The Slam Down I : Voice Search

Voice search is a subject that’s pretty hard to ignore right now for us digital marketers. Is it really the next big thing that’s going to revolutionise how we go to market? Or is it just a big white elephant that we’ll look back on as a fad in a few years’ time?

To get to the heart of the matter, we’ve pitted two of our experts against each other in a “Slam Down” to see what they make of it. In the red corner: Andy Rich – The Organic Search oracle. And in the blue corner: Ben Lipscombe – The PPC Panther. Sparks flew, tears were shed, and people were called bad names…but enough about our last team breakfast, here’s what Andy and Ben had to say:

“It’s a sophisticated evolution of how we’ll all use tech” – Andy Rich

Voice search isn’t just the next big thing, it is already a massive deal. It’s now well beyond the fad stage of asking Siri to beatbox or getting Alexa to tell you a joke. People are using voice search for legitimate reasons and to actually ‘do’ things – organise their lives, research subjects, maintain relationships, plan trips.

It’s an evolution of how humans use tech. We’ve moved from typing texts out with a T9 keypad (like some sort of caveman), to a full keyboard, then to a virtual keyboard, and now on to voice. We’re skipping the keyboard altogether and going straight to words and speech, which humans do infinitely better. It’s just more natural and more efficient to speak and be spoken to so voice search will only continue to grow in popularity.

The sophistication of voice search is only going to increase too, as machine learning and artificial intelligence grows ever more powerful. Soon voice search and the algorithms it uses will be able to understand the context and inferences of speech – understanding not just what we say, but how we say it – to make it even more useful and embedded in how we do things.

We’re already seeing this rise in sophistication with the RankBrain algorithm and its intelligent autocomplete capabilities for text searches. So it’s only logical that this will soon extend out to voice search.

Users are also getting more sophisticated in how they voice search and are moving beyond the novelty of addressing the tech as a person. Long tail style searches are diminishing as people have got more used to using voice search, and because of how Google works – by pulling results from quick answer boxes, local results and Google shopping listings. It’s just going to get better and better for users as brands and businesses cotton on.

20% of mobile queries are now via voice search and 20% of people are using voice search on a daily basis. I can only see that exploding over the next few months and years!

Brands need to make Voice Search work for them. You need to create content that answers questions and suits mobile search, with local listings and citations that pull through details and reviews that leverage advocates that are being built up across all channels. To work properly for a brand, voice search really does need to be considered as part of a holistic approach to digital marketing.

“It’s not really the game changer some think it is” – Ben Lipscombe

Every organisation or industry needs to have a number of things to talk about at any one time to make it sound like they’re leading the way. It just so happens that voice search is currently one of those things.

It’s being used as a competitive topic and is slipping into buzzword territory as everyone feels they have to chip in, especially when it’s addressing something as obvious as the way we use devices. It’s like everyone has to mention it to sound informed. It’s this amplification effect that makes it seem like a much bigger deal than it really is.

That’s not to say it’s not going to have any impact, it’s just that the way it’s being discussed as an absolute game changer is over-exaggerated.

The difference between voice searches and typed searches is that voice searches are more long-tail and conversational which some are suggesting will change search query data. But if you look at search query data from back in the day, this started out long tail because people didn’t understand they weren’t actually having a conversation with a man called Jeeves, and over time searches have become more refined as people just focus on key words.

This is exactly what we’re seeing with voice search.

As the method of searching now sways more towards voice search, things will play out in the same way. People will start having a “quirky” conversation but will gradually refine down to just using key words meaning the data voice searches provide will be exactly the same as the data typed searches already provide. It really changes nothing as it’s still the same query just being made in a different way.

Even if people do continue to search in a more voice oriented way, i.e. speaking for longer, Google will only be looking for the key words in the voice search, with connector words nullified when the algorithm kicks in. It’s still the same searches, still the same data.

Also, using voice search is very situation dependent. If you’re in a car and can’t (or shouldn’t) use your phone then voice search is important. But if someone’s sitting on a train or walking around a shop, are they going to talk out loud to their phone and look like a weirdo? Lots of people won’t even use it.

One thing voice search does open up is a greater opportunity to interact across devices for consumers. For brands this means a further complication to what are already complex customer journeys as more and more touch points would now be included. This increases the need for, and the challenge of, proper attribution modelling and further diminishes how effective simple attribution methods like “Last Click” can be. This was always a challenge even before voice search came along, but it makes it even more necessary to consider how you use attribution properly.

So, I’m not saying it’s not going to do anything, it’s just that we shouldn’t necessarily believe the hype. I think it may drive a gradual increase in searches as it’ll open up a new way of searching. But in terms of what it means for brands, search data and what brands need to do to appear for searches will remain pretty much the same –  crawlable websites, optimised listings and question-answering content.

What do you think? Is one of these guys talking complete gibberish? Should someone become the oracle on all things voice search? We’d love to get your thoughts on the impact of voice search and how you think it’s going to change our world, or not, as the case may be…

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