Ask Alexa to set a timer for 5 minutes because that’s the time you’ll need to read this paper and swot-up on PR in the age of voice search. We’ve all seen the growing influence of Google Home, Alexa, Siri and Cortana, and know that more and more people are asking for their wisdom. The global tech giants behind these virtual assistants are fighting to get their bots smarter too – Apple recently poached Google’s AI chief in a bid to save Siri (and help it with its wisdom!). There’s little doubt that voice operated devices are on the up and the market is in a continued state of growth.
Every day new stats and figures are reported online and I could have included them all in this paper but it would have been a very long and boring read! So, instead, here are some of the most pertinent stats for those of us in marketing roles:
- Almost half of UK households are forecast to own a smart speaker by 2022, according to research from OC&C Strategy Consultants
- 62% of Brits are already using or are happy to use voice-operated devices for shopping, controlling music, searching the web and finding the latest news, according to market research house Mintel
- 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020, according to comScore
- 42% of marketers have ‘developing for the voice interface’ on the roadmap for 2018, according to tech publishing company Purch
Exciting yet terrifying, right?
But, remember, these bots are learner bots, so how do we influence ‘the wisdom’ they divulge as they get smarter? How can we as businesses be present in voice search?
A quick step back: Where PR and search collides
Since Google and Bing changed their algorithms to think more like humans, PR has been a vital part of an organisation’s SEO strategy. An ‘offsite SEO’ strategy includes having your organisation’s website link on other websites (a backlink), and for the links to be powerful SEO-wise they need to be on sites that Google and Bing deem important and relevant. Media sites often become top sites that give organisations SEO juice, bridging from PR to search. For quite some time now, PR has looked beyond being present on media sites for awareness building, instead ensuring there is SEO value to media pick-up too. Quite simply, when it comes to press sites, the more backlinks there are on influential media titles (written by an independent third party and holding the readers’ attention) the further up page one you go.
Search engines have put a considerable amount of effort in creating trust, and consumers believe they are getting the best answer to match their needs. Voice search is already advanced, but there is work to be done on establishing trust - and the multiple devices and new technology bring different challenges.
“That’s tough to explain”
When Alexa is asked who the CEO of Facebook is, she gets the answer correct – Mark Zuckerberg, of course. When she is asked where she got that information from, she says ‘that’s tough to explain’.
Different devices use different applications to source information. With Siri for example, the same Facebook CEO question pulls up the answer on ‘Knowledge’, through Cortana the answer is pulled up on Bing and with Google Home, unsurprisingly it comes through Google search.
A location-based question like ‘where is the nearest Italian restaurant?’ will use a maps application to give you various options.
The market is also in a state of growth and development, and it is not clear yet which virtual assistant will maintain dominance. In 2017, Amazon and Microsoft announced a partnership in order to strengthen Cortana and Alexa by combining both virtual assistants. Essentially, within Alexa you’ll be able to open Cortana and vice versa. The idea is that people can use the functionality in both assistants like sending an email in Cortana or using an Alexa skill to order a pizza.
The conclusion here is that being ‘found’ as an organisation will become more complex, and marketers will need to look beyond just influencing their Google search results – even if Google Home is performing well so far!
150 words a minute
We talk faster than we type. Even though Google has improved results for natural questions, we still type into Google in a fairly non-conversational way– for example, ‘Italian restaurants Farringdon’, rather than ‘What Italian restaurants are there near here?’. This is the opposite of how we talk to voice assistants, which tends to be in a human ‘Q&A’ style.
But virtual assistants are not completely human-like yet, they are unable to connect questions together. For example, if you ask Google, Alexa, Siri or Cortana the address for the Eiffel tower, followed by ‘how tall is it?’, they will not understand that you’re still talking about the Eiffel tower. In fact, Siri randomly pulled up results for celebrity heights including Kanye West (he’s 5ft 8in, if you’re curious), and Alexa and Cortana admitted they didn’t understand what I was looking for.
There is also the issue of voice recognition. Companies like Microsoft and Apple are going to considerable lengths to improve voice recognition – recording native speakers, in natural environments (with background noises like street sounds and people murmuring) to improve their technology and make it accessible to all.
In the interim, we will have to adapt the way we ask questions in order to get the answer we’re looking for. It won’t be too different to the way we’ve adapted how we type questions into Google or Bing.
Pressure to be position zero
Alexa and Google Home tend to only give you one top answer. For example, when asked ‘What are the top features of the latest iPhone?’, Alexa reels off the latest features. However, Cortana and Siri are both device-based, so the same question brings up top Bing results with Cortana and Siri tells you to go to Apple’s website.
The fight to be the top answer will be a considerably tougher challenge than being on page one of Google, so marketers have their work cut out. That said, the power of influential media articles will also play their role. When Siri was asked, ‘What HR software does Microsoft use?’, an article in Fortune came up as the first result.
Work to be done
To prepare for the growth of voice search, your business needs to continue to establish trust with search engines and the relevant applications linked to virtual assistants. And like web searches, you need to continually fuel your efforts because search engines are always refining results, so you won’t necessarily be the top result forever.
Furthermore, virtual assistants gather contextual data (like location) and historical data (like previously asked questions) to better deliver an answer. Voice search becomes less about keywords, and more about context and businesses need to map how they become relevant to the individual in this instance.
Brevity is also essential when optimising for voice search – it’s important to create detailed answers to common questions as well as answer simple questions clearly and concisely.
The virtual assistant market is in a state of flux, meaning a lot can change fast so the first thing to do is follow its developments. But a lot can also be done to get your business ready for the growth of voice search, for instance:
- Controlling your digital knowledge
Conduct an audit of your current digital reputation – how do you feature on Google and Bing? Are there results you need to push down to ensure the right results feature first? Yes, this is still focussing on web search, but as virtual assistants develop, they will look to search engine results as one of the primary sources of knowledge.
- Updating and publishing new knowledge
Siri and Cortana (less important for Alexa and Google Home) will often offer a selection of answers, and as we saw with one example, they favour established websites like media outlets. For many reasons, quality is preferred over quantity, and this is certainly the case with voice search as it’s not about being featured in many results, but being featured in the top results. PR has helped improve SEO through strong link building, and PR will also become a big part in influencing voice search results.
Meanwhile, on your own website think to create content or a page that asks a common question, immediately provide a succinct answer and use the rest of the page to elaborate in detail. Don’t be tempted to hijack topics which are loosely aligned with your business because it’ll show in the quality of the answer delivered by virtual assistants – it’ll damage your reputation rather than enhance it.
- Being mobile friendly (if you’re not already!)
Again, more of a focus for Cortana and Siri, being mobile friendly is important since we’re often pointed to websites when given an answer to a question. A responsive website, with clean code and a robots.txt file will make you voice search friendly.
So, whilst what can be done to prepare for voice search is much of the best practice of savvy marketers that have long bridged great PR and SEO, as the market matures, delivering more relevant responses may require different strategies. There’s no doubt voice search is coming fast, and PR and SEO will need to adapt just as quick!