Before I request an answer to the question above from Alexa, which is sitting right next to me and itching to chat, first allow me to provide some background information regarding voice search technology and explain why an increasing number of consumers are embracing it. 

Voice search – a speech recognition technology allowing people to search through speaking, as opposed to typing terms into a text field – is a booming market and ComScore have even projected that 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020. 

Although this technology is not completely new, the action of talking directly to a machine has not been a habitual activity among consumers in the past. However, with a vast number of people now using smart phones containing voice activated assistants like Siri and Google Assistant, and the launch of smart hubs such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, there has been a revolutionary change in consumer behaviour. This shift has also been influenced by advances in speech recognition technology, as illustrated by Google’s voice recognition software, which was said to be 95% accurate last year. 

In terms of what motivates someone to speak to their device, it could be simply explained by the fact it makes their life easier – but how does it do this? Voice search empowers us to search through spoken language, which is much more instinctual than text-only search, and connects us to results which are instant, convenient, and intimate. 

So here it is, Alexa’s take on how voice search is altering the way consumers interact with brands. 

Voice Searches 

Although it is currently difficult to say how people who use voice search generally behave, there is certainly evidence to suggest that voice searches are conversational. Not only did Google say that 70% of Google Assistant queries are expressed in natural language, it also said that voice searches are 30 times more likely than text-based searches to be action queries. 

For example, if you are searching for food on your mobile, your text-based query might be “Best breakfast London”. But with voice search, its conversational nature can change your query, meaning you might ask your device, “Ok Google, where is the best breakfast in London?”, or “Ok Google, which cafés are now open for breakfast?” As a result, queries can be longer and comprised of questions seeking instant answers, which include words like who, what and where. These types of searches lead to conversational interactions with brands, which feel much more personal to the user and can offer deeper insight into user intent for marketers. 

The Rise of Voice Shopping 

Although the voice shopping industry is still in its infancy, it has been predicted that it will grow to an eye-watering $40 billion-plus across the UK and US by 2022, driven in particular by the sale of Amazon smart speakers. There are already a number of examples which demonstrate the eagerness of brands to test the water in this new ocean of marketing – last year saw Walmart and Google partner to allow people to shop through Google Assistant, and Tesco unveil integration with Google Home. However, how is speech enabled shopping altering the way consumers interact with brands? 

Voice Shopping – The Simplified Purchasing Process

This type of shopping could be seen as simplifying the route to purchase, as the need for customers to research or find products is removed. One example is Alexa, which allows customers to do hands-free shopping, and the process is as simple as asking Alexa to reorder cat food, to which it could reply, ‘Ok, cat food. It’s £7.07. Should I order it?’, and then it is down to the buyer to make the final decision. This can benefit both consumers and brands. From the buyer’s perspective, it can make life much easier as it saves them time and even allows them to focus on other tasks. And from a brand’s perspective, it provides a unique opportunity to tap into a new market of voice shoppers. 

However, it is possible that shopping via personal assistants could present some real challenges for brands. Mark Ritson gave a particularly interesting point of view, arguing that assistants like Amazon’s Alexa are making choices on behalf of the consumer, and this could lead to a world in which tech companies own the customer relationship. You could even go one step further and argue that as voice search becomes an established and habitual activity, consumers will start asking Alexa for her personal opinion – I promise that I used the wrong pronoun for ironic purposes. 

Nevertheless, as of now, this is merely speculation, and only time will tell how voice shopping will affect the relationship between consumers and brands. 

Searching Without a Screen 

Further to ComScore’s highly publicised prediction, two years ago, Gartner – a research and advisory company – predicted that 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020. 

We are yet to see how accurate this prediction is, but technological advances have allowed us to search for information and even complete purchases without looking at a screen, with statistics suggesting that more and more people who own devices like the Echo and Google Home are shopping via voice. As discussed earlier, it is now possible to go shopping without visiting the supermarket, and last year saw Dominoes turn to the Amazon Echo to allow customers to order their pizza through saying, ‘Alexa, ask Domino’s to feed me.’ Crucially, any visual aspects are removed from these types of interactions, and this arguably heightens the importance of brand loyalty and differentiation. If a potential customer is shopping for general products, they might ask, “Ok Google, we need wine”, and the challenge for the marketer is to make them request your brand – ‘Ok Google, please order Barefoot Pink Moscato’. As said by Oliver Wright, managing director at Accenture Strategy, brands need to be ‘top of mind’ in the age of voice tech. 

Voice ads could improve the fortunes of less-known brands in this market and help to create a more level playing field. Although it currently does not look like any of the major players such as Amazon or Google are going to end an ad-free reign anytime soon. It certainly boils down to introducing ads without harming the user experience, so there a number of talking points for marketers. 

From a consumer’s perspective, the thought of being online, browsing the web, and multitasking while your hands and eyes are engaged can seem alluring. And this type of behaviour is set to become more common as an increasing number of people are accustomed to using virtual assistants. Although screen-based search results are not a dying breed, with many people still actively searching in this way, businesses should still consider optimising for spoken results as well. 

How to optimise for Voice Search

Below are three ways to optimise for voice search in 2018 – 

1. Optimise for conversational keywords 

The conversational nature of voice search queries can lead to them being structured differently to text-based queries and appearing as long-tail keywords, which are basically longer phrases in a sentence based format. You could optimise for these keywords by creating a frequently asked questions (FAQs) section on your website, which would help to address any queries. However, it is imperative to think like your customer and understand the types of questions they might ask relating to your business. 

2. Mobile-friendly 

Mobile friendly content is now a more important ranking factor than ever due to Google’s Mobile First index. With an increasing number of people searching via voice on mobile, it is imperative to have a site which is accessible, easy to navigate, and even more importantly, quick to load. A user’s interaction with your site must be positive, and mobile-friendly content will help to reduce the chance of them bouncing

3. Effective local SEO

Having an effective local SEO strategy will enable you to benefit from local queries via voice assistants. Claiming your Google My Business listing can certainly help with this. This will not only enhance your online presence, but also help customers find your business, which is particularly important if a customer asks their voice assistant something like, “Ok Google, where are my nearest barbers?” If you already have Google My Business, ensure it is fully up-to-date. You do not want to lose valuable customers due to providing the wrong address! Another way to optimise for local queries is to have online reviews of your business, which can boost rankings in local search results, as well as potentially influencing purchasing decisions. 

Conclusion 

It certainly looks like voice search is here to stay and we are witnessing a shift towards conversational interactions with brands, which is a direct result of advances in machine learning and the consumer’s desire to search in a way that feels more natural to them. It remains to be seen whether 50% of searches will be voice searches by 2020, but voice search technology certainly presents a number of fresh opportunities and challenges for brands, including SEO. It’s time to stop talking and start thinking.