Person with a megaphone among a crowd.
PHOTO: Gabriel Saldana

ComScore predicts that half of all searches will be voice-activated by next year. That’s pretty much the only statistic marketers and brands need in order to recognize they’re probably smart to create a voice-search strategy. “Increasingly with voice search, I don't want a set of options like we've gotten with standard web search on our PCs and even our smartphones,” said Mike McGuire, vice president analyst in Gartner’s marketing practice. “I don't want a series of options. I want the answer.”

The shift to voice search creates new questions around search strategy, according to research authors for a Hero Digital report. “How do you achieve the coveted position of the voice search result? Should your strategy differ depending on device? Do the results from Google Assistant better match SERPs vs. other smart speakers because Google is a major search engine?”

Starting With the Consumer Path to Purchase 

To provide answers, we must understand the questions ahead of time. We must understand the medium and consumer intent. Connecting with consumers via voice-enabled digital assistants “opens us up empathetically,” and “a lot can be gained from understanding our sentiments and our intention by listening to what we say when we’re interacting with interactive technology,” according to William Ammerman, executive VP of Engaged Media.

But how can brands and marketers begin their voice-search programs and help consumers find them through voice? The first step is deconstructing the consumer path to purchase with a voice-based interface. And that path, Ammerman said, starts with the consumer themselves and understanding how they are using voice. “You start with the consumer who speaks,” he said. “But what do they speak to? They speak to a device. They don't speak to a voice assistant; they're speaking to a device.” 

Related Article: How Marketers Can Get Into the Voice Experience Party

Deconstructing Voice Devices

From there, brands need to deconstruct the device their consumers are speaking to: is it a car, a TV, from a hands-free mobile device, etc. There are no shortage of voice-enabled devices like smart speakers. “You have to understand that the devices are different in each use case,” Ammerman said. “We don't ask our car for movie recommendations. And we don't ask our TV for directions to nearest Thai restaurants.”

Understand that different devices connect to voice assistants uniquely. Some car manufacturers might only support one type of device or one type of voice assistant. One may be a Siri connector while another is Cortana, Alexa or Google Assistant. Samsung TVs support a voice assistant called Bixby, for example. 

“And once you understand the voice assistants, you have to realize that the way the voice assistants work is different,” Ammerman said. “Different voices system use different search systems. The voice tools that are behind Cortana and Alexa are using Bing for search.”

Think in Terms of Questions

If your brand has a solid grasp on the voice-search environment, it needs to determine how it can influence the next stages in terms of targeting and educating people that they can use voice technology to buy your products. How do you work with the voice assistants? How do you surface your product in the search engines? How can you interface with search engines or prepare your content to be searched?  “You have to start thinking in terms of questions, which is a fascinating transformation in the way we position products and search,” Ammerman said. “In positioning things in terms of questions, you have to understand that if you're the Google search engine that's being queried through voice, you're going to return very few results. You can't return 50 results. You're typically going to return just one result or maybe two.”

So, to be found, position your content in terms of the questions people ask with voice, Ammerman said. And that's different than the questions that are typed into the Google search bar. What questions have to be worked into the content? Where would I put actual content questions on that web page? How do I work questions into my website? “You've got to start thinking creatively about how to actually write out questions that people might be asking in order to be found by these voice searches,” Ammerman said. “So that means thinking about building a frequently asked questions area that actually spells out these questions, and make sure that those can be spidered by the search engine.”

Related Article: 7 Tips to Better Voice Search Optimization

Link Voice Tech With Accessibility

Alex Eremia, CEO of BingeWith, former Google analyst, said brands need to get to know the relationship between voice tech and accessibility. “Taking your existing content and making it more accessible through voice increases your time on site (3x), retention (2x) and number of pages viewed (2x),” Eremia said. “Just as you take time to understand your customer demographic, the same research is necessary in understanding how to make your product as accessible as possible.”

Eremia also stressed that each platform is different. “Catering your content to the platform always works better than sharing the same carbon copy search terms for each platform,” she said. “Think through which search terms they’re likely utilizing.”

B2B, You Can Get Into Party, Too

Up to this point, most of the discussion of voice and voice search has largely been around consumers, be it via smart-speakers or mobile phones, according to Brian Walker, chief strategy officer at BloomReach. But in 2020, he said, we will start to see voice-based user experiences more frequently in B2B, where hands-free UI can be really helpful and make the lives of the customer easier and more convenient. 

He cited examples like a repair person using voice search to find a product and place an order as they drive between job sites, or a floor or office manager using voice to quickly add something to an order or check a status via smart speaker or their phone. “These are no longer oddities for the consumer, and will blend quickly into the work-life of busy people,” Walker said. “For businesses, it is critical not to allow the large aggregators and platforms like Amazon dominate this new way of engaging, but rather to look to extend their sites and apps to incorporate voice and other emerging technology thoughtfully to make themselves easy and convenient for their customers.” 

Related Article: Searching for Brand Success With Voice Assistants

Understand Consumer Reservations, Technology Limitations 

A big part of getting voice right is understanding what’s holding consumers back from adopting the technology, said Darin Archer, chief strategy officer at Elastic Path. “Brands that want to get ahead in voice search in 2020 need to adapt to the challenges that arise when there’s no visual interface for browsing,” Archer said. “With voice technology, consumers are worried about errors and miscommunications with some reporting they don’t trust the device to make the correct purchases. Brands should be investing more in improving the direct search experience and combining that with easy re-ordering functions.”

Voice is better suited to these experiences than it is to browsing, he added. “Once brands understand these consumer reservations and adapt to the tech’s limitations,” Archer added, “they also need to ensure that this voice search and reordering experience matches the rest of the buying experience. If voice feels like a separate, disconnected experience, it won’t deliver value and convenience for shoppers.”  

Reconsider Product Content

Remember who you’re serving: voice searchers want short product descriptions because they are listening to you, not reading a lengthy piece of content and comparing it to other search results on a desktop or mobile device. “When it comes to search, keywords have always ruled,” Chris Dessi, vice president at Productsup, said. “However, it’s no longer just about text-based SEO now that voice search is on the rise. Now we’re thinking beyond word choice and considering the tone of product content.” 

To this end, when consumers use a voice-enabled device to inquire about a product, they don’t want to hear an exhaustive list of details rattled off, Dessi said. “Consumers want to hear a conversational tone with shorter, on-point product descriptions,” he said. Reading about a product is a proactive decision, but listening to information about a product leaves room for consumers’ minds to wander off, so retailers who fail to organize their product content in digestible bites risk having customers abandon their search.” 

Pay Attention to Long-Tail Searches 

By using tools like Google Search Console, determine what long-tail queries populate your content to understand the types of questions people are searching for answers to, said Paul Michelotti, director and solutions architect at Avionos. Form hypotheses about what questions people are trying to answer by coming to your site and ask those questions of search engines to see how your content surfaces. 

"A voice search is still a search; it is just phrased differently than a text search and comes often with a much more focused intention," Michelotti said. Instead of searching "retail properties Illinois," one might say, "What are some current trends in retail property leasing in Illinois?" or "What retail property investment opportunities are available in and near Illinois?" This represents wildly different intents and solicits very different answers. "Think in terms of the questions and how you are answering them instead of the keywords and how you rank against them," Michelotti said. 

Related Article: The Future of SEO is Not SEO

Simplify Your Site 

Oftentimes, sites are cluttered with jargon and each page covers an expansive number of topics, which can lead to confusion by voice assistants about where to pull information that meets the users needs. Instead, move away from highly complicated and over-stuffed UIs that make it difficult to determine the main thrust of a page. "Instead," Michelotti said, "focus on a flow of content that clearly indicates what you want a visitor — human or computer — to get out of the page, trending toward just one main topic per page." To further this strategy, provide clear navigation through a content tree which represents how visitors are typically trying to connect with you, he added. "Once a site has been simplified," Michelotti said, "it’s much more efficient for voice search and improved customer experiences." 

Bottom Line: All About the Questions

Most voice interactions follow a Q&A cadence so if your content addresses a specific question, then it is more likely to surface in response to that question, Michelotti said. "In terms of content, think about why you are producing and delivering the content from the perspective of the consumer," Michelotti said. "Are you answering a prospective question? Are you presenting research findings to help your consumers draw conclusions? Are you putting something into perspective or highlighting a trend or a concern in order to spur action?" Present these thoughts clearly, he said, both in the visible content and in the machine consumable metadata such as JSON-LD (JavaScript Object Notation for Linked Data), so it will be easy for consumers to find through voice search.  

Excelling at voice search all comes down to how well brands can answer consumers’ questions, Dessi added. “If someone can find out all the information they need to make a purchase in a short, simple dialogue,” he said, “they’re more likely to stop by the store or complete the ordering process online.”