The rise of voice search and the personal assistant

On the Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast: the five things marketers need to know

March 30, 2017

The world of search marketing is changing – and changing fast. Gartner predicts that, within just four years, 30% of searches will no longer involve a screen. They will be spoken into a smartphone or an Alexa-style virtual assistant. As a result, they will involve different search queries that deliver potentially very different results. Marketers need to start thinking fast about what a voice search world means for audiences engaging with their brand, their products – and their content. They must ask themselves how to adapt SEO and content marketing strategy for voice – and how to deliver an audience experience to fit a very different type of interface.

There are few better people to ask about the implications of voice for search than Ravleen Beeston. She’s the head of sales for Bing, which powers three of the four biggest digital assistants, including Alexa and Apple’s Siri. Bing has brought voice search to iPhones, early adopting homes, and Windows 10 (via the integrated Cortana virtual assistant). In fact, voice already represents roughly 25% of Bing search queries made in Windows 10. If you want to know what voice search means for marketing, you don’t want to pass up the opportunity for 30 minutes with Ravleen. And for the latest episode of The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast, that’s exactly what we got.

Recorded live at our pop-up studio in the LinkedIn Lounge of Advertising Week Europe, here’s Ravleen’s take on the five things that marketers need to know about voice search. Click on the link below to listen to the episode – and scroll down to explore the implications for SEO and content marketing strategies:

Voice search captures intent – not just interest
Potentially the most exciting element of voice search is its ability to detect intent rather than just interest. It will identify not just the information somebody is searching for, but why they are searching for it. This contextual understanding is a potential game-changer for search marketing. It means search engines directing people to very different results based on an interpretation of their tone of voice and apparent emotional state.

The example that Ravleen gave me was of a person searching on the Heimlich Manoeuvre. Depending on the tone of the voice making the query, the search engine could prioritise a Wikipedia entry on Henry Heimlich, a detailed history of the technique – or immediate step-by-step actions to save a life there and then.

Many B2B marketers and their sales colleagues are already alive to the important distinction between interest and intent – between somebody with a general interest in your product and somebody who has embarked on the buying journey. In a world searched by voice, B2C marketers will need to do the same. Marketers need to start thinking about what they will do with the additional contextual information that voice provides, tailoring experiences to fit whether somebody is actively researching, ready to buy – or just in need of help. They will need to develop content that answers different contexts for searches (and different stages of customer journeys) – not just different sets of keywords. And they will need to develop SEO strategies that can signal this to voice-driven search engines.

Voice search queries are longer and more specific
Because voice-activated search is more natural and intuitive, it tends to involve longer, more specific and more conversational queries. These are far more likely to come in the form of questions rather than two or three-word statements: the difference between someone using a search term like ‘weather in London’ or asking a question like, “will I need sunglasses in London today?”

What does this mean for marketers? The obvious answer is a more granular SEO strategy that’s designed to cater to more specific, long-tail searches. The opportunity here is to deliver greater relevance to people who have expressed what they want with much more clarity. However, taking advantage will require an equally granular content strategy, with content that can be tailored to these different scenarios.

Voice search requires a broader keyword strategy – but it’s still a keyword strategy
Imagining a voice-led world can leave your head spinning just a little – but the good news for SEO marketers is that Ravleen believes the fundamental building blocks of SEO strategy will remain the same. Search will still be driven by keywords. However, those keywords will need to cater for far broader and more individual ways of asking a question. Broad match will become an increasingly important element in planning SEO and paid search campaigns.

Voice search is about experience
Up to now, search has been about accessing an experience – whether reading an article, finding product information or watching a video. In a voice-led world, search itself becomes the experience. The ability of a brand to be relevant in a specific moment is the real key to impact. Marketers will need to frame all forms of content in a way that can makes that relevance as apparent as possible, and seamlessly anticipates the context in which a question is asked. It will be challenging – but it can give both search and content marketing a role in the future of the digital experience.

Voice search is arriving faster than you might think
That future is arriving quicker than you think. Ravleen is convinced that Generation Z is the tipping point for voice search – that 10 to 11 year-olds find asking smartphones questions so natural that they will even persist in using their voice when it would be far easier to type in what they are searching for. She tells a great story of her four-year-old son becoming so adept at using Alexa (including dropping his voice an octave or two, in order to imitate an adult) that he puts together the family shopping lists. He’s so at home in a world of voice that he even asks the car radio to play his favourite nursery rhymes – and gets frustrated when it doesn’t.

Those of us who’ve learned the logic of typed keyword searches will take longer to adapt – but maybe not that long. As the AI behind voice analysis becomes more powerful, and the experience of asking questions becomes more intuitive and natural, it could quickly become more efficient simply to tell your chosen device what you need. And yes – that could apply to B2B audiences just as much as B2C ones.

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