It may have taken six decades for the required technology to evolve to acceptable standards, but verbal communication between human and machine now occurs millions of times every day. As traditional screen browsing makes way for spoken-word queries, marketers need to accept the massive changes presented by a future where voice search will be the rule rather than the exception.
That's not fanciful hyperbole, but rather a near certainty. Predictions by Baidu Research Head Andrew Ng that 50% of all queries will be voice-based by 2020 may be somewhat doubtful, yet the inevitable normalisation of this technology is apparent. Gartner’s more modest prediction from 2016 puts the figure at a more modest 30% by 2020. In any case, the eventual large-scale adoption of voice search is backed up by the numbers.
For instance, in 2016 Google CEO Sundar Pichai declared that 20% of the searches logged on Android devices or using the Google search app were voice-based. And though one in five may sound just mildly impressive on its own, the sheer rate of growth to reach that figure has been staggering. Mary Meeker’s KPCB study from the same year found that Google voice search queries had grown 35 times since 2008 and 7 times since 2010.
These numbers translate to a lot more voice-based commerce, Voicelabs stated that 24.5 million voice-first devices shipped to homes in 2017, and you had better believe they will be getting used, especially around the upcoming holiday season. SAP Hybris recently found that in 2016, 17% of smart assistant (Google Home, Alexa) owners had used their devices for holiday shopping purposes. For this year, 38% of respondents said that they would consider doing so. Even more attention-grabbing, nearly half (46%) who had previously purchased a gift using a smart assistant said they would do so again.
In that mentioned SAP study, convenience was repeatedly cited as a major factor for using voice search. Obviously voice search places fewer physical restrictions on the user than sitting at a desktop or even tapping on a mobile device, but the convenience goes beyond matters of speed. It’s about clarity.
“Voice is not hassled down by typing," says Gary Teo, Head of Technology and Projects VML SEA and India. "You can ask something and then add one or two more words to support the context of the question. It’s a lot simpler.”
Recent advancements, such as this ability to amend queries, are going to make voice search more attractive to users, but in fact, users are already modifying their behaviour to suit the expectations of these systems.
Teo says, “Users, in general, are very intelligent. You don’t ask a generic question into a voice search. You don’t immediately expect the voice search to understand your context of question. They tend to be a bit more verbose.”
So is it wine and roses for every brand under the sun in the age of voice search? Not exactly. Teo explained how all the quirks that make language difficult to understand for humans are amplified for machines; homophones, thick accents and speech impediments can impede a clear line of discovery.
Moreover, Teo believes that the very nature of voice search makes it incompatible with some brands. “We know there’s a couple of industries that don’t map as well”, Teo says, “Voice search by its definition; people want to speak out loud in public. It would be very difficult for say a lingerie shop or medical product—anything that’s private—to be immediately relevant.”
But even if some brands are at a disadvantage, it behooves all brands to make their brand more appealing to voice searches. As Rohit Dadwal of the Mobile Marketing Association put in a recent article for Campaign, “The fundamental question for marketers will be whether they are truly speaking the same language as voice searchers.”
This language shift is a costly investment for brands who haven’t been paying attention since, in essence, you’re creating a whole new SEO structure. Getting a brand to appear in an online voice-search result isn’t the same as working with established content. Queries are no longer the familiar word soup of keyword elements slammed into a search bar but full phrasings with distinctive syntax.
Teo Explains: “In traditional SEO you’re trained to think in terms of keywords. It’s very stable, very static. As you approach full sentences, you now need to consider every variation of that question.”
Part of the reasoning behind the need for variants is that when consumers use voice tools without a screen, they are often not looking for the pool of answers that a desktop search would provide. The user is usually asking a single direct question and will be provided with a single answer by their device. Chances are that you are severely limiting the chances of your brand being the answer if you do not have something resembling that question listed on your website.
This is why it is becoming commonly accepted that an increasingly utilized entryway to sites will not be the official landing page, but the FAQ section. Full of questions and answers to provide ample instances for those variations, it is the perfect voice search SEO stockpile for those whos, whats, wheres, whys, and hows. Store locations, opening hours, pricing: brands would do well to extend their population of these pages, by noting the most common autocompletes and search results for their type of product generally and their brand specifically.
Brands can’t gamble their entire existence on the help section of their sites, however. And this is why we may also see a radical shift in the overall language and tone of copy on brand pages, from minimalist utilitarian to something far more conversational, in line with the search content. Keywords still have importance, but their usage should reflect natural language, and analytics on these must be researched. Localisation is also a factor with results leaning towards those in the vicinity of the user, so brands without brick and mortar stores should also make sure that their vendors with a large online presence have as much detailed information on their products is as possible.
Perhaps fortunately, Asia is a relatively untapped territory in regard to voice search. With English (Google, Bing) and Mandarin (Baidu) as the only major search language options available in the region, adoption has been slow. Yet as Google’s continuing updates to its search app (the most recent of which bumped the number of languages up to 50) we will certainly boost that user base. Brands that move quickly have the rare chance of being first to adapt to these modified search tactics. Of course, one major drag is that bilingual sites will have to undertake this task twice to get accurate and idiomatic phrasing.
As voice search is still relatively new in practice, it is difficult to speculate on its future. But following conversations with multiple voice experts, there are already two potential developments which seem worthy of mention.
Firstly, advancements in artificial intelligence and language recognition in conjunction with deep search tools will likely provide more qualitative rather than quantitative search results. By aggregating multiple sources, such as user reviews and content on social media from multiple sources, the search tool will be able to form its own opinions. This will allow it to answer queries related to its own definition of the quality of products rather than drawing on the highest ranked answer to respond with. The wealth of opinions available on social platforms would then become even more valuable to SEO.
The second element with potential is the personalisation of the conversation between brand and consumer. Currently, when a voice-search app spouts information from a brand’s page, it is presented in the tool’s standard voice. We can easily consider how we to make that information delivery a more branded experience. At the present stage, this could be done through the use of onsite multimedia content play out but eventually, brands could develop their own distinct voice audio to relay back information. A new frontier for both audio branding and audience interaction.
Voice search has indeed come a long way from being an obnoxious method in the 00’s for users to yell single keywords in a monotone drone at screens. However, current experimentation (such as Burger King’s hijack of the Ok Google activation phrase), shows that marketers now recognise its true potential. Seizing that potential is possible, as long as brands themselves ask the right questions.