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How Voice-Operated Assistants Are Changing Search

Voice-operated home assistants are the latest niche tech trend to start gaining traction in the mainstream. As such, the use of voice search is becoming more important to online visibility. But what does all of this mean to small businesses and the layman marketer? Let’s take a look...Voice-operated AI assistants like Google Home or Amazon Echo seem to be the latest niche tech trend to creep into mainstream usage. But what does this development mean for small business owners looking to make a name for themselves online? How does it affect the realm of search optimisation? Let’s look at how voice commands are set to change search, and run through what we currently know about setting up your brand to play nice with voice search functions.

What Voice Assistants Are Out There?

Before we proceed, let’s take a look at the four main players in the voice assistance arena:

Siri – Siri was the first mainstream contender, created by Apple and released as a part of iOS 5 back in 2011. It is accessible on a wide variety of Apple devices, and as of late 2017 it uses Google for its search functions (it previously used Bing).

Cortana – Next up in April 2014, Microsoft released their voice operated assistant Cortana, named after an artificial intelligence character from the Halo video game franchise. Cortana can be used on both Windows mobile devices and Windows PCs, and integrates with a number of Microsoft devices and apps. For search functions, Cortana uses Microsoft’s Bing search engine by default.

Alexa – Initially released in November 2014, Alexa was initially developed to provide intelligent assistance through Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot devices and later through Fire TV, but is now also available for Android and iOS users. Alexa uses Bing for search engine functions.

Google Assistant – This was initially released in May 2016 as a part of Google’s Allo app release, with mainstream access to its functions becoming more widespread in early 2017. It’s accessible through Google Chrome, Android devices, iOS, and Google Home/Home Mini. Unsurprisingly, it uses Google for its search functions.

How are Voice-Operated Assistants Changing Search Optimisation?

As more of us are welcoming voice-operated assistants into our lives, voice commands – and by extension voice search – is likely to change how we optimise for search effectiveness.

Google Home and Amazon Echo (not counting the Echo Show) don’t have screens, so they can’t display a full results page in quite the same way as a screen-based device can. They therefore rely heavily on being able to read out an answer (as definitive as possible) there and then. This is where information taken from business listings and found through “featured snippets” becomes crucial to provide succinct answers.

Google’s “Knowledge Graph” functionality displays appropriate maps, business information, and opening times at prominent places within the search results page, and relies on businesses keeping their Google My Business listing up to date. Bing has similar functionality relating to listings submitted through Bing Places for Business.

This kind of visibility is important to online optimisation as a whole, not just in terms of voice search. But when a user searches through a voice-operated assistant for “businesses near me” (e.g., “OK Google, find a cafe near me”), claiming your Google My Business or Bing Places for Business listing is imperative.

In a similar vein, featured snippets are text-based results that appear at the top of Google search results, and usually display in response to a question. They can take the form of a short paragraph, a table, or a list. Google finds what it believes to be the most succinct answer to a query (provided it’s formatted correctly) and displays it pride of place above all of the search results. Understandably this is quite a coveted position in search visibility!

With these factors in mind, it stands to reason that optimisation may be more angled towards long tail keywords – even full questions and sentences – rather than the 2- or 3-word strong target keywords of the past. We may even see a resurgence of the good, old-fashioned FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page.

It’s obviously still early days yet, and there are a lot of developments that could throw us a curve-ball. It’s therefore important to keep an interest in how the trend of voice search progresses as a whole. When the first mainstream smartphone was released (the original iPhone in 2007), we would have never guessed the magnitude and pervasiveness of mobile web usage just a decade later, and some of the twists and turns we’ve seen as the platform grew. Voice assistant devices and apps are likely to be much the same.

How Can Small Businesses Prepare for Voice Search Optimisation?

It’s tricky to advise how to get ready for such a new concept, but there are a few best practices that you can follow:

  • If you use a smartphone or tablet on a day-to-day basis, start using the voice assistant that is most compatible with that device (Google Assistant is the default for Android devices, Microsoft devices default to Cortana, Apple’s default is Siri, and Amazon devices default to Alexa). Get used to the questions you can ask, and the kinds of responses you get – especially when it comes to “businesses near me” queries and general questions about your industry.
  • Make yourself aware of the business listing functions on Google (Google My Business) and Bing (Bing Places for Business). If you’ve already claimed your listings, make sure your address, location pointer, opening times, and any images you’ve shared on each listing are all up to date.

Sidenote #1: Check out our guide to optimising your Google My Business Listing.

Sidenote #2: While you’re at it, why not claim/update your free listing here on Yell? Search engines often cross-check contact information with reputable listing sites such as Yell and Facebook, so take a moment to ensure you’re up to date wherever customers can find you online.

  • Use keyword research tools like AnswerThePublic, KeywordTool.io, and Ubersuggest to identify popular questions and key terms within your niche that may be worth answering/responding to. You could address these points within blog posts or maybe on an FAQ page, depending on how your site is laid out.
  • If you’ve got Google Search Console set up to report on search data about your site, head on over and check out Search Traffic>Search Analytics. This will show you the search terms that caused your site to appear in people’s search results. Some of them may not be accurate to your business, but it can give you a good idea of what people are searching for to find companies like yours. And if you’re not already signed up, head on over and get set up today – it’s free!
  • Read up on featured snippets and knowledge graph functionality and make yourself aware of how to format crucial questions as appropriate.
  • When you’re creating content with the aim of showing up in featured snippets or similar, remember to write how people talk, due to the conversational nature of voice search.
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What is your experience of voice-operated assistants? Do you find them useful or does it all feel a bit too HAL 9000 for your liking? Do you have a favourite voice-operated assistant? Let’s get talking down in the comments!