How voice will impact on search and social media

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When Amazon debuted its Echo smart speaker in the US back in 2014 very few of the initial reviewers had any inkling of the potential of the device. Many described it as gimmicky and felt that the public wouldn’t warm to it.

Four years on and it is now clear that the Echo, along with voice assistants on mobile devices, have significantly changed the way in which the world interacts with technology. The most recent figures from YouGov are that one in ten Britons now own a smart speaker. Meanwhile, Comscore has predicted that as many as 50% of searches will be voice based by 2020.

Brands and media companies are starting to asses the way in which voice has changed user behaviour, and are also developing strategies to influence it.

At the CMA we believe that voice is going to play a huge role in the future. We have commissioned a report, which will be published in a few weeks, into how our members think it will impact everything from the creation of content through to its distribution.

In the meantime, though here are three questions about the future of voice that I believe are framing the debate in the content creation community.

1. How prevalent will voice search become?

One of the reasons voice search has taken off so quickly is that it is so convenient and simple to use. It can deliver access to knowledge in situations where typing into a device is tricky, the most obvious example being the car.

There is plenty of evidence that users are searching using voice at home too, not just using smart speakers, but also via their mobile devices when their hands/vision are otherwise occupied.

What is clear is that there is a sweet spot where people are using voice search, when typing would be onerous or difficult. The big question for marketers is whether that sweet spot will extend into other scenarios too.

Might it be that we become so accustomed to searching using voice that actually typing into devices to ask questions starts to feel strange? Or it may be that we associate text based typing with a work environment, sitting at a desk using a computer and that for everything else we use voice.

The problem for brands is that when voice search generates voice based answers it only delivers limited responses – which brings us on to question two…

2. What is the likely impact of voice search on SEO?

Getting an article on the first page of a search engine for a key topic is still the holy grail in most SEO practice. Yet what happens when users undertake voice searches and the answers they get are limited?.

What is highly interesting is that the way in which voice searches are evolving.

As Jane Hunt, Marketing Director of JBH pointed out on a CMA blog post, Britney Muller, SEO & content architect for Moz, recently ran an experiment, asking “What are the best laptops?” to three preeminent voice assistants.

The results:

Google Home – Read out a list from
Apple Siri – Answered, “The Apple Macintosh is my favourite computer”
Amazon Alexa – Answered, “Sorry, I don’t have the answer to that question”

It was a fascinating experiment and highlights how voice based search is in no way a generic process. The Echo, powered by Bing, refused to be drawn, while Apple’s Siri merely plugged its own device. From a user perspective arguably the best answer was delivered by Google as it took content from Featured Snippets – a self-contained answer to search queries taken from a third-party site, positioned right at the top of the SERPs.

The move underlines how important it is for brands and publishers to claim that Featured Snippets top spot. The problem is that the competition is fierce and that winning the gold medal for search is extremely difficult. There are of course many ways companies can optimise content for voice search, and indeed many of these tactics make sense for text based search too, but the likelihood of your search response coming out on top is still pretty remote.

Norbert Kilen, Strategy Director of CMA member Think Kong believes that in time technical optimisation will play an important role in voice search.

“It’s worth noting that voice results are taken from websites with high Google authority. That is why “normal SEO” will be still important – you still have to earn your website authority. With the development of voice search, there will be greater needs in the area of technical optimization – speed, tagging information for voice search etc.”

The other big question for marketers then is are we going to see a repeat of the pay to play strategy that has become the norm on social networks? There are endless examples already of brands working in this way from developing skills for the Amazon Echo through to more straightforward partnerships with the companies. This article from JBH has a series of examples, including Burger King’s hilarious attempt to hijack ‘Ok Google.’

Voice search is clearly going to change search, but as Howard Wilmot Content Strategist of CMA member Dialogue points it will be an evolutionary process.

“Voice really enables the most functional searches – buying things, fact-finding and sourcing bitesize info –particularly when we’re active or mobile. But they’re not the only searches we make, sometimes we’re looking for more in depth information or longer reads which require more attention on our part. As a result, there’ll no doubt be an evolution in search engine technology to support these different functions, needs and environments. We won’t necessarily lose the concept of a search front page, but it will certainly morph to adapt to us.”

3. What impact will voice have on social media

One question that is coming up time and time again at the moment is ‘how much will voice impact on the future of social media?’ It was a topic we discussed at the recent Future Content Sessions event on social media and several of the presenters, most notably Lisa Targett of TribeJoanna Boyd of ITN Productions and Lydia Wise of Lansons spoke enthusiastically about how they saw potential for its use.

The theory runs that in the same way that younger users are starting to create and send voice messages to each other on platforms like WhatsApp, so there is an opportunity for a social platform that enables users to share voice content with their followers. Voice content is perceived as being more personal and perhaps informal than text based content, and the inflection in the user’s voice adds nuances that mere text, albeit accompanied by emojis, can’t really convey. Humans can create more content quicker using voice than text too – apparently, the average person speaks three times as fast as they can type.

It would be fairly straightforward for any of the big platforms to add voice as an option, and this is an innovation I think we could see in the next twelve months. What also might happen is the emergence of voice based social networks. The leading network at the moment, which Lisa Targett namechecked at the FCS event, is Hear Me Out which is a Twitter style platform that enables users to create and share 42 second messages.

It will be interesting to see how it evolves and whether it becomes mainstream, but it has so many potential uses from education (there’s a blog post here about this) through to entertainment (the platform is already teeming with celebrity impersonators).

It isn’t just Hear Me Out either, there is also ListenBall and Bubbly which work in a similar way.

Ultimately then as Kevin Gibbons, Founder & MD, Re:Signal concludes, “there’s a format for everyone. The key for the marketer is to find out what your audience wants and repurpose in ways that they can each consume your content, irrespective of the platform, device or format.

In a couple of weeks, you can hear from the experts, our members are going to state what they think is the future of voice. Don’t miss it!

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