This article is coauthored by Matt Lang.
It is early days for Voice search and the discipline is still far from defined. However, this initial era of Voice assistants has provided us a framework for how to think about voice-first search and how to help content become an answer for users. Although the process and sources may evolve, the thinking and best practices are likely to remain. With this context in mind, let’s explore how search operates via Voice assistants today:
Conversationally Optimized Web Content (aka Voice SEO)
Voice-optimized web content can come from a variety of sources. Typically these answers are drawn from web pages that feature conversationally written content, often using natural language modifiers with keywords, such as questions alongside concise answers. If you are looking for an answer to come through a device like a smart speaker, you should be seeking a ‘featured snippet’ to give your content the best chance of surfacing. Generally, content should aim to be in the top 10 of SERP on Google and Bing to be selected as an answer by Voice assistants.
While there is lots of inexact science being postulated about how to win voice SEO, we’ve found it is best to start with a landscape analysis to understand what you are up against. While for some industries and question types, dominant sites such as Wikipedia may be hard to topple, there are many cases where we have seen third-party sites with limited authority being surfaced over brands themselves who have the right to win with their content. If this is the case, you should be jumping at the opportunity to try and reclaim your brand presentation.
Ensuring your brand content is voice ready isn’t just a matter of rewriting content to be voice-friendly. Winning voice SEO is an ecosystem challenge that requires thoughtful enhancements to best position your brand as the answer across a number of consumer inquiry types that may arise.
Voice Experiences (e.g. Skills and Actions)
If you are building a voice application today, it would be wise to incorporate content and answers to questions you could expect your consumers to ask. Although experiences are not surfaced through native voice search inquiries nearly as often as optimized web content, Alexa and Google Assistant will still offer them as recommendations for some queries. Both companies have also rolled out features that make it easier for developers and brands to have their applications discovered in this way ( CanFufillIntent and Implicit Invocations, respectively).
Regardless of whether your experience surfaces every time a consumer search on a voice-first device or not, if you are promoting your presence on voice and driving usage of your application(s), it’s important to have answers easily accessible. A consumer’s interest in answers doesn’t stop once they enter your application, in fact, it may very well increase. Perhaps more importantly, once a user enters your voice experience the amount and level of data you can receive about their interactions significantly increases from the relative black box of the native platforms. Even if you have a small number of users at first, the data you capture around their queries and intents will be qualitatively valuable and should be used to inform your larger Voice SEO strategy.
Knowledge Graph and Database Partnerships
Another area organizations need to be mindful of is the ever-changing landscape of knowledge graphs and data partnerships being employed by the big technology companies for use with their voice assistant AIs. Two notable graphs that the assistants turn to regularly are Wikipedia and Yelp. For the assistants, these are seen as good resources because they are highly trafficked sites where consumers look for answers. For companies with information on these sites, it’s key to make sure everything is being represented properly as assistants may choose to turn there regardless of accuracy or user experience.
Aside from shoring up your information on these portals, it is important to be cognizant of other behind-the-scenes partnerships that serve answers to voice device users. The partnerships tend to focus on filling knowledge gaps for the AIs in areas with agreed-upon factual answers or that depend on reliable real-time data. A couple of examples of this include Amazon Alexa’s use of Wolfram Alpha to answer difficult computational questions and Samsung Bixby’s partnership with theScore for sports scores and news. Lastly, we have local search results being pulled by Google Assistant through Google’s own platform or with help from Yext on Alexa.
The final piece of the search landscape on voice comes from the assistants themselves….kind of. Each major voice assistant on the market today has what they call a ‘Personality Team’. This is an internal group of employees dedicated to anthropomorphizing the AIs by defining their tone, attitude, and characteristics. Along with this work, they help to write and decide select replies the assistant will provide users. Typically these replies are reserved for direct engagement with the assistant when users ask things like “Alexa, how are you?” or “Who will win the Super Bowl?”
Where this gets interesting is when users start asking for information that has biased parties vying for authority and the AI will need to become a mediator for content distribution. We are already starting to see the effects of this dilemma in some areas, such as politics.
Brands and organizations considering voice search optimization would be wise to undertake efforts toward content and ecosystem updates to help position them as an authority in their category. If we’ve learned anything from traditional search it is that once someone has been deemed a “winner” by the search engines, they are hard to shake. Voice presents an opportunity to reshape your presence, but the window won’t be open for long.