How often do you sit in your car and ask Siri or Cortana to find the nearest gas station or place to eat? Do you also do the same thing at home with Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa? Voice search has not-so-subtly become a part of our information habits. As the share of searches made by voice (not type) grows, the behavior is changing how brands have to think about information, marketing and technology. Since 2015, it’s believed that over 40 percent of American adults have begun utilizing voice search with some level of consistency. This is particularly important for small businesses and big brands alike. Local search – searches pertaining to information, products or services nearby – is on the rise, and these searches are happening by voice.
Brands have certainly paid close attention to search for many years. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a well-known component of digital marketing, and brands large and small adopt a variety of tactics to ensure that their website ranks well with Google and other search engines. However, voice search changes the game entirely. When you use “type search” on a mobile phone or desktop, you are presented with pages of results to scroll through at your own pace. Most people don’t make it past the first page, and rightfully so. Google and other search engines have spent years refining algorithms to bring you the most relevant results, so what lies beyond the first page of a search is anyone’s guess. In many cases, appearing on the first page wasn’t even enough – you needed to appear “above the fold” for people to pay attention. With voice, you often get a single response, or at best a top three-to-five that are read aloud to you. This is great for the user who is seeking an absolute answer in response to their question, but presents a new set of challenges to the brand vying for their attention.
Globally, over half of searches are made on mobile devices. According to Google, 20 percent of those mobile searches are made via voice. Of all of those searches, 80 percent of them pertain to location. Because we often speak in a style separate from how we might type, voice searches are made with casual, natural language. Often this means they are launched in a conversational tone, via a “how,” “why,” “when,” or “what” question. Many are even framed as “wants” – I want to do this or I want to buy this, for example.
To put this in a working context, imagine this scenario: A foodie is at home with their Alexa Dot. They plan to make a particular recipe that calls for an atypical ingredient. They ask Alexa: “Where can I buy ingredient so and so?” Alexa responds with an answer that she’s pulled from the web, relying – as search engines do – on information provided on a website. Meaning the answer will be the brand that took the time to incorporate that ingredient on their website, whether they did so on a webpage, or product inventory or somewhere in the metadata.
After all, digital assistants such as Alexa can only provide an answer if someone has made that answer available for them to recall. In reality, a local store in closer proximity to the foodie might have the ingredient in stock, but because voice searches tend to seek acute answers, and the digital assistant has to provide an exact (or near-exact response), it’s the brand that made the information available online that wins the day in voice search.
Reaching “position zero” is about so much more than a brilliant keyword or tag strategy. It’s certainly not about PPC (pay per click), because in the voice search environment there is no such solution. It’s about utilizing digital assets – websites and social media – to provide content that readily answers the kinds of questions your potential customers are asking in voice search. Doing so will position you and your brand to benefit from increased site and foot traffic, growing your brand online and in the real world.
You’ve seen position zero before. It’s the featured snippet in Google: that little box above all the other results – even the traditional sponsored content that people paid money for – that gives you a short on-screen answer to your question, along with a link from the brand providing the solution. Reaching position zero is essentially both as easy and as complicated as this: offer answers to questions your customers are asking. Focusing on the strategies that help you organically show up as the answer to questions about your industry, products or services in traditional typed search will help as we move toward an environment that is predominately searchable by voice.
Kristine Neil is the founder and creative director at Markon Brands in Vancouver. Mike Wagner is the firm’s digital strategist. The branding agency provides design, web, social, and reputation management services for small-to-midsize businesses, nonprofits and other organizations.