Voice Search & Voice Assistants: From Type to Talk

July 25, 2018

Technology advancements are often the catalyst to shifts in a marketplace. There’s a lot of buzz about how AI, cryptocurrency and blockchain will change our lives forever, but one technology in particular is significantly changing our lives right now: voice. Why is voice so popular all of the sudden? How are people using it and what should your brand be doing?

Voice (search & assistants) is a seismic shift that is the next big disruption with how we communicate – and also the most natural. In the 1990s we had the first big explosion of this thing called the internet and everyone raced to have websites. In the 2000s, mobile phones finally hit critical mass and cellular bandwidth improved exponentially allowing the possibility for full internet and streaming video. Now with voice we are at that first influx of a new technology – voice today is much like using the internet on early mobile devices – it is just the beginning.

Voice assistants are exploding in usage. The first big players were Apple with Siri, then Amazon Alexa/Echo and of course Google Home/Assistant with others mixed in. Currently Amazon Alexa is far and away the market leader, but with Google Assistant now installed on 500 million devices, that is expected to change rapidly in Google’s favor.

While Google Assistant is on 500 million devices, Amazon’s Echo dot was the top selling product across all categories on Amazon this past holiday season. It is now estimated by Juniper Research that Amazon Echo, Google Home and the Sonos One will be installed in over 70 million US households by 2022, reaching 55% of all homes.

Along with this influx of voice assistants is a rapid rise in voice search – and it is not just younger people using it. 57% of adults 50+ say they are heavy users of their voice devices and would much prefer to search by voice instead of typing. 72% of people polled by Google say they use voice assistant as part of their daily routine. CMI/Compas Media Vitals 2018 research shows that across all specialties, 44% of prescribers have used voice assistance technology, and 10% of those who do use this technology specifically say they’ve used it to research pharmaceutical product information. We expect those numbers to continue to rise. Many adults say they feel it is like talking to a friend or having a relative in the house.

Why now?

As of 2016, Google’s artificial intelligence and machine learning reached 95% accuracy for understanding speech. 95% word accuracy rate is the threshold for human accuracy. This has dropped the word error rate down below 5% for understanding speech. This is a massive milestone and has blown the doors wide open of the abilities of voice assistants.

42% of people polled by Pew Research say they just started to use voice search in the past 6 months to a year. comScore estimates that by 2020, 50% of searches will be done by voice. It is not just at home either. Amazon’s Alexa is already in hospital settings and multiple clinical trials with Johns Hopkins.

So what’s next with voice?

Much like the Wild West beginning of internet usage when everything was up for grabs, this is the first big land grab for voice.  If there were any doubt how big voice assistants are about to become, Google gave search a back seat at their yearly I/O developer conference, which focused primarily on Google Assistant and the massive breakthroughs in artificial intelligence – specifically Google Duplex. Without going too far down a rabbit hole of geekery, Google Duplex leverages a combination of neural networks and machine learning to analyze content and intent of speech in real time. Google assistant leverages this to make calls to businesses on behalf of the user. The calls sound shockingly realistic and are very hard to tell that it is a virtual assistant placing the call. Some are saying that Google Duplex has a strong future in call center support as well.

On the Amazon side of things, Alexa is now able to utilize Follow Up Actions, which allows a user to have more flowing natural conversation without having to say “Alexa” before every question or command. Additionally, users might not need to have Alexa Skills enabled for Alexa to pull data from those skills. If a user asks a question and there is a skill that can answer it, Alexa could enable that skill for you and provide a response.

With the rate of advancements in AI, expect a lot of functionality developments to come quickly and often.

So how can you optimize your brand sites for voice search now?

People typically search on desktop using short keyword phrases, for example: “lung cancer symptoms.” With voice search however, users ask full, grammatically correct questions such as: “what are the symptoms of lung cancer?”  The first step is to see what people are searching for and if there is a relation to your brand or the condition it treats.

Developing content that answers these questions clearly and concisely is key. Leveraging schema micro data on your website will help provide even more information on your brand to Google. There are around 600 schema tags, many of which are pharma-specific.

Page speed is also a factor. The average page speed of a website is in the 8.8 second range. Websites that populate voice results typically load in under 5 seconds. Ensuring your website page speed is optimized and image compression enabled is extremely important – not just for voice but search in general.  While this is far from everything you can do to optimize for voice it is definitely a major start to having your brand appear in those results.

With brands beginning to look to how they can address voice search, the solution is actually much simpler than many realize. You do not have a voice search strategy without a dedicated search engine optimization strategy. No other channel/tactic can impact your voice search results, making it imperative that the emphasis moving forward is on search engine optimization (SEO). Having the ability to be found easily is a key to being successful online, and voice search heightens the benefit of a well-executed organic search strategy. Brands don’t necessarily need to do things differently if they’ve already devised a well thought out SEO strategy. Previously a well optimized website helped you achieve top rankings across Google, and now that same site’s performance is directly tied to your brands’ future voice, or lack thereof.

Eligibility Criteria

To be eligible for voice search you must rank on the first page of Google organically. There are several additional criteria that generally are necessary for your brand to be eligible and they include:

  • Make sure you have a secured server (HTTPS): around 70% of voice results come from sites with a secured server.
  • Optimize for page speed: The average site online can take up to 10 seconds to fully load, and the average voice search result page loads in less than 4.5 seconds. The new standard that Google expects is for websites to load in less than 2 seconds as they continue to transition towards prioritizing user experience (UX).
  • Have an authoritative domain: The majority of voice search results come from sites with a Domain Authority above 75/100. The majority of pharmaceutical sites are in the 20-40 range.
  • Social engagement: content should be highly shareable across social media.
  • Semantic format: Incorporate semantic language to better to align to how people ask questions and interact with voice assistants.
  • Simplify the content: The average result contains 29 words and has a 9th grade reading level.
  • Create robust content: The average word count of a voice results page is over 2000.
  • Achieve rich snippets: The most valuable search result, it is projected up to 80% of voice search results are read from this result.

Part of better understanding how to optimize your brand sites for voice search also involves understanding how to measure and evaluate any gaps that will help improve your chances of ranking for voice searches. Research has found that there’s a strong correlation between higher rankings for specific keywords (75% fall within the top 3 positions) and higher likelihood of being a voice search result. Partnering with SEO specialists is key in measuring and optimizing for this, as you will want to determine how many relevant keywords your site is ranking for in the top 3 positions. If you’re hoping to be the voice search result for “lung cancer symptoms” but don’t organically rank in the top 3 positions for that term, it’s likely that your content is not strong enough to support that position which makes it highly unlikely that you will be the voice search result. With that in mind, it’s ideal to have a pulse on where your site is currently ranking for key terms and to develop metadata optimization strategies based on that information which will address any gaps in this arena.

What about advertising?

This is the million (billion) – dollar question. Can you advertise on voice assistants now? Short answer: no. Long answer: not yet but it’s coming. With Google, search, Gmail, YouTube and other services, Google always rolls them out for free, then the ads come later. Google is built on ads. We know they are testing ads currently within the Google calendar on Google Home. A user asks Google Home to read his calendar for the day. At the end of the appointments Google Home lets the user know that Disney on Ice is in his area and asks if he would like Google Home to purchase tickets for him. Additionally, Google and Target rolled out the first voice activated coupon for $15 off of Target orders placed with Google Express through Google Home. For search results, it is a strong possibility we will be seeing a pay to play offering in the near future to be the result, which is read back from a voice search.

On the Amazon side of things – shopping is going to be key. Alexa can suggest a specific brand that is having a promotion. There is potential to offer co pay coupons or free trail coupons but this is extremely speculative at this point.

Leveraging keyword research data will also lend more insight into content creation. We can see the questions being asked and make content recommendations to address those. These questions can also be rolled into paid search campaigns across traditional desktop and mobile search to give us another insight into what users are looking for.

What is a skill and how do I create my own?

It is important to understand that skills are basically apps, with Amazon Alexa and Google Home as the user interface. Unlike web search, mobile, YouTube, the voice skill marketplace is wide open as far as pharma goes. While the number of Alexa Skills has skyrocketed past 12,000 – not many are health related.

Leveraging keyword research data will also lend more insight into content creation. We can see the questions being asked and make content recommendations to address those. These questions can also be rolled into paid search campaigns across traditional desktop and mobile search to give us another insight into what users are looking for.

CMI/Compas currently partners with other WPP agencies to help brands create and implement custom Alexa and Google Home skills. There are thousands of directions to go with a skill but it needs to be useful and something a user is actually going to want to use. Ideation is the first step to developing a concept for a skill. CMI/Compas will be glad to get sessions going if a custom skill is a route your brand would like to go.

What steps should brands be taking?

How you reach your target audience without a screen to advertise on is something brands will have to address. To determine the starting point, brands should begin to review how many rich snippets they currently own, and also determine if the information you have is optimized based on how searchers pose questions.

  • Work with the SEO team to provide keyword insights and search volume around questions being asked by users
  • Work with the creative team to develop a content strategy to ask and answer questions
  • Analyze paid search query reports for long tail keywords and questions
  • Follow technical best practices to help facilitate results in Google answer boxes
  • Initiate an ideation session to determine the feasibility of a custom skill – if it makes sense