Five years ago, former Chief Scientist at Baidu, Andrew Ng, predicted that by 2020, 50 percent of all searches are going to be through images or speech. This statistic has been widely misrepresented in the tech press, as Ng was only referring to China, a country that currently accounts for 52 percent of global smart speaker growth. Still, smart speaker and voice assistant usage has continued to see healthy growth in the U.S. and other markets.
A July 2019 survey from Voicebot found that almost 60% of U.S. adults say they have used voice search, and a broader global study by Microsoft Bing Ads found 72% of respondents used voice search through a digital assistant. These studies provide evidence that consumers are embracing voice for search.
And if Amazon’s just-announced Alexa-powered glasses, rings, and earbuds catch on, we could see an even bigger surge in voice search in the coming months.
This means brands that have invested heavily in SEO in the past need to rethink their search strategies. Specifically, you need to know where voice assistants get their answers from and how you can ensure that any answers relating to your business are answered correctly.
There are three methods you can use in a voice-first world to optimize your brand’s visibility and make sure it’s accurately represented. Let’s take a look at them.
1. Voice SEO
When a user launches a voice query, the resulting content (voice-optimized web content) can come from a variety of sources. Typically, answers are drawn from web pages that feature conversationally written content, often using natural language modifiers with keywords, such as questions alongside concise answers. If you want to produce answers that will be picked up by smart speakers, you should be creating a “featured snippet” to give your content the best chance of surfacing. Generally, content should aim to be in the top 10 of SERP on Google and Bing to be selected as an answer by voice assistants.
While there is a lot of inexact science being circulated about how to win voice SEO, it is best to start with a landscape analysis to understand what you are up against. For some industries and question types, dominant sites such as Wikipedia may be hard to topple, but in many cases we’ve seen third-party sites with limited authority being surfaced over brands themselves. If this is happening withyour brand, make sure your brand content is voice ready. It’s not just a matter of rewriting content to be voice-friendly; you need to think through a number of consumer inquiry types that may arise.
2. Voice experiences
If you are building a voice application today, it would be wise to incorporate content and answers to questions you could expect your consumers to ask. Although experiences are not surfaced through native voice search inquiries nearly as often as optimized web content, Alexa and Google Assistant will still offer them as recommendations for some queries. Both companies have also rolled out features that make it easier for developers and brands to have their applications discovered in this way (CanFufillIntent and Implicit Invocations, respectively).
Regardless of whether your experience surfaces every time a consumer searches on a voice-first device or not, if you are promoting your presence on voice and driving usage of your application(s), it’s important to have answers easily accessible. A consumer’s interest in answers doesn’t stop once they enter your application; in fact, it may very well increase. Perhaps more importantly, once a user enters your voice experience, the amount and level of data you can receive about their interactions significantly increases from the relative black box of the native platforms. Even if you have a small number of users at first, the data you capture around their queries and intents will be qualitatively valuable, so you’ll want to use that data to inform your larger voice SEO strategy.
3. Knowledge graph and database partnerships
Another area you need to be mindful of is the ever-changing landscape of knowledge graphs and data partnerships that big tech companies are using with their voice assistant AIs. Two notable graphs that the assistants turn to regularly are Wikipedia and Yelp, since they are highly trafficked sites where consumers look for answers. If there’s information about your company on these sites, make sure everything is represented properly.
Other behind-the-scenes partnerships will focus on filling knowledge gaps for the AIs in areas with agreed-upon factual answers or that depend on reliable real-time data. For example, Amazon Alexa uses Wolfram Alpha to answer difficult computational questions, and Samsung Bixby partners with theScore for sports scores and news. Alexas also gets help from Yext on local search results.
The bottom line
As more and more people use voice assistants, the major players in voice technology today such as Amazon and Google – and young voice technology companies that are on the horizon – will have their own ways of providing answers. Brands and other organizations will need to learn how each of those options operates so that they can make sure they’re being properly represented.
Although the process and sources may evolve as the voice industry matures, the best practices are likely to remain the same. Brands can benefit from updating their content and ecosystems to position themselves as an authority in their category. If we’ve learned anything from traditional search it is that once someone has been deemed a “winner” by the search engines, they are hard to shake. Voice presents an opportunity to reshape your presence, and brands have the opportunity to take advantage of voice search now to be ahead of the technology in the future.
Will Hall is Chief Creative Officer at RAIN.
Matt Lang is Strategy Director at RAIN.