Voice-world: The role of search and how brands can prosper


Voice-world: The role of search and how brands can prosper

Chris Holmes

From mobile devices to gaming consoles, to in-home and in-car technology, we’re entering a future where voice and smart technology are changing the way we operate. Throughout the history of ‘Search’ and its evolution we’ve seen the changing landscape of results and the changing nature in how we connect with brands, with people, and with places. While voice search has been around for a while, we may just be on the cusp of the first mini revolution.

So, how popular is voice search?

Recent studies report that voice search and personal assistants are taking over our lives both inside and outside our homes, but how popular is voice search?

GWI indicated back in 2015 that 20% of searchers use voice search on their mobile phones, with over 46% of users aged 16-34 more frequent in their use than one year ago. Google revealed back in 2014 that 55% of teens, and 41% of adults used voice search more than once a day. Looking at the year ahead, VoiceLabs predicts that 24.5 million voice-first devices will be shipped, meaning a total footprint of 33 million devices in circulation by the end of 2017.  

By 2020, ComScore estimates that 50% of searches will be via voice.

Search marketers and brands, take note!

What is voice search used for?

While obvious benefits include speed, hands-free, and the fact that the technology can talk back to you, understanding usage can help ensure our here-and-now marketing strategies are geared up for success.

Stone Temple Consulting and Google published recent mobile voice usage surveys revealing that the environment where voice search dominates is at home. Uses cited included actions such as calling someone, performing an online search, sending a text, and map or directional navigation. What’s missing from these mobile usage behaviours is placing orders, which leads us nicely onto looking at the range of technologies available.

A bit about the technology

It’s evident that AI Assistants such as Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and Cortana, are vying for the stranglehold on our homes, however, what’s interesting is that the key players have also begun to specialise too.

Voice Labs and Business Insider UK provide some great discussion points surrounding the pros and cons of each, and offer an insight into how the different specialisms could breakout to become increasingly pronounced during 2017 and beyond. Amazon, perhaps obviously, will specialize in commerce, whereas Google, with its heritage in web search behaviours, will continue to be the go to for responses to general knowledge queries. Google and Microsoft will continue to use their strength in email, calendars and contact lists to their advantage, while users seeking a hands-free TV or home experience will likely lean towards Google and Amazon. Other opportunities discussed include Microsoft capitalizing in the gaming category, and Apple AirPods being the preferred choice for those on-the-go.

The latest on purchasing via voice search has just seen Google moving to compete with Amazon Echo by offering users of its Google Home device the chance to shop via Google Assistant. Similar to Amazon’s devices purchasing products for you via Amazon, Google Home draws on Google Express retailers, offering same-day delivery via couriers. While searches can be brand specific – “OK Google, buy paper towels from Costco” – they can also be generic – “OK Google, buy paper towels”. It’ll be interesting when this market becomes biddable, which it surely will!

It’s now about commands & actions

While we’re already seeing a year-on-year decline in brand searches across many categories, and an increase in generic searches, users are always going to have an affinity with brands. Brands shouldn’t be overly concerned with the rise of voice search, they should be excited, but need to adapt.

Users will want to cut down the number of searches they perform in the future – giving commands, and driving actions. “OK, Google, buy paper towels” isn’t really a search – it’s a command.

Traditional Google moments are changing too. Navigational searches were performed by those looking to reach a particular website. Transactional sought to visit websites to purchase, download, sign-up or register. Both brands and search marketers need to better understand these moments, and understand how to convert via voice:

  • Voice Navigational – take me to the nearest McDonald’s (e.g. Google Maps)
  • Voice Informational – when’s the next bus due (e.g. TFL website provides the answer)
  • Voice Transactional – re-order me pizza (e.g. Just East app)

Voice commands bypass the traditional process of visiting a website, going directly to the data provided. Search as we know it now, was merely a step in that process that we do not need (to the same degree) – a commodity.

Thinking about it logically, it’s not a bad thing. Advertisers don’t necessarily care about all the steps in a user’s journey, and some traffic is of less value which advertisers wouldn’t necessarily want to pay for. What’s good about this new environment is that brands can get the credit from being the ‘provider’ of this information, just in a slightly different way. “The next bus is due at 14:45, courtesy of TFL”.

For search marketers, it’s going to be about forcing ourselves on Google. Moreover, it’s critical for SEO results to be the results that Google wants to use.

Positioning your brand for voice search success

Google has been somewhat tight-lipped on monetizing the shift to voice-search, simply talking about making it convenient for users to fulfill a transaction. While promotion is certain to play a part, it’s SEOs who can definitely play a key role at present.

SEOs already know about “RankBrain”, a part of Google’s ranking algorithm, using a machine learning, AI system to better understand meaning and process search queries. We also know that any search strategy needs to be consumer-focused, understand intent, and serve content in the right formats to ensure that App technologies and search engines alike can garner the detail they need in order to return a useful, relevant output.

Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s SVP of advertising and ecommerce, sums up the fundamental change in the search landscape with this quote:

"One thing that we are all clear about is the days of three top text ads followed by 10 organic results is a thing of the past in the voice-driven world"

With this in mind, here’s what SEOs should already be doing:

  • Answering questions – Considering FAQs such as who/what/why/how/what/when/where is a good place to start. Much like Wikipedia has dominated search results based on its ability to answer such queries in the past, brands have a huge opportunity to be successful here. Who and What searches spell the beginning of a searcher’s journey, with When and Where searches used when a desired action or intent is close.
  • Having conversations – Unsurprisingly, natural language and conversational content performs well within search results. With Google’s move to a mobile-first index, and with the majority of long-tail, locational and informational searches occurring on mobile devices now, it’s important to ensure content strategies doesn’t simply focus on the two-word, and three-word search queries of old.
  • Considering location – Google knows where you physically are, and serves up content which matches your location. As well as XML sitemaps, location data and micro-data are key to ensuring you’re fully geared up to answer search queries which have local intent. Adding directions to your bricks and mortar properties is a good starting ground, as well as utilizing Google My Business and Bing Places for Business to claim and optimise your business for those ‘near me’ searches.
  • Making use of Schema Markup – Schema markup offers search engines a chance to better understand the information on your website and provide richer, more meaningful search results. Types of content which qualify to appear in rich results include articles, local businesses, restaurants, TV episodes and ratings, book reviews, movies, software, applications, events, and products. Think about how common rich cards, rich snippets, and knowledge graph cards now appear within your search results, and you’ll understand why this type of SEO consideration can’t be ignored.
  • Analysing voice search results – Use voice search, test it, and get to know what results are being returned. As an example, if you’re using Siri to “find a Chiropractor near me” and results return local directories such as Yelp, get yourself in Yelp. Likewise, when voice search results begin to feature in Search Console (as expected), we’ll have more data to inform our voice SEO strategies.

So, what’s the future?

Firstly, rumours are circulating that Amazon is set to launch a premium, Echo-like speaker with a screen, meaning voice search and search via more traditional means, including visual results, are set to work hand-in-hand on future devices. Such a move is designed to assist in countering the bugs that voice results alone currently deliver, while fending off competition from Alphabet Inc.’s Google Home and Apple Inc’s almost certain release of a similar device using Siri digital assistant. The introduction of screens on ‘Assistants’ could also prove to be the opportunity Google has been waiting for to display voice triggered Ads.

Secondly, Google patents also provides a glimpse into the future, with three great examples including voice-based action queries, voice-driven actions through apps, and hands free transactions.

The reality is:

  • A result for a burger restaurant offering you the option to “navigate to the website”, “make a reservation” or “buy a burger” by voice.
  • A voice command such as “hail a cab” launching an app because the search engine understands your intent.
  • Voice recognition through your mobile meaning you no longer have to hold your credit card to a payment device, but instead using “pay for Mars Bar” to action the purchase.

The future for SEOs and developers lies in researching and connecting the types of actions users will want to perform, and optimising to ensure these actions are present.

Succeeding in a voice-world

Search strategies of the future will be even more about creating a seamless journey for the customer. The shift to a voice-world doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a screen-world. Just as we started with desktops, then tablets and smartphones, voice simply offers users another way to interact with Google. Therefore the future lies with creating the perfect consumer experience.

People started using Google in the first place because it worked. Via voice, consumers now want to issue a command and have something happen. Questions like “Do I have enough credit to pay for this purchase” and if so “pay via PayPal” or “pay using my debit card”, will become increasingly common.

Brands that make it easier for a consumer to do something, will be the brands that succeed in a voice-world.

Chris Holmes

Chris Holmes

Head of SEO Account Management

As Head of SEO Account Management UK, Chris co-runs Digitas’s SEO team across our UK offices. Chris oversees a team delivering customer-focused SEO strategies with data at their core. He is also heavily involved in product development and is jointly responsible for cross-channel integration, particularly with our Paid Search team.


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