Marketers Need to Optimize for Voice Search

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There’s no denying the fact that voice technology is on the rise, as made clear by the intense popularity of personal voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri. There are 159 million smart speakers in use in the United States (many homes have more than one device), and the underlying technologies contributed more than $11 billion in revenue in 2018 and are projected to top $27 billion in revenue by 2022. At press time, the coronavirus pandemic was causing severe disruptions to industries and markets worldwide, with unknowable effects on future revenue projections and consumer behavior. Nevertheless, 72 percent of consumers in a recent survey by Campaign Monitor said they expect to use these technologies more in the future.

Voice assistants help consumers carry out commands, search the web, and control smart home devices. While consumers are finding tremendous advantage in using them to access some information (“OK, Google. What’s the weather?”), these voice interfaces also provide both untapped potential and huge challenges for marketers to deliver first-class, personalized brand experiences.

Despite being positioned by many as the next great disruptor, voice assistant technology still needs some improvement. For example, many respondents to the Campaign Monitor survey said they wanted the technology to be more effective and personalized to their needs. Nearly half (45 percent) said they’d prefer their devices to have more direct knowledge instead of suggesting web searches. Additionally, 44 percent said they’d like their devices to have improved understanding of different speech patterns. A little more than a third (35 percent) said they’d like their devices to have better artificial intelligence to anticipate speech preferences (like punctuation) and knowledge of the businesses they frequent.

Security and data protection are also issues, with nearly four in 10 (39 percent) saying they’d like to better understand and regulate how their smart devices record interactions and collect and store data related to those interactions.

So why should marketers care? Will Hall, chief creative officer at RAIN, a provider of voice and conversational artificial intelligence technology and services, points out that 70 percent of web traffic occurs on mobile devices and 30 percent of that is for voice search.

Though the primary use of voice with smart speakers is to play music, searching for information and shopping are not far behind, according to David Owens, vice president of business development at Harman International. Companies that capitalize on voice search enjoy improved interaction with customers, he adds.

Amazon and Google are by far the most dominant players, but other voice technology companies have established a presence in the market, and each has its own way to produce answers, according to Hall. Marketers need to do what they can to ensure their brands or store locations appear as the “best answer” when queried. If, for example, a consumer asks Alexa to find a local hardware store, Home Depot’s marketers would want the smart speaker or other device to provide the nearest Home Depot location (even if a competitor is closer). Likewise, marketing reps for Ryobi will want the smart speaker to present their company when someone enters a search for power drills.

For that to happen, marketers need to orient their content in a conversational way and understand how the search engines process that content, Hall says. “You want to try to own the category or occasion.”

Marketers also need to understand how prospects or customers are likely to search for the items they want. One person might ask for a power drill; another might ask for the best drill (without the word “power”); and another might ask for the best drill under $200 or with a certain feature. In each instance, the Ryobi marketer would want his company’s drills to show up first among the search results presented.

One way companies can do that is by updating their content and expanding their ecosystems to position themselves as authorities in their specific categories, according to Hall. The more content the company has on its website, optimized for the way people will ask queries, the more the company will surface at the top.

“Voice search pulls from rich snippets,” Hall explains. “When there’s only one answer, you want to make sure that you build the authority of your brand.”

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