Blog article

11th February 2020

Voice User Interface | changing how we consume information


Not so long ago, the concept of verbally communicating with a computer within your own home seemed reserved purely for the plots of sci-fi films set in some distant future. Yet here we are, receiving everything from news and weather updates, to booking appointments and making real time purchases, via the exact technology that once seemed light-years away.

In just a short space of time, smart assistants such as Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri, have transformed the way consumers search for and digest information. And what was initially perceived as a novelty purchase by a few early adopters has today become a commonplace household item, coveted and owned by millions of ordinary people worldwide.  

In fact, in the last year alone, Amazon reported tens of millions in sales of its smart assistant device Echo, commonly known as Alexa, which now boasts over 70,000 different unique skills and capabilities. Google has played catch-up advancing its own rival technology with the introduction of Google Home Hub, a smart speaker that also features an integrated screen.  

In a similar vein, Facebook recently revealed its own VUI device, Portal, a smart speaker with advanced video call capabilities, and let's not forget the original voice activation innovator Apple, which has developed its own voice activated home speaker system, which, like its rivals, also helps you control aspects of your home life through applied smart technology. 

But it's not just consumers that can't get enough of voice user interface.  

Over 4.5 thousand smart home brands now offer Alexa compatible devices.  

While Amazon, Alexa's creator, also claims the number of Alexa integrated products for sale through its platform more than doubled in 2018. Not counting the car manufacturers including Audi, BMW, Ford and Toyota, who have forged partnerships with Amazon to offer Alexa's technology as a standard feature in their road vehicles.   

In fact, the widespread adoption of voice activated smart assistants has led to VUIs becoming the fastest growing new technology among consumers, with the Christmas period heralding yet another spike in sales of voice-powered smart hubs.  

But voice user interface isn't just having an influence over how we play music at home, nor making everyday tasks, such as answering the phone, compatible purely by verbal request.   

Voice-stimulated technology is also having a fundamental impact on the way we search for information and ask questions.

Statistics show that nearly 50% of all interactions with smart assistants are for online search, the fourth highest usage, ranked only behind playing music, asking the weather, and posing playful questions purely for entertainments' sake. This means that of those now searching for information about a product, person, company or service, nearly half of all those who own a VUI device are doing so using the technology.  

But this uptake in VUI search versus traditional online search engines like Google isn't the only reason the way we source information and ask questions is changing. The language we use during voice search, versus type search, is also different. Something that hasn't gone unnoticed by the digital marketing community, who are now debating how the growing phenomenon of voice search will affect traditional SEO, SERP (Search Engine Results Pages), and online search performance going forward.  

What is voice search?

Put simply, voice search is exactly as it sounds. It's when you ask a question out loud to a compatible voice user interface device like Google Assistant or Alexa, rather than typing it manually into an online search engine like Google. It's not unique to electronic smart assistants, and many of today's mobile phones also have voice search functionality built in too, for example Apple's Siri, which debuted the technology back in 2011. 

When you consider that Siri is now nine years old, the fact that VUIs have only recently started to take off in a big way, might seem at odds. But while it's common knowledge that Apple introduced voice search into its mobile devices almost a decade ago, the technology previously failed to make a long-term impact because it wasn't as advanced as that being marketed today. Bugs and issues, such as difficulty understanding localised dialects and accents, plagued the first wave of voice search devices that were made available to consumers and for that reason, as well as restricted capabilities at the time, the technology was slow to take off.  

These first generation issues, however, are now very much a thing of the past. Not only is today's voice technology infinitely more sophisticated, powerful and accurate than its early predecessors, the integration of these devices with other technology is fuelling the current consumer appetite for VUI. 


How does voice search work? 

The technology behind voice search works very similarly to online search. The voice-powered device will identify primary and secondary keywords in your question, then use these verbal cues to determine the answer that most closely matches your query. The main difference with voice search versus traditional search engines like Google however lies is the volume of results you're likely to receive. 

Some smart assistant devices, for example, will only offer up a single response to your search, while others might offer you just a handful of results. In fact, unless you're in possession of a combined voice user interface that can verbalise results, as well as show them to you on a screen, you're unlikely to benefit from the several thousand hits you're commonly offered via online search engines like Google. 

Why VUI search results can differ from online results 

By now, most savvy and frequent Internet users are aware that online search engines like Google feed off keywords to find relevant results to a query. As a consequence, we've adapted the way we talk to online search engines, omitting non-relevant keywords and conjunctions (words like and, as, because, but) because we know they're incidental and won't add any value in terms of the results we're looking to generate.  

For example, if we wanted to locate a digital marketing agency in a particular area, say in Southampton, we might type something to the effect of: "digital marketing agency Southampton" into Google. What we'd naturally expect to see following that query would be pages of results showing relevant digital marketing agencies based in Southampton.  

In voice search something a little different takes place.  

We've been conditioned to treat our verbal interaction with devices like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant much like talking to a human being.  

So when we search via VUI, instead of just quoting keywords, we tend to verbalise our request as a proper, fully structured sentence, just as we would if we were asking a friend, family member, or colleague the question.  

Taking the same example of wanting to locate a digital marketing agency in Southampton, using verbal search we're more likely to position this request as "Alexa, can you find me a digital marketing agency based in Southampton?" or "Alexa, can you recommend a good digital marketing agency in Southampton’s City Centre?"  

We're effectively still asking a VUI to seek out relevant results, but the style we adopt in voice search is conversational and personable, rather than purely keyword focussed. While this might seem incidental, after all the main keywords are still included in the question, this change in phrasing can actually have a bearing on SERP. As a consequence, the top result you might get in a voice search might not correlate with the same entry in Google search. In other words, just because a brand occupies position one in Google, doesn't automatically guarantee it will come out on top in a voice search. 


How is VUI affecting SEO and digital marketing content?  

Yes VUI is on the rise, but let's not make any mistake, Google is by far and away the most trafficked website online today, still outperforming all other websites including social media sites and YouTube. Just taking online search into account for example, Google occupies a dominant 74% share of the market, which rises to 90% for mobile search. So while VUI's are being adopted to make straightforward information searches, for now at least, online search remains the primary means by which most businesses and consumers continue to locate information, products and services.  

What we're saying is yes smart assistants are becoming more commonplace, and yes voice search is increasing (and will continue to do so), but traditional SEO is still fundamental for brands looking to grow their online audience, drive engagement and convert customers. So investing marketing spend in SEO activity is still a vital practice in B2B brand engagement, and should be a fundamental aspect of any digital marketing strategy in the long-term. 

That said, as an increasing amount of users adopt voice search devices, it doesn't hurt, particularly if you're a business that relies on GEO search for traffic and conversions, to include online content that's optimised for voice search.  

Particularly when you consider that more than one billion voice searches are already conducted each month, and trends estimate that half of all information searches made in 2020 will be via voice search.  

As is common with any new technology, the younger generation are among those spearheading the VUI movement, with a quarter of those known to currently use voice search on mobile aged 16-24 year olds. But with Google reporting that 65% of all voice searches are delivered in a conversational manner, voice search compatibility aside, there are other benefits to be gained by optimising your content in a way that makes it voice search friendly. All of which can help you rank higher in online searches too.



How to optimise your content for VUI and improve your online SEO

Let's take writing in a conversational style for example. Not only does using accessible everyday language make your content more compatible to voice search; it can also improve your online SERP placement too. That's because content that's friendly, concise and personable is automatically more engaging to a web user, and anything that keeps a reader on your site for longer, encourages dwell times, which is great for search engine optimisation.  

It's also important to ensure web content is richly seeded with primary and secondary keywords relevant to your location, product, or service, so your target audience can easily find your website online or via voice search.   

Location is extremely important if you are chasing the voice search demographic as 22% of all enquiries currently put to VUIs are requests for local businesses or services. Therefore if your immediate local market catchment is likely to be your core clientele, like one of our recent clients Mackoy who provides groundworks infrastructure in and around the South of England, it's imperative that your operating remit comes across clearly in your website so Google, and voice search, can index it accordingly.  

One of the main benefits of voice search is the immediacy and on-the-go nature of the technology. With the increasing rise in the use of devices such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, users are aware of the level of specific information they are able to search, and using phrases such as 'near me' are becoming second nature. In the last two years alone, the number of searches for phrases like "near me" + "now" (For example, "restaurants open near me now") have increased by 200% - highlighting the significance of voice search and hyper locality whilst on the move.

Remember, keywords are what potential customers or adopters of your brand will enter into Google, or ask a VUI when they're trying to find a business exactly like yours.

Web copy that lacks key search terms won't be easily discoverable, and as a consequence could see your website preceded by competitors whose content is better optimised than your own. So think carefully about what those keywords are in your unique case, and make sure your content includes them. If you can incorporate long tail keywords in your copy too (those that combine several of your keywords in the same sentence) even better - multi-keyworded terms such as these are known to have a highly positive impact on SERP.  


The value of a fully optimised website for lead generation and conversions 

When you consider that companies appearing first in Google search receive 30% more traffic than those that appear below them, it's easy to appreciate why SEO is so important. Even more so if your business is one that operates in an intensely crowded market, like some of our Merchant clients operating in the global oil gas, construction and aviation industries – fiercely competitive sectors, dominated by major players competing for market share.  

But it's not just keyworded copy that impacts where a website indexes in online and in voice search. The design of your site, UX, and integrated elements such as video content, all have a bearing on how high a website ranks in search. Not to mention the frequency with which you update your content, the amount of page impressions an individual user makes, and the average length of time they spend on your site.  

At Merchant, designing, building and managing B2B websites that perform for SEO is what our dynamic team of web designers, digital marketing insight specialists, and content writers do best and we have experts in our team with more than 15 years' experience in digital marketing.

Emerging technologies such as VUIs is something we're going to be integrating in a big way for our Merchant clients moving forward, so if you want to future-proof your business and invest in a technology that will set you apart from your competitors, get in touch. We'd be happy to demonstrate our technological capabilities, and help you find the right way to integrate emerging tech, such as VUI, AI and chatbots to great effect in your business.  

Likewise if your website is failing to gain traction in online search, our digital transformation specialists can conduct an audit to see where and why it's underperforming, and implement effective changes to bring about results. To see how we've achieved this for clients in the construction, commodities, logistics and travel sectors, just take a look at our Case Studies page.

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