Get ready for screen-free search

Our Digital Media Manager Chris explains what the rapidly growing popularity of digital assistants means for marketers.
 
Two months ago, Google Home launched in the UK, following hot on the heels of Amazon Echo. Both are devices with in-built digital home assistants, designed to be communicated with entirely by voice. They can perform a range of functions, from streaming music to connecting with IoT-enabled smart appliances and providing information based on users’ queries.

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These new digital home assistants (along with smartphone-based digital assistants such as Siri and Cortana) represent a fundamental shift in the way we gather information online. When you ask your digital assistant “what will the weather be like today?” or “where is the best restaurant in this town?”, the answer comes back to you in audio. This is a break from the norm because the two fundamentals of conventional search are not present – there is no typing in keywords, and no search results page.

With voice search, the digital assistant takes on the role of gatekeeper between brands and searchers, filtering what information comes through to the user. At face value, this is an alarming situation for marketers. But as with most changes, it brings a big opportunity.

Brands that are able to optimise their digital presence for voice search can gain a huge advantage over their competitors.

3 essentials in optimising for voice search

1.    Structured data
To increase the likelihood of being surfaced by digital assistants, brands need to make their content relevant to their customers, while easily indexable and understandable for AI.

Google Assistant (the technology behind Google Home) gets its information from the Knowledge Graph, which is heavily reliant on structured data. Structured data is essentially a way of tagging parts of your online content to make it easier for search engines to categorise and index it.

Brands have a wide range of options when it comes to structured data, but a good place is to start is with schema markup for Organisation, Product, Event, Article and Local Business.

This is a big opportunity for brands to benefit from voice search – by thinking about how structured data can highlight the content they want to be found for.

2.    Local Search
Voice searches are three times more likely than typed searches to have local intent behind them. This makes sense when you consider some of the situations when people are most likely to be using voice search – on their mobile when they’re out and about, and looking for information on where to shop or eat.

For a local business, it is more crucial than ever that you’ve got the fundamentals of local SEO covered. That means having up to date address and contact information on your site and on Google Maps. It also means reviews, citations, local backlinks and all the other elements that go into a strong local search strategy. This has long been an important aspect of SEO, but voice gives an even stronger impetus to invest in getting it right. 

3.    Conversational Search
You may have seen the ‘if Google was a guy’ sketch, which imagines how the searches typed into Google would sound if they were said aloud to a human. The point is that we don’t interact with search engines in the same way we converse with another person. The way we use voice search is much more akin to person-to-person interaction. Unlike a typed search, voice search tends to use more words. We speak in full sentences and form proper questions.

As voice search grows, we’re going to see increasing volumes of long tail keyword searches. Our keyword strategy will need to evolve to optimise for this kind of longer, more detailed conversational query.

The big positive aspect of longer search queries is that users are giving us more context on what they’re looking for. This is valuable information, helping us understand exactly what our customers are searching for, and adapt our content to be more focused on direct answers to their questions. 

Our predictions for search

Is voice search going to replace standard search? We think not. In the immediate future, there are always going to be types of searches you’ll want to do on a screen. Voice search will certainly grow to supplement traditional screen-based search though. Research by Chinese search engine Baidu suggests that 50% of searches will be voice in 2020, and 4 billion digital assistants are expected to be in use by 2021.

Voice search is likely to become much more widely used for certain types of searches (easy factual questions, measurement and currency conversions etc), whilst text-based search will continue to be used for more explorative, less precise searches. It may be the case that brands begin to create separate content for two audiences – those reading the web and those interacting with a digital assistant.

The long term future - a genuine digital butler

AI-based digital assistants are in their infancy, but in the years to come they have the potential to spur truly huge and transformative changes in the way we shop online.

We’re soon going to see digital assistants that don’t just pass on information based on user requests; they act on them too – potentially even making our purchases for us.

Over the last 20 years we’ve become used to making purchases such as holidays by using a search engine to research options matching our criteria, and booking online based on the results that come back.

Now consider the very real possibility that in a few years we won’t be doing any of that. We’ll simply be telling our digital assistant to find and book us the best value holiday available based on our stated criteria, and it will do it all with just one simple voice command.

A world where purchasing decisions are made by AI rather than consumers will be an interesting one indeed. Prepare to throw out everything you know about how brands and advertising work. Convincing a robot to buy from you will be a whole different ball game.

True are already experimenting with the possibilities of voice search for a whole range of brands. If you would like to know how your business can begin to take advantage of this technology, please get in touch.