The power of voice search

The next wave of digital marketing is voice. Is your business equipped to ride it?

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Australians haven’t always been early adopters of technology, yet the rate at which we’ve embraced voice technology has surpassed all expectations.

At the end of 2018, more than 1.35 million Australian households had a smart speaker in their home, according to a study conducted in October by voice experience agency VERSA. The figure represented a staggering increase in ownership of 200 per cent in just four months.

This unprecedented growth is set to continue, with more than one in three Australian consumers considering purchasing a voice assistant in the next 12 months (25 per cent for themselves and 12 per cent as gifts).

Research company Gartner, meanwhile, estimates that almost one in three search sessions will be done without a screen by 2020. Sobering statistics for businesses of any size.

As Australians increasingly speak rather than type their search queries, brands and businesses will be jostling to be the content that Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, Samsung’s Bixby or Google Home return with in their responses. What does that mean for every single business owner in Australia? How do brands and businesses ensure they don’t get left behind in the voice revolution?

HOW DO WE USE VOICE ASSISTANTS?

Apple’s voice-based phone assistant Siri has been around for eight years now, but it took the launch into the Australian market of smart speakers for the home – Google Home in 2017, followed by Amazon Alexa in early 2018 – to speed up consumer interest in the technology.

According to VERSA’s research of the Australian market, once they’re in the home, usage of smart speakers is typically heavy, with two out of three people using them at least daily. About a third of smart speaker households have more than one speaker in the home, usually found in the living area (two thirds) and bedroom (one third).

Music tops the list of smart speaker commands spoken by Australian users at 61 per cent, followed by checking the weather (60 per cent) and news (49 per cent).

“In overseas markets, where smart speakers have been in market longer, a greater concentration of users use their device for voice search and for making calls (Adobe Analytics via CNBC),” the VERSA research states. “With 50 per cent of voice users in overseas markets using voice for search, it’s imperative that Australian marketers ensure their content is optimised for voice or risk not getting found by Australia’s fastest-growing direct-to-consumer channel.”

Guy Munro, Global Business Director at VERSA, believes voice technology will be the way we all consume content in the very near future. “I have a six-year-old and a nine-year-old who are very comfortable using the Alexa Fire TV Cube in our lounge room to control the TV, surround sound and lights,” he says.

“My youngest walks in to the lounge room and can turn on the TV, navigate to Netflix and search for content by speaking instructions only. Younger generations won’t know a different way of consuming content.”

For business owners feeling overwhelmed at the thought of a new marketing channel, Munro reminds us how far we’ve come already. “Remember, search engine marketing didn’t exist when Google first came out. We believe instead of competing for eyeballs, brands will be competing for your ears in due course.”

"The potential for voice is vast and shopping is the next frontier."

 

WHAT SHOULD YOU BE DOING?

The first priority for business owners should be ensuring their websites and digital assets are voice-ready, according to digital experts.

“To do well in voice you need to have a good solid SEO foundation,” advises Miki Clarke, Senior Manager of Digital Media at Allianz. “Landing pages should be well-aimed, with well-defined themes focused on the terms your target audience are searching or asking, and pay particular attention to the FAQ section, as this lends itself most immediately to the voice medium, replacing existing customer conversations.”

Clarke adds: “Small and medium-sized businesses should be making sure they have all the basics right in terms of their website – they should be ranking well, particularly for their brand terms, and niche terms like the geographical locations in which they’re based. Once they achieve visibility in organic search, it’s an easy stepping stone into the voice space.

“It’s always the companies that do well organically that will be best placed to capitalise on voice.”

Munro agrees. “More than anything, my recommendation, whether you’re at the big end of town or the smaller end, is to get all your digital entities to a point where the data is good, clean and accessible. This is very much a hygiene exercise and ensures you have a good base to start with when the time is right for you to consider voice for your brand. It also involves adding Speakable Schema Markup so your website can be found and read out by a voice assistant.”

Speakable markup is a form of structured data that enables website owners and publishers to mark sections of the site that are more relevant to be read aloud by voice assistants. As a primary appeal of voice technology for consumers is saving time, web developers must determine which parts of a site are most useful to be spoken rather than marking excessive amounts of content.

A helpful tip from Clarke is to listen out for new releases of speakable schema.org properties. Currently it’s limited to news sites and recipe sites but Google is expected to announce new variations.

Schema.org is a collaborative initiative jointly set up by Google, Bing and Yahoo to serve as a centralised industry-accepted code markup of data found on websites. “Using this structured markup via schema.org, you’d mark up particular elements of your content to categorise it,” Clarke explains.

PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES

To use voice effectively, business owners should be thinking about what their customers will find most useful, according to Clarke.

“My advice to any business owner who wants to be in a good position to play in the voice space is to put themselves in the shoes of their customer,” she says. “Even if you don’t have a home assistant, have a play around with voice searches on your mobile phone. What would you, as a customer, be searching for, aside from the standard directions, opening hours and contact details?

“Think about the conversations you’re already having with your customers, whether that be on the phone or your website. Could any repetitive conversations naturally transition to voice assistants? For example, for Allianz, that would involve questions about what’s included in the policy. Or, what’s the difference between comprehensive and third-party insurance?”

BROADER OPPORTUNITIES

The potential for voice is vast and shopping is the next frontier. According to VERSA’s research, one in four Australian smart speaker owners have already used their devices to buy a product online, while one in two are open to doing so.

Google is already working on making shopping voice-accessible with the introduction last year of its Transactions API. Available on the latest models of Google Home, Transactions API makes it easier for shoppers to make a voice-activated purchase by seamlessly charging the amount to the credit card attached to their Google account. For business owners, it means bypassing the need to build their own payment platform.

It’s not just purchases that are simplified through Transactions API. The tech also enables users to make reservations, including restaurant bookings and hairdressing appointments, offering another avenue for businesses to participate in the voice space.

Munro believes that as users and businesses become more familiar with the technology, its applications will escalate. “There are many possible applications for voice technology,” he says. “Ultimately, voice is meant to reduce friction. In a QSR (quick service restaurant) environment, it could be used to make drive-through a better experience. At the moment, one in six drive-through purchases get the order wrong. There are some logical and simple ways that voice can add value there.”

In addition, brands and businesses can create ‘skills’ (programmed tasks) for Alexa to carry out. For example, VERSA created an Alexa skill for surf forecast service Coastalwatch, enabling users to ask Alexa about surf conditions at the beach of their choice, while Oral B in the US created a kid-friendly teeth-brushing routine (‘Chompers’) for its Crest kids’ toothpaste, also as an Alexa skill.

Another example is car-sharing service GoGet’s Alexa skill, also created by VERSA, enabling users to book a GoGet car through Alexa. Clarke believes this particular application would have delivered the additional benefit of boosting the brand’s organic search (thanks to the articles it provoked, which helps lift rankings).

This, she says, demonstrates that “integrations can be much wider reaching than would appear on the face of things”.