How Will Voice Devices Affect the Future of Search?
The world of search is on the verge of massive change. The rise of voice search, the Internet of Things, and digital personal assistants are all coming together to change how we search.
Imagine a world without search boxes, without browsers, where you get one answer via voice to your search query. How will you prepare for all this change?
I asked two expert futurists, Duane Forrester (VP Industry Insights, Yext) and Brent Csutoras (Founder and CEO, Pixel Road Designs) to join me for a live video discussion of these topics. Together, we seek to show you how to position yourself now to survive and thrive in this brave new world.
Watch the video below, or scroll down to read a transcript.
Curious about how the rise of voice-powered search might impact your digital marketing? Check out these resources:
- Rating the Smarts of the Digital Personal Assistants – We asked 5000 questions to Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri, and Google Search. See which was best at answering basic factual questions.
- The Next Big Thing: Digital Personal Assistants – Get my take on why all search marketers should be paying attention to personal digital assistants, and how they will affect SEO.
- Mobile Voice Usage Trends 2018 – My survey shows how comfortable real, everyday smartphone and smart devices users are with giving voice commands to those devices in various circumstances.
Eric: Hello everybody, this is Eric Enge with Stone Temple Consulting. I am thrilled to bring to you this “Get ready for the Voice Search Revolution” video broadcast. Say hi, Mr. Duane Forrester. (Follow Duane on Twitter)
Duane: Hello everybody.
Eric: And say hi Mr. Brent Csutoras. (Follow Brent on Twitter)
rent: Hello, hello. Excited to be here.
Eric: So the reason why it’s the three of us guys is we’ve had our own private club for a while that we call the Futurism Group, where we talk at ridiculous lengths about stupid and unreasonable things that might happen when we’re older.
Brent: They are all reasonable. They’re reasonable.
Duane: Eric, they’re reasonable because we’re just going to extend human life by another 40 years and then everything becomes fine.
Brent: I know, I still find it a horrible icebreaker that the first thing I typically say to people is, “You know, I’m never going to die.” And then they go, “Ha ha” and then I go, “No, I’m very serious.” I have no intention of ever dying, ever.
Duane: It’s probably better than you think it is Brent, because I often start conversations with, “Hey, have you heard Brent Csutoras is never going to die?”
Brent: Yes, you see. There you go.
Duane: It’s a great way to start conversations.
Eric: It is a great icebreaker for sure. Actually, what I was going to say before you guys jumped in, is that every once in a while, we’re right. And today we want to talk about something that I think we’re all convinced we’re right about. And to open it up, I’m going to share just a few slides.
Is voice device use on the rise?
So here’s market data on the adoption of voice.
I love the quote on the right here from Andrew Ng, the Chief Scientist at Baidu, who is also a brilliant machine learning person by the way, that at least 50% of searches by 2020 are going to be through images or speech, which is by itself amazing. And that ties really well into our agenda of this being a voice search conversation.
Brent: So he’s anticipating in two years then, essentially in 2020, we would be at that place, right?
Duane: Well, remember that quote is a couple of years old now.
Eric: That is true.
Duane: Right? I think we’re maybe three years into the five year time frame essentially.
Eric: That’s correct.
Duane: And I’ve got to be honest, from where I’m sitting, I generally think we’re pretty close to being on trend for that statement.
Eric: I agree.
Brent: I disagree, but that’s fine.
Eric: Well, look at May of 2016, right? 25% of searches on the Windows 10 taskbar are voice searches. That’s 2016.
Brent: Yes. But you also have to anticipate how many people are experimenting right now. And you always see a massive growth in any new technology with experimenters. Right now, with the number of purchases for a lot of these devices, the Google Home, the Alexa, a lot of these elements have a lot of experimental use right now.
Eric: You’re trying to say the three of us are the ones that are doing all the searches and we’re making up 50%.
Brent: Yes, exactly.
Eric: So, some data from comScore.
Half of smartphone users engaged with voice technology on their device, and many of them use the feature habitually. One in three use it daily. That’s comScore data.
So now we’re talking more broadly about smartphone usage, so not just voice search. We’ll talk about that in a moment.
And then here’s data from the Stone Temple study that we just published.
The dark green bars are 2017 and the lighter green bars are 2018 data. You’ll notice that the first three responses fluctuate, but everything from the fourth bar over is strongly in favor of 2018. And if you look at that, you realize that most of those are about behavior in public.
Brent: Yes. I want to know who’s doing it in the theater. Who’s that person in the theater who’s using voice…?
Duane: Why is there so much growth in the theater voice use space and in the public restroom voice use space? I’m sorry.
Eric: 25% that were, according to the survey, likely or very likely to use voice commands with their smartphone in a public restroom. My favorite way of explaining what they’re doing, is just that they’re asking: “Where’s the toilet paper?”
Duane: It was on instant delivery.
Eric: I think smart speakers are the spark that this revolution has been looking for. And I know what you were saying earlier, Brent, so I definitely want to get your take on this before we go on, but people are getting conditioned to use voice with devices through smart speakers, and there was about 45 million installed in the U.S. today. But go ahead, comment on that before I show the last one.
Is voice search ready for prime time?
Brent: I think that there’s definitely a space for people utilizing voice search, and smart speakers are a big part of that, especially in the car as well. When you have your smartphone, it becomes a voice speaker. I’ll constantly ask questions when I’m in the car because I’m driving.
I think there’s a couple things that make me feel that even though this is a huge talking point, even amongst ourselves, I don’t really buy into the timeline of this being adopted [so soon], because of the fact that, through all of my interactions, even with my children who are really the best use case of this, we’re starting to see more normal language search queries. People are less trying to do the individual keywords and they’re trying to talk to these devices like they were a real human being.
And they’re having to ask questions four or five times. I run into situations where almost every time I try to use voice search, I end up having to repeat. It doesn’t pick up fast enough, so I’m talking too quickly, and I get in half a sentence. It sends me down a rabbit hole, which now I have to figure out and most of the time my response is “ah, screw it, I’m going to look on the computer or you know what, I’ll just type it in myself.”
So, I do think that even though there’s a lot of usage and there’s a lot of experimentation, I don’t hear people like Duane talk about how he uses his smart devices and think to myself, “Man, I want to do that.” I have an Alexa right here, but I never schedule a meeting or an appointment through my voice search. I just don’t remember to do those things. And maybe the younger generation will, but I think that the inability for the technology to truly allow an engagement to happen, I think it’s going to delay this a little longer than we think it will.
Duane: I’m going to challenge Brent slightly on this. Brent I think you’re speaking of these things from a completely rational standpoint. I get it because I’ve questioned that whole thing as well.
We saw all of the numbers over the holidays of devices that were sold, and how the Echo was the number one device by a long shot. So, naturally you have all these new people that are trying this, and they’re yelling at their devices and some are succeeding, some are failing, and for some of them the novelty wears off and they don’t understand how to position it in their lives.
I think what ends up happening though is each of us individually is on our own curve, and we do find a point where we come back and say, “I haven’t used it in six months because I haven’t really felt a useful need for it. And now I’m going to try this because this appeals to me.” It’s that one moment in time of value-add in the life that immediately gets the person hooked on using it all the time. It is a precipitous cliff when you adopt this technology in your life.
So, on the other end we see the so-called millennials and Gen Z. Those folks are much more apt to adopt the new technology. Get in there, try it, play with it, do those things.
Eric: Right. I’ll tell you what was my precipitous event. I wasn’t actually that much of a user myself. My wife and I were out to dinner at a friend’s house, and they had an Alexa installed. They were already heavy users. They had already gone over the cliff. I saw them using it, and I said, “Okay, it’s time for me to get off my butt and push the envelope on how we’re using it.” And now we’ve got all kinds of things that are being controlled. We actually have both an Alexa and Google Home. We play with them both and we get lots of questions answered.
Problems with speech recognition
Brent: I’ll jump in and say that I don’t disagree. My brother, he has all his lights set up with smart technology, so we’ll be sitting there and watching a movie and he’ll go, “Hey Alexa, turn off the movie lights,” and the lights go off. And then I saw him accidentally say “master lights” instead–it was 3:00 in the morning and his wife was sleeping–and the master lights were about to go on. And so, he’s saying, “Hey Alexa, turn on master–no wait, no not master, movie.” It was funny. But my dad’s also disabled. He’s bedridden, and he uses Alexa a lot for his technology.
But I think the second side of this is not so much me hating the adoption, but it also has a lot to do with data, right? We have such a hard time right now because I want to embrace at a fully functional level a technology that’s not capable of delivering [what I’m looking for].
I think that holds me back on my personal adoption, because when I search for a song, and Alexa doesn’t have that song inside of its music inventory, then it gives me some other music; it suggests something different or it plays something different. When I tell my device I want directions to a certain place and that place is not found, then I find those pitfalls.
So, I just don’t think that in the next two years we’re going to get there fully. I feel like there’s more energy on AI and augmented reality and virtual reality as far as research and development and investment and focus.
I feel like there’s a chance that this “voice personal assist-type engagement” will morph into a different form by the time it comes to a place where it has the easy adoption, the easy interface, and the technology to really support that data.
Duane: Before we go down the…
Brent: The rabbit hole?
Duane: “Augmented reality path” we’ll call it because that is exciting. But first, there are two things that I need to call out.
One, Brent, your point about your father using assisted technologies to literally enable parts of his life is a rapidly growing segment of a user base. I don’t recall this happening before. It’s difficult to recall the number of times historically that an older generation of users has come into a new technology and then adopted it because it made their life better. I’m thinking electricity; I’m thinking the telephone. This is what we’re going to see as people’s eyesight starts to fail them as they get older and it’s harder to read. They will literally turn to these technologies.
So I think we’re going to see a very big swell from this past sales cycle that will drive us. Whether we ultimately reach 50% or not, I don’t know. I think we will, but then again, we could just as easily not.
Alexa and the low-hanging fruit of voice activation
Duane: Something that is fascinating though, and I think you guys may have picked up on this as well, the Amazon ad from the Super Bowl. Alexa’s lost her voice. I had tears in my eyes, and I watched it over and over and over again because, you know, it’s funny, it’s enjoyable, it’s well executed, it’s really well done.
But there was a subtle message in there that is not a spoken message and, it’s literally summed up in the closing moments of the ad when Alexa comes back and says, “Everybody thanks, I’ve got this.”
Effectively what Amazon is telling everyone is the minutiae of your life, the little things, connecting you with the people that matter, getting you the entertainment that you want, taking care of things in the background of your life when you’re not able to focus on them, music at a dinner event–for all of these things, we got your back. We got it. You don’t need to think about it anymore, Alexa has it.
This is fascinating to me because it makes me wonder, Brent, to your point, every time a new Skill hits, I’m running the Skill, trying something out, like finding where the edges are and what works and what doesn’t work. One of my current big beefs is every time if I ask a [third party] Skill something and I get the answer in Alexa’s voice, I want to rage at the company and tell them, “You’re missing a golden opportunity to create your own persona,” that is your brand.
Why would you let somebody else’s brand serve your brand and knowledge?” But I also think that there is a lot of opportunity here and so many times these things are very limited in what they’re doing. So, at that front end that you were talking about, Brent, I want to go whole hog on all of it, right? And I want it all and I want my life to be exponentially better and easier because that’s the promise of the technology.
We are not there, but things like that ad make me wonder about the areas that they’re calling out, that they are effectively demonstrating that they have mastery over. Is that an indication of the main areas that consumers are focused on?
Eric: Yes, I think so. It’s the layup things that they can do reasonably easily and extremely well. Brent’s comments about the issues with level of speech recognition granted, the last thing that they could afford to do is have a very thin music library. I get that they might not have the specific song that you asked for, but that’s pretty rare probably, right? They have a pretty robust library.
Duane: Eric, we should probably just admit this, right? Brent, I’m just going to come clean on behalf of Eric and I, those instances when your Alexa device fails you, that’s because Eric and I have hacked your Wi-Fi and we’re blocking the question.
Brent: Ah, I gotcha.
Eric: That music is actually in there. Those directions? We hacked those too. [Laughter]
Voice on devices is more than just search
Brent: You know what I think is really interesting though with the statement from Amazon? It’s that Amazon has done a better job in some regards at accomplishing the internet goal, right? If you think about what Google’s goal was, if you think about what Facebook’s goal was, “connect the world,” and Google’s goal is to provide information, right?
It seems that Amazon has really come in at the right time to accomplish that for people, and they’ve done that by reforming the shopping cycle. They did that right from the start with reviews. You couldn’t get a better place to actually find if a product was good than Amazon. They set the standard for same day shipping, for cheap shipping, for free shipping. They’ve set the standard for a lot of areas, and I think it’s really interesting that they’re pushing into that space and they’re taking that step.
I think another thing you touched on was the fact that as much as we as marketers think we know, it’s super important to identify storytelling. One of the studies I love says that the reason humans are successful is that we can tell stories.
Pack animals can’t communicate a story, they can’t get a sense of a standard that all wolves can live by. So they have only 20 or 30 [in their pack], and then they don’t like any other wolves, and they’ll fight to the death the minute they see them. But we have a confidence that when we walk down the street in a city we’ve never been to, that we’re going to be approached and dealt with in a certain manner because of our shared stories.
So, I think one of the things that was really important when Instagram and Snapchat and a lot of these things started coming out, and even when social media became popular, is people were saying this isn’t going to grab hold. I think it was a lesson for us to focus more on how people storytell.
So, I think that we are seeing a transition. We’re seeing video and imagery and interactions–storytelling being really the desired and the most effective form. This voice search–and we call it voice search just for the sake of calling it that–this voice interactive technology really does take us toward improving the way we story-tell and the way we hear stories in our life. I think that’s exciting.
Eric: Picking up on something you just alluded to, which is that we call this voice search because that’s what the market is calling it. But that’s not what it really is. It’s voice-activated control, or voice activated input, call it whatever you want. “Search” makes it sound like you’re just using it to do things in Google or Bing, but it’s much, much bigger than that. So, I think that that’s really important for us to keep in mind here.
Duane: I think that’s true. Just before we started we were having this debate about what’s the right name for this event. Everybody defaults to voice search. I find when I’m writing about stuff, I’m trying to avoid using the phrase voice search because that feels very limiting to me. And it’s really about so much more than just search.
Brent: Well, it was like my email to you guys before we started this call. I wrote: I know we’re supposed to talk about voice search, but I don’t really want to talk about voice search.
Duane: Exactly. But it’s fascinating because as you dive into this–and I’ve spent time with the folks at Amazon, the folks at Cortana, the folks at Google Assistant–it’s really fascinating because they do not have a focused storyline that matches with search. What they’re focused on is consumer experience, discovery, and solutions.
Search is a part of those cycles, but it’s a relatively small part of it. Then if you move your head around to that line of thinking, this is where you start understanding the conversations like persona. And we all talk persona as marketers and we think demographics, let’s put a face on the person and so on.
When one of the search engines or Amazon talks about persona, they literally talk about Cortana’s persona and how that is a reflection of the brand which is a reflection of the company. So, when I see Skills or actions fail and default to the pre-programmed Alexa or Google Assistant voice, I think it’s a missed opportunity. Why would you take that shortcut?
When you start having those conversations, you realize how broad, how wide open this space truly is. There’s so much to consider beyond the aspect of being found in search and spoken out loud. It’s why this is so important.
If you watch that Amazon ad, it goes almost immediately into visual search where the device is showing visual information alongside [the voice answer], and that’s because that’s what humans want. We are lazy. We want it to be easy. I want to ask my question out loud and be given the answer in an easy to consume form.
Where are the marketing opportunities in voice?
Brent: Eric, let me ask you a question.
Eric: Go ahead.
Brent: Obviously a lot of people who are going to be watching this [will be thinking] a reason why it ties back with voice search is because people need it to fit it into marketing agendas, right? For marketers or SEOs in these companies, what options are there in your mind to participate in voice assisted technology? Because to me, when I look at the progression of it, it seems more and more limiting and less open to anyone participating.
Eric: Well, let me give you one. Because we [Stone Temple] did this. We’ve built Actions on Google and we’ve built an Alexa Skill. We’ve done both here, and we’ve gotten them certified.
If you have Google Assistant on your phone, you can pick it up right now without installing anything else and say, “Ask Stone Temple” and then ask an SEO question. The example I always give is “what is a no index tag?” But there are hundreds of different questions programmed in there.
You can “Ask Stone Temple” SEO & digital marketing questions on Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa devices: Here’s how to do it!
As a digital marketing agency that’s not going to make anybody here, rich, right? It’s a bit of a novelty from a Stone Temple Consulting perspective, but we have clients that we’re working with that are having issues because their competitors have launched a Skill or an Action, and they’re getting a lot of adoption for their action.
Here’s the kicker, which most people don’t realize: it’s even happening to us at this point where somebody will come to a Google Assistant, pick up their phone and they’ll say, “Okay Google, what is a no index tag?” to use my same example. And the Google Assistant app will then say, “Stone Temple has an answer for that, do you want to hear it?”
So, the user doesn’t even know about the Stone Temple app, but we’re getting a good percentage of the volume of our usage of our app right now from people who have no idea that it existed.
We have a major client, I can’t say what area they’re in because it’ll become obvious too quickly who they are, but it’s a very highly visible client that has a competitor that launched an app. It’s actually on the Amazon side of things. And their competitor is getting cited in lots of these queries without the user actually knowing about the app and they are not. They feel like they’re losing real mind share.
Brent: This is all surrounding information, answers. Something I’d really like to figure out how people are addressing is pronunciation. There are so many startups where the idea is to create a unique brand identity, and they can’t call it Upwork for example, so they call it Upwirk with an “i” because they’re slick, making their cool little startup thing. They don’t care because it’s the web, and they’ll just rank and everything will be linked. And then you go into voice and nobody’s ever going to find Upwirk with an “i.” The voice search will give them the better-known Upwork with an “o.”
Duane: They could, they could. No, they could be found. And that’s the point; this is a space of early adopters. This is a wide-open area. There is a leveling of the playing field because now we’re back to things where at a large company it takes time, it’s a committee decision, legal’s gotta sign off, so to actually get the action or the Skill up and running takes a lot longer to gather the data.
A small company, Eric, for example, thinks, “We’re going to put out 150 answers to the top 150 common questions and do a quick survey. Your target number’s 150 team, so pull it together. They move forward and now they’re an active participant in this.
Eric now has the opportunity to use this in marketing, so he can use it in pitch conversations. So, if you’re in-house team needs quick answers to common questions to build presentations or train team members or whatever, you can use the Action or the Skill.
What we’re actually seeing is that, and I believe this will be the future, when we see data that’s been shared by either Google or Cortana or Amazon (when they do share, which is rare), what we tend to take away is it looks like most of the queries coming in are fresh queries; they’ve never seen them or heard them before. And that’s because of natural language.
All three of us might ask for the exact same thing slightly differently. The queries get individualized at some point and the net result is if you are an actual perfect match for that, you will be brought forward. So Upwirk will be brought forward regardless of the craziness of its name because behind these actual assistants is an app where all of that data lives in clickable scenarios.
Brent: But how does that deal with the fact where Upwork itself is a higher authority, more successful company that’s also in the space? You’re only going to get them, unless they come back and say there’s two answers for this. Would you like Upwork, the contracting site, or do you want, Upwirk, the whatever?
Eric: We don’t know how that’s going to unfold.
How do marketers optimize for voice?
Eric: I’ve got to give you this audience question because what we’re saying fits at least a little bit in the context of this discussion.
Melissa Fach asked how do you optimize for voice search. So, Brent, that ties into the question that you asked me a couple minutes ago: what are the business opportunities? She used the term voice search, but I think we can take that at least slightly liberally and include other business opportunities. But before we’re done, I want to make sure we work in some discussion about voice search itself.
Brent: At this point I think that the optimization is are you there or not there? I mean, there’s so few people really engaged in this space.
And in my opinion, a lot of what I see as the success from voice search right now is accidental. It’s just somebody’s there, and there are generally questions being asked, and so that entity is the result. Or it’s been promoted, where the companies are going out and saying we have this capability, we have this option, go and use it.
I was thinking about how companies could utilize voice search if they don’t have information to answer a professional Skill or something that’s detailed. And I thought, well, what if you had a furniture store, and people could ask, “What are the sales today at City Furniture?” Then it could spit back the current sales that it has.
So you could potentially say something like, “What’s Crazy Egg’s Apple laptop sales today?” and get a listing of products. So, that could be a way that any company could essentially start to provide some voice search, engagement.
Eric: Let’s expand upon that a little bit because this is going to tie back to the main discussion. You started it earlier, Brent, and you expanded on it, Duane: how are you addressing what the customer, the user out there wants?
For example, consider the customer experience or what they want and how much of a push we’re seeing towards using information and entertainment to build relationships with an audience and trust and brand and such. So that when they come to a point when they’re actually ready to buy something, they naturally think of you first. And I think there are a lot of the opportunities in that space for all this.
Voice optimization examples
Brent: So do any of you have any ideas or examples of actually optimizing for this right now?
Brent: Go ahead.
Duane: I have six things that I believe actually make a difference. It’s funny because there was an undercurrent, a theme to all of this that I think you guys will back me up on.
It’s a bit of a challenge sometimes for a traditional SEO to wrap their head around these concepts because a lot of these things are not direct SEO. They impact the world of an SEO, an SEO has to work on these things, because they do have an impact overall in instances of choice that the engine or the providers use, whether it’s Alexa, or Google, Cortana, or Siri.
Here’s how I think this all stacks up. First off, the broader concept of digital knowledge management. I’ll use a healthcare example here.
You’ve got to identify everything that’s important about your healthcare business. The usual: name, address, phone, email, website, hours of operation. But in healthcare that would extend to doctor’s credentials, conditions treated, service providers, affiliations, payment, payment options, provider options, medical papers published and so on. You’ve got to identify all those things because then you can actually mark that stuff up in schema.
So, for me, the process is go to Schema.org, take a look at what’s available to me and then make sure I’ve got content that matches every possible option in there that’s applicable to my business. From there, I’m really solving for mobile. We’ve got the mobile-first index here. It’s on top of us; it is how people are accessing information in a predominant way today. It will have an impact on who gets chosen for a spoken answer, so you can’t look past mobile, gotta have it.
Secure, too. Secure is not a ranking signal, but this month Google is starting to flag non-secure websites in Chrome.
Brent: And when it’s not secure it links to a page that talks about viruses and Trojan horses. It’s not beautiful.
Eric: It’s really inspiring for your site if you get flagged like that, I guess.
Duane: The average consumer is just going to back the heck away from that. They’re not going to push through and educate themselves on it. So as a business you’ve got to get on top of that, and while secure may not be a traditional SEO thing, if you want to optimize for voice search and you want to show up, you have to play in there.
Is voice search an SEO concern?
Eric: But let me comment on that very briefly. To me SEO is the business of deriving more traffic from organic traffic sources, right?
Eric: So does HTTPS implementation help me with that if Chrome is going to block my site [if I don’t have it]?
Eric: To me, that makes it SEO.
Duane: Completely. No, I’m not saying this isn’t an SEO’s work. My concern is that too many SEOs believe it’s not SEO work. That’s my concern with it, and that’s wrong.
Brent: I made this statement just yesterday: when it comes to mobile, the whole concept of looking at your desktop and then considering how your mobile looks is so not 2018 and forward. At this point now I tell every client we have, “I don’t want to look at your desktop. I don’t even want to talk about your desktop. If you’re not looking at your mobile presence right now, then we’re screwed.”
Duane: It’s funny because we are literally at the point where graceful degradation has flipped over, because now your graceful degradation is on desktop not on mobile.
Brent: But I will take this back to my timeline thing. When mobile came out like what, 12 years ago? and it was the next thing, I was thinking it looks like we’re going to jump the ship on mobile. It wasn’t until about seven years later that it was all of a sudden starting to come back as a conversation.
So, I still do think that we’re way earlier than we think with voice search. I would guarantee that anybody who’s listening today as a company is thinking, outside of you saying mobile and schema, they’re thinking “I don’t know what the hell to do.”
Duane: Well, and that actually brings me to my last point because if you want to compete in this and you want to participate in this, you need to start creating Actions and Skills [for the voice devices]. You needed to start defining what your brand is in terms of your company’s persona and what that looks like.
For example, if you want to play Jeopardy on Alexa right now, you’re interacting with the voice of Alex Trebek. It’s exactly the experience that you think you’re going to have. But I can try to order a pizza from a major brand pizza company through their Skill, and they’re using the default Alexa voice. There’s a cognitive dissonance that happens because I’m thinking, “I thought I was with Alexa, and now I’m still with her. Is she ordering my pizza? I thought I was with the other business.”
Brent: And this is how much of a perfectionist Duane Forrester is. It is not good enough that you’re one of a hundred companies who is on the newest technology, but dammit, you didn’t use the right voice.
It’s the same thing I said, if I was going to give my advice right now of what you can do for voice search, it’s almost the exact same thing I said a year ago for augmented reality. Nothing. There’s nothing you can do because right now, in my opinion, they’re still testing everything and there’s no defined path for how anything is going to be resolved.
Eric: I’m going to argue with you now.
Brent: Okay, you can argue with me in two seconds though. What I would say is, I would continue to be abreast of everything that’s happening. I would read all the dev forums. I would continue to test everything. I would continue to play with everything. I would watch all the news, and I would watch for the opportunity and I would explore where I fit into the cycle, where am I going to fit into voice search so that when that really starts to break, and you start to see clear paths, you’re the first person to jump on board.
Featured snippets and voice search answers
Eric: Okay, so here’s my argument. There is something you can do, and you can do it right now, to improve your chances of showing up in response to voice queries and on a Google Home device, at least in the Google ecosystem.
Brent: Here we go.
Eric: And that is, you can learn how to get featured snippets for your site. There is a digital marketing agency called ROAST that did a small study, 600 to 800 queries, something like that. But they found that 80% of voice answers came from the featured snippet.
So, there are things you can do to increase your chances to get featured snippets. You can increase your chances of showing up by learning how to do that. There is a process for doing that.
Brent: Sure. Absolutely. I did a podcast in the past with Gary Illyes of Google, and we were talking about mobile first. Gary said, “You know, learn to write content like you approach Twitter.” I asked him, “So are you specifically saying that when we go to mobile first and actually have a more condensed, with less words, one topic on a page is going to be more ideal?” He pretty much said, “Yes, you know, you’re going to want to learn how to be more concise, you’re going to want to learn to be more specific, you’re going to want to approach your web content as being very focused for mobile users.”
And so, I think that ties into these voice answers. Yes, I know from your study that you can have a lot of content and it can still get picked. But I feel like from some of the things being said that we’re going to want to segment into more specific, concise, single-answer pages over time when it comes to a mobile first environment.
Eric: Yes, but be careful though, because you don’t want to go down the thin content path here either, where you have too few words on the page.
And I would also argue that if you’re trying to get a featured snippet, you’ll have that clean text block that states the question and then a nice clear statement of the answer. And then you think about what are the two or three most important subsidiary questions that people will ask? Are those on the page as well? Because Google wants that experience on that page. Same for Bing, and people don’t have any idea how aggressive Bing is being about featured snippets right now; they’re doing amazing work.
But in any case, they want the user to get their complete answer. Even though they asked this specific question, they do want the other pieces there too.
Duane: You know, it’s funny you say that, Eric because I’ve noticed this in my own content development work, how I have started to change. You can go back to my Bing webmaster blog and you’ll see it, right? It’s like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But now I will write in draft form, and then I pick out the question and I put it at the top and, then I create a summary answer for everything that I’ve written. And then from there I start asking myself, “What else might people be interested in?”
That does a couple of things. One if it’s immediately germane to what I’m talking about: I can extend the article and answer those other questions. In a lot of cases it becomes an obvious other article to write. That helps with content development then, because you’re thinking, “Oh, okay now I know what to write next, and there’s three more things that I have to cover on this.” Then it comes back to working with my team to figure out what’s our content calendar look like, what do our resources look like?”
Brent: Let me read you this real quick. These are Gary’s exact words:
I think you have a lot of content pages, content that you want to rank for. Content that can satisfy a user. What I see a lot on desktop sites is that there are these massive pieces of text that are partly useless and probably that’s fine from a mobile index if it’s gone.
Right? So he’s saying on the mobile side, don’t fluff it out. He goes on to say:
I do think that because the real estate on mobile devices is much smaller than on a desktop, you have to rethink your content strategy and what you put up on mobile sites versus what you have on a desktop site because people don’t read or consume content the way they do on a desktop site.
So, I do think that that’s interesting to hear that phraseology about content.
Duane: Here’s what that tells me. That tells me that when we’ve flipped to fully mobile-first indexing and that’s become our life for a year or two, the concept of a long form post or a long form content is going to start having less and less value because of the reasons you just stated. People aren’t going to consume that. They’re not going to read that on their device. We may see a resurgence in that a couple of years from now if our voice assistants are now reading these things out loud.
Brent: Sure. Like an audible.
Duane: Exactly, like a built-in native audible, like “I’m on this page, do you want me to read it? “Yes, read it out loud to me.” There we go.
Brent: Yes because in that sense, I’m going to want to hear more. I’m driving down the street and want to hear about what’s happening and I want to hear follow up pieces.
Duane: It immediately converts every single website, every page of content, every blog, it immediately converts all of those into on-demand podcasts. That’s a cool idea, it’s a cool adaptation. I’m not sure if we’ll get there. We will when we get to the point of having a digital agent. But that’s still years in the future.
Eric: Guys, we’ve get a couple more audience questions I want to make sure we get on here.
Will Voice Search Be Able to Use Existing Content for Answers?
Eric: Will voice search/assistant need to have a database of questions and answers specific for search, or will it index existing content/articles to find the best match?
Eric: Yes. I was going to say it’s a three letter answer. The first letter is y and the last letter is s.
Brent: Yes to which side?
Duane: I’m going to weight it to about a 60/40 toward current content being index versus creating specific databases that target this. But I think both have value.
Eric: Right? But where the database will help you is if you establish a trusted relationship, then you will have more opportunity to potentially get pushed by the producer of the digital agent.
Duane: Would Google open up a scenario in search console where businesses could create their own API of data that Google could consume? So just like a site with annotation.
Brent: They’re already doing that.
Duane: But is it really trusted?
Brent: Well, it’s partner-based trust, right? So Google’s pulling in the non-URL data, right? So right now, you can go and put an XML into Google and you can have them index all of your data without even having a website and you can show up in Google.
Eric: Specific to this, you can go to Diagflow.com which is where you create an Action on Google, and you can enter in a database of data. And then Google tests it to see how the market responds to it. If the response is good, then they start surfacing it, and Amazon does exactly the same thing. They begin to surface it more even without the person prompting your app. So, they have a way of testing and building trust in you.
Brent: Well, I would say we’re going to continue to go through a transition of these engines and these companies wanting us to spoon feed them for a short period of time. What I would say is that I anticipate the answer to that being yes, you’re going to want to have both until the point that they just stop using the other. That’s similar to all the things that we do.
Duane: Come on Brent, that’s never happened before.
Brent: No, never, right? But I mean this is the same thing with a lot of what we do with Google, right? At a certain point SEO was truly like an intricate skill set. You checked a page to make sure there were proper H1s, H2s, everything was LSI, and make sure we have the right density. As the technology improved that became less and less important. Not that it’s not important to have, it just became more of a baseline and not so much of a science, right?
Duane: But, also the rates have changed. I mean, you’re not going to tell me the keyword density is not something that an algorithm has programmed into it. It still does. It’s a given that the importance of it is much less today.
Brent: But I think this is different. I think that when it comes to voice technology, it’s fundamentally flawed at the level of having predesigned questions and answers. I think that that is where the drawback is. And I think that the technology that’s going into researching AI and other technologies is trying to get it away from that. So, I see something where there’s a dual impact but not combined. It’s Google’s using two different scenarios and then at a certain point…
Eric: There’s a yes and a no to that. If you’re talking about information that is public domain-esque that can be thrown into a pre-existing database, that’s different from information that has to be sourced from a third party with specialized expertise. And third party specialized expertise isn’t going to go away just because we have AI, at least not anytime soon.
Brent: No but positioning whether you need to have two different sources to provide the same information, wasn’t that what the question was? Do you need to have a database that’s for serving search, and do you need to have a text for voice that serves the voice results?
I think that ultimately you’re going to need both, but not in the sense that they both have to cohesively work together. I think that, if you do that, you’re going to miss out on some of the voice technology, if you’re trying to limit yourself to what you would also go in a database, because I think that the technology is going to move past simple Q&A environments.
Eric: Yes, I agree that we’ll move past simple Q&A environments. We just have to differentiate between information that has to be sourced from a third party and information which doesn’t.
Brent: Yes, I think that’s a given.
Eric: So, there’ll be information that gets accessed through some means by which the third party makes it available, and then there’ll be information which is derived. So that’s how I see that unfolding.
Optimizing Voice Search for Local Search
Eric: Absolutely. All right, I have another audience question: What are some “don’ts” for near-me searches for local businesses.
Brent: Don’ts. Things not to do if you’re trying to show up for nearby searches. That’s very unique depending on…
Duane: Eric, was it near me or nearby?
Eric: Near me. It’s a very popular form of inquiry, right?
Duane: It is but it’s also flattening, right?
Eric: Because it’s implied now.
Brent: People get it.
Duane: Exactly. They don’t say that out loud. In fact, if it’s me, I’m questioning if I’m actually optimizing for phrases with those pieces attached to them. As soon as the search engines get a taste that consumers trust, they’ll immediately start ramping down because they can include more things, and they can do more to test more without having to be so explicit with near me. And then “me” becomes like “the.” It’s just not a part of the query.
Brent: Well, I don’t know that they’re talking about the physical query of it, I think they’re trying to say are there things that would exclude me from showing up for that query, or help me to show up in that query. Is there something that I should avoid doing that would potentially keep me excluded from being included in location search?
I think you definitely should have zip codes and identifiers in cities and states on your content. A lot of people do this mistake where they focus on just their corporate offices in New York, but we’re operating out of Florida and we want to show up in Florida, but they have no addresses in Florida. So I do think that zip codes and location qualifiers are important, to have a near me type experience.
Duane: I’m going to add in on that. To me, this is very simple: don’t take shortcuts. That’s the biggest “don’t” here. If you can mark up your content because it’s available in Schema, go do that.
Brent: Schema, Yes.
Duane: For example, don’t take the shortcut of thinking I’m only one local business or I’ve only got three locations and I don’t need to go do that, or that’s too much work or whatever. No, go do that. Because in a world where everyone else around you does it, you’re the one who sticks out for not having it and that same world is also providing all the answers that searchers need.
So, the question then is, do you want to be one of those who does the work, or do you want to take the shortcut and not do the work, and then therefore you will automatically not be one of those answers?
Brent: Well, let me throw out one warning. Nothing will cause me to dislike your brand worse than trying to manipulate the system, and I show up at an address that’s not you.
Duane: Oh, absolutely.
Brent: So that happens a lot. Companies put in addresses because they had a PO Box somewhere, and they’re going to have five or six addresses because they want to be in every city. That is a killer for the brand. Don’t do that stuff.
Eric: So, guys, we’ve got four minutes left so maybe we want to go through a round of wrap up comments.
We’ve pushed this topic around in a number of different directions here today. I love talking with Brent and Duane. Our conversations always sound like this, where we have some friendly disagreement.
In this case, we have a little bit of disagreement as to how quickly this is all going to happen. We know there’s 400 million installs of Google Assistant that are active. We know there are 500 million installs of Siri that are active. That’s data from both of those companies. The sales of smart speakers are going through the roof.
I think there are big opportunities for people right now to grab some brand market share and authority by optimizing for these platforms and getting yourself out there. I urge you to consider doing it. It’s not right for everybody right now. I’ll be honest and straight up about that, but I do think you at least ought to consider it and see whether it’s right for you. Who’s next?
Brent: I wanted to let Duane have the last word.
I agree in the sense that I think that this is an important technology I really think you should pay attention to. What I worry about is that people start feeling like they have to be involved, right? It’s like, “Oh crap, I don’t want to be left behind.”
What I would say is that in this space, it’s like the example of Instagram. Everybody wanted to have an Instagram account and they had nothing visual to show, so they just started creating crap to show it. If you have something that fits for voice search right now, then you should absolutely take the steps that you can to participate with it. If you don’t, then definitely just pay attention to it.
This space is going to open up, it is going to provide an opportunity for just about everyone, so stay abreast of what’s happening in this space, what’s the technology, and start envisioning your company in that space, and then wait until you have that opportunity to make that a reality. But don’t overstress yourself and feel like you’re failing because you’re not in the space right now. It’s still very limited for the right fit at this point in my opinion.
Duane: So, I’m going to end this on a note of FOMO, Fear of Missing Out, and I’m going to give Brent props for his well thought out perspective.
My thinking on this is that if you are not a part of this now…so rewind this slightly. When I was still at Bing, I would walk on stage and tell people you need to mark up your content. That was over five years ago, and only now are we starting to see the true adoption of that. We are also facing an absolute truth that while everyone knows it, nobody talks about it, which is the average human being doesn’t need the internet full of information that we have to make the typical decisions in their daily lives.
What that actually means is we are going to be living in a world of a limited number of answers needed for any given question. So, the decades that we’ve enjoyed the internet, the expansiveness of it, and giving us all of that space and all those options, those are going to go away because consumer choice is going to narrow that down. These technologies are the beginning of it. Voice may not be for you, but you’ve got to pay attention, you’ve got to dig in now, because visual may be for you, and that’s happening now.
And then what happens with the next assistive technology? What happens when we have digital agents who are tasked with filtering out information before we even see it? Because if that agent of mine doesn’t trust your website for any reason, you are never shown to me as a consumer. Today’s work is the foundation for all of that trust in the future. So shortcuts today? Not an option.
Eric: There you go. Thank you everybody for watching our event. Let us know in the comments if you want to see more shows like this in the future. Bye everybody.
Brent: Thanks everyone.