (Google Assistant built into a Samsung TV, for example), but from the consumer’s point of view, it’ll be less about buying because of the embedded assistant and more about brand awareness around specific products. People don’t buy the Samsung TV because of Google Assistant (or Siri, or Cortana, or IBM, etc.), they buy it because Samsung makes excellent televisions. The voice assistant is a nice addition. That’s our immediate future. Over time, however, this could change if one or more of the leaders make significant technology breakthroughs that bring obvious differentiation and improvements.
MR: Is there anything holding back even greater adoption of voice-enabled devices?
DF: We’re starting to see the end of people’s reluctance to speak to their devices. This was a major factor in adoption over the last five years. Couple that with less than stellar services and results, and adoption was predictably sluggish — right up until Amazon landed in millions of living rooms around the world.
The biggest factor in voice adoption remains time. As services surpass an accuracy rate of 98%+ and consumer upgrade devices, or have their first contact with new devices that are voice enabled, the growth will continue. Voice will conquer all.
MR: How can marketers, and search marketers in particular, shift from a ‘content is king’ focus to competitively prepare for the ‘context is queen’ world and surface as the one primary voice result?
DF: The beauty of this is clear. All the investment that’s been poured into content continues to pay dividends in a voice-first world. If anything, in order to truly get to the context-first scenarios we have today, you need deep, detailed, rich content. But even here, context plays a role. If the request is for the temperature, the platform being engaged will determine location as part of the relevancy factoring. The answer (let’s say “72 degrees”) in any other context might seem “thin” by nature. But as an answer to “What’s the temperature outside?,” it’s a perfect fit.
A more complex scenario might look like “Who is Harry Potter?” and “What is Harry Potter?” The former should bring back an answer about a fictional person, while the later should elicit a response about a fictional series about a boy wizard, etc. The answers for the latter would be deeper, and pull from richer “answers” provided by websites.
To be included in the “spoken answer” column, we have no set best practices from the engines to follow, but we do have some common best practices we know they respond to for things like the Answer Boxes. And increasingly, it’s those answer box contents that are being spoken aloud to inform consumer queries.
As for specific tactics people can employ, here’s a short list. This is in addition to the usual quality content production and SEO best practices.
- Adopt a long tail/conversational phrase approach to targeting what to produce content around.
- Build out detailed answers to common (and even uncommon) questions related to your products and services.
- Use Schema to mark up your content (where appropriate).
- Clean up your own house — be sure crawlers can find your content.
- Make sure your site is mobile-friendly — not really an option these days.
- Make security a priority — becoming more of a trust signal.
“A picture is worth a thousand words”
MR: What additional innovations in voice are coming into play?
DF: If you’ve shopped via a voice device, you’ve encountered an area that will improve significantly when visuals are added. Ask the system to buy a blue sweater, and you immediately realize without being able to see the sweater, you’re missing a lot of information needed to make an informed purchase.
This is where visual search comes into play, and it’s here now as the logical next step from voice search. We see initial products from Amazon in the market now (Show and Spot), and I expect to see more companies fielding visually-enabled voice devices soon. In terms of e-commerce, this expands the usefulness of current content investments like product videos.
MR: What kind of technology investments should marketers be making to address this new playing field?
DF: Things that were optional even just a couple years ago, are no longer optional. Being mobile-friendly is a requirement. Being secure is rapidly becoming a differentiator. Marking up your content is no longer a nice-to-have. Every day adoption of those technical items grows, which means the playing field is changing. If a search engine suggests a protocol is worth using, it’s worth paying attention.
Things like Schema markup help an engine grow trust in your website and content, so take advantage of that. Being secure shows an investment in protecting consumers, again an area the engines favor and actively support. And if you really want to walk a mile in your customer’s shoes, to really learn what their journey is like, you’ll buy the main voice-enabled devices on the market today. Set them up and use them all day, every day. This practice will uncover new features and highlight new opportunities for you to align with the customer’s journey.
MR: What kind of personnel investments should organizations be making to effectively compete in a voice-first world?
DF: It’s highly likely that a business already has the skill sets they need on hand. If they have an SEO person or team, they’re off to an excellent start. To truly take advantage of new environments like voice and visual search, though, you need to have someone who has a broad understanding of emerging opportunities, has the reach to influence across and within your company, and can offer guidance based on experiences in discrete areas. That’s the role of a Digital Knowledge Manager (DKM).
The DKM can help ensure all assets in a company are aligned to best effect, while also keeping the company up to speed on emerging technologies. From the top, it’s the DKM that guides. From a more tactical level, it’s likely a technically proficient SEO aligning efforts across research, content development and deployment. That combined effort can help a company get started and take a leadership position in their verticals.
Join us at SMX West this March in San Jose, where we’ll feature industry leaders sharing tips and tactics for search marketing success in voice search, local and mobile SEO and much more!
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