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What voice search means for marketing

By 2020, it’s estimated more than 35 per cent of online searches will be made by voice alone. So how should marketers respond to the audio revolution?

In the very near future, the majority of consumers will search online simply by telling their device what they’re looking for. But if someone asks for “best cupcakes”, and you make cupcakes, how can you be sure your cupcakes will be the answer they hear?

Like all new technologies, there’s some scary numbers around the worldwide adoption of smart speaker and voice search technology. There’s an often-quoted nugget from Andrew Ng, then Chief Scientist at Baidu, who said in September 2014, “in at least five years’ time, at least fifty per cent of all searches are going to be either through images or speech.”

It’s important to remember Ng was referring to both image and voice searches, and the “50 per cent by 2020” has become a questionable online ‘truth’. It’s likely closer to 35 per cent, but still, that sound you hear is disruptive audio technology thundering towards us from the future.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that, by mid-2016, voice search represented 20 per cent of activity on Google’s mobile app. And in December 2016, Ng made another prediction: “as speech-recognition accuracy goes from 95 per cent to 99 per cent, we’ll go from barely using it to using it all the time.”

Skip forward to November 2018: Facebook has launched its own Portal and Portal+ smart speakers in the US, competing with Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home, and putting more heat into an already sizzling market. Facebook has not yet announced a date for Australian release.

Voice tech is swiftly infiltrating the B2C world (Siri, my favourite pizza without anchovies, please!), and as consumers come to expect to reach their favourite brands via the channel, business buyers will follow – the growth of voice search can’t be ignored by B2B brands.

Just like in B2C, voice search requires specific SEO strategies from B2B marketers. An ebook Mahlab created for our client Salmat, on voice tech, is still Salmat’s most popular content, with more than 100 downloads a week at launch last year. The spike in interest in the B2B marketing community shows a desire to understand and make the best use of the voice activated revolution.

Machines that learn

Basically, smart speakers feature audio technology that runs through sophisticated voice recognition software. For example both Amazon’s Echo and Facebook’s Portal use Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition software.

There’s no doubt the technology is getting better and better. As more people buy and use ‘virtual assistants’, both voice recognition and search function improve as data increases, making the engines ever more more accurate and powerful. They’ll get better and better at what they do, more intuitive and easier to use.

In the real world, people use their smart speakers to answer questions, play music and control other devices in the home through smart home-connection tech. As more people come to trust and enjoy the technology, buying through voice will become a mainstream habit. Voice searches are about the user finding quick bombs of information, rather than doing a deep research dive.

Here are the main reasons we’re using voice for search, from a 2016 Intelligent Voice Assistants Research Report from US company, MindMeld.

  • When our hands or visions are occupied: 61 per cent
  • We want faster results: 30 per cent
  • We have difficulty typing on small devices: 24 per cent
  • It’s fun and cool: 22 per cent
  • We want to avoid menus: 12 per cent

Forty-three per cent of voice searches are performed at home, 36 per cent in the car, and the rest on the go and at work.

Voice increases the power of the ‘featured snippet’

The key difference between a voice search and a typed search is voice only yields one direct, specific answer, so there’s only one chance for marketers to make a connection – the ‘featured snippet’. Becoming the single-answer featured snippet is the holy grail of marketing for voice activation.

Google, for example, gives its voice answers from the featured snippet at the top of the SERP. Questions starting with “how” and “what” tend to be a core element of most featured snippets, and marketers targeting voice search users should research which relevant keywords they should try to compete for the featured snippet on.

Simple voice search tips

  • Get the basics right: make sure all the key information about your company is clear and obvious. If you do the work to achieve featured snippet status, what the speaker says aloud about your business had better be right.
  • Your brand reputation: a business’s ‘entity authority’ – or how its name, local search standing and the level and type of engagement it receives are judged by Google’s algorithms – also determine how high it will rank in searches.
  • Do the leg work. What are they keywords in featured snippets in your category? See how the successful snippets work (paragraph, list, headline or dot points) and what they offer. What is the experience on your competitor’s website like? Is yours better?
  • Make sure your website is as fast and user friendly as possible. Voice searches are all about speed.
  • Younger, early adopters of the technology tend to speak more conversationally to smart speakers, so make sure the language on your site is as clear and clean as possible.
  • Because most voice searches are specific questions, good FAQ pages on your site can assist in searches choosing you as featured snippet.

The most innovative brands are committed to a voice strategy. Lego is a leader in the use of video, augmented reality, voice search and the Amazon platform.

“You can’t just treat it as a retail platform, you need to think of it as a vertically integrated platform,” The Lego Group’s head of emerging platforms James Poulter told Digiday in July.

“I’m a big believer that by 2020 nearly every major brand will have an audio strategy and that’s because of how fast the smart speaker market is growing.”

There’s no doubt the explosion of smart speaker technology is going to be a sonic boom every marketer will hear, loud and clear.

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