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5 June 2017

Voice assistants: all talk or the future of search?

Written by: Louise Heap, Senior Content Manager at Edelman

Innovation, Technology


You may well have seen the ads for voice assistants Amazon Echo and Google Home, answering a range of voice commands from switching on lights, ordering a pizza to providing the answer to the capital city of a country. But what do these voice assistants mean for how we consume information and purchase products? And what impact will that have on brands?

With sales of digital voice assistants set to increase by 738% from 2016 to 2020, it’s certainly worth considering voice search as part of your long-term marketing strategy. Getting on board with it now will set you ahead of the game if predictions are correct and these devices become a key part of how we manage our lives.

First let’s look at Amazon Echo. Powered by Amazon’s Alexa technology, Echo allows customers to purchase products by saying aloud what they want to order. Like other voice assistants it will also help manage your home – playing a specified playlist, telling a joke, or answering a question, such as “how many teaspoons in a tablespoon?” (there’s 3 if you’re interested).

The challenge is how to monetise these queries as only a select few will lead to potential conversions. Easier perhaps for Amazon-powered devices as their search algorithm is focused on purchase. Half of all product searches now start on the platform, so it’s important for brands to start optimising their listing if they’re to appear at the top of Amazon’s search results, and stand a chance of getting featured as the answer on their voice assistant devices.

So how do you get featured as the preferred brand listing? Perhaps unsurprisingly, using Amazon programs such as Amazon Prime, Amazon Business and Amazon Sponsored Product Ads will make Alexa more likely to feature your product. A new program that will be key to this selection, Amazon Choice, has also been developed. A logo for this program will appear next to certain products and it’s these that will be given as a response when you ask Echo a query featuring a relevant keyword to that product. You can’t submit your products to be chosen for Amazon Choice, but we do know a few factors it looks at when determining which product to use. These include popularity, rating and reviews, availability, shipping speeds and making your product available on Amazon Prime. Optimising your listing for Amazon’s search algorithm can also help – its focus being providing the product listing most likely to result in a sale. That means high quality imagery, following Amazon’s title formula and clear descriptions are essential. Robyn Johnson provides the complete guide for optimisation.

The point of initial conversion is also something to bear in mind, especially for repeat-purchase products. If someone orders toothpaste for instance, when they next go to order, Alexa will add that previously purchased brand to their basket by default. Directing users to purchase through Amazon when they reach the point of sale on your brand site could therefore be a good tactic to deploy to ensure you get this initial sale through the platform.

So, what about Google Home? Not to be outdone, the search giant has developed its own voice search offering which is likely to be a focus for its future strategy. Like Echo, the device helps manage your home and answers a range of queries. And again, like Amazon, Google has had to make the leap from offering a number of query results to just one.

You’re likely to have seen when searching on mobile or desktop a result boxed out that directly answers your query. This is a featured snippet and according to Dr. Peter J. Meyers it’s these that are the answers Google Home will provide to a voice query. Brands therefore need to optimise for featured snippets to be the answer for Google Home. As with Amazon’s Choice, there will only be one top spot, so making sure you’re optimising for featured snippets now will set you in good stead for Google Home voice searches. But how do you do this? Making sure your page URL includes the query you want to answer, you include content within the HTML tags and the main heading is within a <h1> tag will all help, naturally along with making sure you’re answering the question effectively and succinctly in the first few sentences at the top of the page, ideally within 50 words.

Having featured snippets does present a challenge to Google though, and here we go back to monetising search. Because if you can answer the query without someone having to click through to the site on desktop or without providing further information through voice, how can brands use this to get their product out there? For the moment at least, ensuring you have the right blend of informational and promotional information in the content you’re optimising for featured snippets is the best route. Google Home can also attribute information, e.g. ‘According to Wikipedia’ which, if this is your brand, gives you authority on the information and brand awareness.

Another point of consideration that Egle Gudiskyte raises is how we search using voice – because what we say aloud is not how we type. When we speak, our queries tend to be longer and more complicated, so optimising for long-tail keywords may also become more important.

So, what does this mean for brands and for us as consumers? Digital voice assistants are still very much in their infancy, and we’re likely to see changes in how these devices work and how we interact with them in our lives over the next few years. From what we’ve seen so far, there’s still a way to go in defining how the likes of Amazon and Google can effectively monetise these services for brands. Desktop, and mobile more so, will be the norm for a while yet, but optimising for Amazon Choice and Google’s featured snippets is certainly worth investing in. They may not be all talk yet, but optimising for voice search now will likely benefit your current approach and help future-proof your strategy.

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