The Voice Search Revolution
“Alexa, I need a good pest control company.”
If you don’t understand the significance of that sentence, then strap yourself in, I am going to take you on a journey and explain how I think voice search will change the way service-based companies market themselves and source leads in the near future.
If you are a savvy business owner or hold a marketing position in a larger service based organization then chances are you have a pretty comprehensive marketing strategy that focuses on inbound lead generation. Your strategy likely has multiple channels, including content creation, PPC, social media, and the like, but the bulk of your time and money is probably based on ranking well in Google and running an effective Adwords campaign.
Up until this point (and for at least the next two years) that is exactly what you should be doing, because based on the current landscape that is going to give you your best ROI. If you are nodding your head right now, then great- keep going. If you aren’t, go back and check out our post on marketing your service-based business like a rock star. So I mentioned that for the nodding reader you are doing exactly what you should be.
Except that sentence at the beginning of this article puts a whole new spin on things moving forward. In order to understand how it does that, we have to go back to the beginning, or about 2.8 Million years ago, when our ancestor, Homo Habilis was roaming Africa.
Didn’t see that coming, right? Stick with me.
You see, this Homo Habilis dude was the first hominid to master a basic tool, in this case the stone axe. Homo Habilis actually means handy man. Why is this relevant, apart from helping you to kick ass on Jeopardy, you ask? Because nearly everything we have done as a species from that point until now has been driven by just a few things: how can we make our lives easier and how can we make them better. So what I am talking about is progress, or the idea that social and scientific progress improve the human condition.
Whoa. I know, what does this have to do with life after Google? Because if you understand this concept behind progress you can attempt to predict and understand how consumer (re: human) behavior and technology will evolve in concert, and more importantly, be ready for it.
Think about it for a moment. Mr. Habilis invents the stone ax. As a result, skinning a kill, what used to take a day, now takes half the time. Now he has a whole half day to do more with. Now he has time to figure out a better way of getting water from the stream to his shelter, or to develop a better way of hunting (spear, anyone?) That’s the basic concept, we do things that make our lives easier and better, and disrupting technologies are the catalyst for moving the needle on the easy gauge of the human experience.
The Basics of Advertising
Ok, humans like things easier and better- nothing earth-shattering there, right? Let’s keep going. Now that we’ve established that, let’s turn to advertising. First, why do we even advertise in the first place? The short answer is to get your product or service in front of your target audience and convince them that it will meet their needs. Pretty simple, right? Things get a bit more interesting when you consider how technology has impacted, or limited, how we advertise, but we have essentially been doing the same thing for the last 200+ years, albeit using different methods.
The 19th Century
In the 19th century advertising was basically limited to printed handbills, or bill-posters, and newspapers. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and with it advances in printing, including lithography and steam driven printing presses. Printing was the big technology disruptor here- it was a lot easier for a business trying to get the word out about their product or service to have 500 handbills or posters printed and distributed than it was to stand on a city corner and sing their praises to anyone who would listen.
Despite this, products were viewed as commodities, not brands. Hand drawn illustrations were the principal form of visual advertising, with Eastman’s Kodak camera not making its appearance towards the end of the century, in 1888. With the technical limitations of the time, advertisers were limited to printed, hand-distributed handbills and newspaper advertising.
And then the 20th century happened.
The 20th Century
The 20th century saw huge growth in advertising that parallelled the technological accomplishments of the age. The first radio news program was broadcast August 31, 1920 by station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan.  The century also saw the advent of the television and telephone. Technological improvements in manufacturing and production fueled the growth of advertising those products, as a result, each channel was utilized by the advertisers of the time to reach their audiences and communicate their messaging.
You would have to point to radio and television as the preeminent technological disruptors in the 20th century with respect to advertising, even as printing technology achieved new heights.
Popular forms of print media included direct mail, newspaper advertising, booklets, and brochures. Telephone technology was leveraged in the form of the ever-popular telemarketing as well as cold calling. Radio was utilized with sponsorships and spots, and television was heavily commercialized. These were all examples of outbound, or interruptive marketing, where audiences got the message whether they needed your product or service or not.
The most effective form of needs-based advertising of the century was the Yellow Pages. From its beginning in the late 1800’s to its peak usage at the end of the 20th, the Yellow Pages were the dominant player in service based advertising. From pizza to pest control, the dominant consumer behavior of the time was to look up the listing in the book and place a call based on which print advertisement they felt best met their needs. This form of marketing was hugely successful for most of the century. At its peak, the Yellow Pages (or some form of it) could be found in most American homes, and was a staple for most businesses advertising budgets.
And then came the Internet.
The 21st Century
Although technically the Internet had been in the works since the 1950s, it didn’t really reach the public until the late 1980s and early 1990s. For the purposes of it becoming a bigger player in search and as a marketing tool you would have to look to the new millennium.
As the 21st century matured, we’ve seen huge growth in the usage of the Internet, fueled by a proliferation of devices including smartphones, tablets, and more portable computers, as well as network infrastructure itself. I referenced the popularity of the Yellow Pages in the 20th century, the Internet was the obvious disruptor that knocked the book from its perch. Even though the Internet didn’t become popular with the public until the 1990’s it quickly displaced the traditional advertising giant. The Yellow Pages went from over 15 billion pages in print in 2002 to just over 10 billion eight years later.  According to BIA/Kelsey data, print declines for the Yellow Pages began in 2007, and the next year the medium saw its first year of total ad revenue decline, including print and digital.  Today the brand continues to deteriorate, and struggles to remain relevant.
Consumers went from looking things up in the Yellow Pages to Googling them online.
The contemporary consumer behavior looking for services is to enter a search query on their device and receive a search engine result, parse through the results, visit one or more websites (or none) and make a decision on what entity will best serve their needs. Then they take action to initiate contact, most often through a contact form or via telephone.
Google currently dominates search. I write currently, because they sit where Yahoo used to be. People would have thought you were crazy if you said Yahoo was going to fail back in the early 2000’s, when, even after the dot.com bubble had burst, was still top dog in the search market. In 2002 Yahoo’s revenue was about $837 million, and Google was at $240 million.  In January of 2000 Yahoo had a peak market value of $125 billion.
Its core internet operations were acquired by Verizon earlier this year for $4.8 billion. 
Shareholders still hold a substantial stake in Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce company, so it wasn’t a total disaster for investors, but from a search market share perspective it was a trainwreck.
In this space you will be better served by not subscribing to the status quo, which is inherently fallible. If you ever find yourself doubting this, think about Yahoo and Google- if you still can’t get there then you are probably going to get run over like Blockbuster did by Netflix.
But the thing is, you don’t have to be road kill.
According to the latest comscore data, Google Sites led the U.S. explicit core search market in February with 64 percent market share of desktop searches, while 31.9 percent of searches were powered by Bing.  Google owns over 90% of the mobile search market at the moment, including both smartphones and tablets.
As as result, most digital marketing agencies and businesses that are executing their own marketing strategies focus primarily on Google, and rightly so, that is where the majority of traffic (and opportunity) is.
Let’s revisit how people are actually using Google, these are the steps:
- Type a query into Google on their smartphone, tablet, or desktop computer.
- Review the search engine result page (SERP) to determine which site(s) to visit.
- Either make a decision based on what they see in the SERP, or visit best prospective website.
- Review website(s) to determine which best suits their needs.
- Submit a contact form or call a phone number to take the next step.
Not super easy, right? Remember Homo Habilis? What could make this whole process a lot easier? I’ll give you a hint:
“Alexa, I need a good pest control company.”
The Future of Search
Voice search. Take note, this, I believe, is the next big disruptor, and we are already seeing evidence of it. If we maintain our human innovation arc of making things easier and more efficient (and I think we will, based on the last couple million years of history) let’s ask ourselves, is it easier to thumb through a 1,000 page Yellow Pages book and find a pest control company or type in a search query on your phone or laptop? Is it easier to type in a search query on your phone or laptop or ask your digital assistant the same query?
The last few years have seen the rise of the digital assistant.
If we take a look at some of the biggest players in technology, each one has a product in voice technology space. Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 9th on the Fortune 500 most valuable companies as of early 2016  are each heavily investing in voice technology. Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana, Google has Google Now, and Amazon has Alexa, or Echo. Each of these digital assistant channels has seen significant growth in the past three years.
In 2015, 65 percent of smartphone owners surveyed were using voice assistants. By comparison, 56 percent of the surveyed smartphone owners were using voice assistants in 2014, and less than one-third (thirty percent) back in 2013. 
Much of the increase in usage can be attributed to the fact that voice recognition software is getting better. In 2013, Google’s platform had a word recognition accuracy rate of below 80 percent, according to Meeker’s figures. Just a couple of years later, that rate rose above 90 percent. Baidu now exceeds a 95-percent accuracy rate. 
And although mobile is leading the way, desktop-based voice search is also on the rise. Microsoft is reporting that 25% of Cortana searches are voice-based. Cortana is integrated with the Windows 10 operating system, which gives Microsoft insight into this data.
We also must consider new device technologies, like Amazon’s Echo. With 3M units sold in the U.S. market alone after launching in June of 2015, the product has enjoyed incredible adoption and promises to be one of Amazon’s biggest hardware wins. Keep in mind, Amazon has over 300 million users. If the Echo gets adoption rates similar to the Kindle (both Fire and Reader), that could translate into total sales of approximately 168 million units. That’s not an unreasonable projection, given reports that the Echo is now outselling the Kindle. 
Add to this that the major car makers have been integrating voice technology at an aggressive pace for the last several years as well and you have the following landscape; consumers using voice technology at an increasing rate, and not only using it, but using it on their smartphones, in their cars, on their desktop computers, and in their homes with devices like Echo. As this behavior becomes more and more prevalent, it’s easy to see why business that offer services and products online need to rethink their conventional online marketing strategies.
I want you to put yourself in the product owner seat for Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and Google Now for a moment. Your end users are going to be asking you for products and services, and you want to deliver on their needs. If you want to give your end user a good result when they ask for a pest control company, what would you look at if you were in charge?
In this case a “good result” is a little subjective, it’s based on what is most important to the user. Some people may be looking for the cheapest option, and that is their most important consideration. But if we generalize consumer behavior, we might say that most people want to pay a reasonable price for a service and they want to know that the service will work. For some people timeliness might be the most important consideration, so you would be right to consider that as well.
Much like the signals that Google’s search algorithm currently uses, you would probably want to look at what other people are saying about the company in the form of reviews as well as what the company is saying about itself in the form of pricing. The best way to achieve a robust review profile is to have a proactive strategy in place and execute it. The best way to achieve the latter is to mark up your services with Schema Service markup, sending a clear signal to third party entities exactly how much your services costs.
“Alexa, I need a good pest control company.”
How is your company the name that Alexa provides here? We also need to answer that question for Cortana, Siri, and Google Now.
Let’s talk about how to get there.
VSO (Voice Search Optimization)
Ok, I just made that up, so we’ll see if it sticks, but you get the idea. Voice is the future and you need to position your company to take advantage. I am going to start with the basics, then get specific for each channel.
What should you (or your marketing team) be doing right now to optimize for voice based search?
The first thing we want to do is adjust for natural language. People are going to be more likely to ask their digital assistants questions that are full-formed and semantic, rather than the choppy typed queries that they currently use.
For example, a typical typed query right now looks like this: pest control tampa bay, whereas a natural voice based query might look like this, “what are some good pest control companies nearby?”
The solution is to expand your terms to include more natural language- most algorithms are looking to pair the query with the result that makes the most sense, the closer you match, the better. This strategy can and should also be applied to your PPC or AdWords campaigns.
Use Question Words
How, who, what, where- these are all much more prevalent terms in voice based search. Make sure that you are including these terms in your content and messaging. Doing this will also get you access to a broader opportunity, the top of the funnel, where the user knows they have a need, but isn’t sure about the solution, specific solutions, or your solution.
Think about intent here too, what vs. where for example. If someone is asking where then we can assume their intent is very strong, they are ready to act. Keep that in mind when writing and bidding on terms.
Mobile Friendly Website
Why do you need a mobile friendly website? Because the majority of voice search is performed on mobile devices. Don’t drop the ball when those visual results roll in and your site and online presence isn’t up to spec. Make sure your site is responsive (that it adjusts based on the device size and resolution), and that what you are showing your audience is relevant to their needs and gets to the point. You need to treat the mobile audience differently from your desktop audience. The site needs to load quickly, which means good compression and judicious use of images. Make it user friendly by going big and chunky (design for fat fingers!)
We just talked about mobile based queries, which comprise the lion’s share of voice search requests. The other important aspect to this is that mobile search often has local intent. This means that your website needs to be optimized for local search. Your local search strategy should include citation management and your name and address information should not only be consistent everywhere it is listed on the web, you should utilize structured markup, or Schema, for the locations of your branches on your company website. The current schema tag for this is localBusiness.
Review Generation Strategy
Speaking of reviews, you need a real review generation strategy. Ideally one that is built into how your business works. It might shock you, but the goal isn't to get 100% positive reviews. Don't get us wrong, good reviews are what we all want. However, the fact of the matter is that everyone gets bad customers that are impossible to satisfy- and your customers understand that. As backwards as it may seem, having bad customer reviews included in your review generation strategy actually makes your company more trustworthy and transparent because customers will know exactly what they are going to get! As long as the majority of your reviews are good, it’s ok to have a bad apple in the bunch every once in awhile.
So think about automating your review model if possible- and the other important thing here is to diversify your reviews. A lot of these platforms are using third party review systems (non Google) to vette businesses. I’ll go more into that in a bit but the point is don’t just go after Google+ reviews, especially if you are strong there.
Ok, that’s your foundation, now let’s talk about the big four specifically.
So how does Siri work? Without getting too technical, it utilizes voice recognition through its Human User Interface. Basically it records your voice, transcribes it to an audio file, and sends that data to Apple servers in the cloud for processing. This is where the artificial intelligence takes over and attempts to interpret what you are asking for and give you what it thinks is a good result. This AI is continuously learning and improving, so the results are somewhat unpredictable- for the moment Siri is ignoring search results and going straight to Yelp and other local directories. 
As a result, you’ll want to make sure your business is listed on Yelp, Google Places, and actively encourage your customers to leave reviews. Siri also utilizes social signals, so there are new valid reasons for having an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, and the like.
It’s important to note that Siri’s fallback position if it doesn’t think it has a good answer for you is to give you search engine results, using, you guessed it, Bing. So depending on how the user states their query there is a decent chance Siri will serve up Bing search results.
We can take all of that information, and building on the basics of optimizing your content for natural language, top of the funnel questions, and a mobile friendly website, we can add to it specific strategies just for Siri.
Optimizing for Siri
On top of your basic voice search optimization strategy, you can also utilize the following tactics for Siri:
Siri Local Optimization
Make sure your (or your client‘s) business is listed on Apple Maps. Here is a great Apple Maps step by step tutorial on how to do that.
Siri Search Optimization
Right now the default search engine for Siri is Bing. That means making sure that you are set up well to rank organically and that you probably have a Bing Ads campaign ready to go as well. We‘ll get more into the Bing strategy next with Cortana.
Cortana works very similarly to Siri, in that it interprets voice based queries and sends them to the mother ship for interpretation and responses. As of late April, 2016, Microsoft made the decision to limit search partnership with its digital assistant platform, Cortana, to Bing only. So in order to get visibility with Cortana, you’ve got to know what makes Bing tick, just like our previously discussed assistant, Siri.
Optimizing for Cortana
Siri and Cortana actually have a lot in common. Both of them use Bing as a search engine, and both of them use third party review platforms to vette listings. As a result, the strategies are similar, check them out:
Cortana Local Optimization
Make sure you claim your Bing Places listing. Cortana utilizes the Bing framework, and this is the most straightforward thing you can do to get locally synced with Bing.
Cortana Search Optimization
This could just as easily read Bing Search Optimization. Now the majority of digital marketers focus for the last 15 years has been on Google, and with good reason, it has dominated search (although as I mentioned earlier, its share has been shrinking). But the standard logic was, whatever you do to optimize a site for Google will work for Bing. That isn’t actually the case anymore. Bing has its own set of ranking factors. I am going to refer to Matthew Woodward’s Bing optimization blog post here because he did an excellent job identifying the factors. In addition, I’m not going to talk about the overlaps between Google and Bing, instead just highlight a few things that Bing considers more important.
First, user engagement is very important. Bing doesn’t like pogo-sticking, when a user clicks on your website from a search engine result page and then clicks the back button. They are assuming that the user didn’t find what they were looking for, and therefore if a lot of people do that, that your website is of poor quality.
Second, click through rates are important. For example, if the third position is getting 50% of the clicks on a search engine result page and the second position is receiving 20% then Bing will interpret that as the third position being better. The way to win the click through rate battle is to have well written and conversion focused meta descriptions on your website. These titles are what are pulled into search results, and they can be game changers.
Third, social signals are important. According to Woodward, social signals absolutely impact Bing rankings. Bing will actually include Facebook posts as well as tweets from Twitter in it search results. In addition, these are styled to draw a bit more attention to them in the search engine result page, so don’t ignore them- social proofs are a huge conversion factor, and with Bing they are a ranking factor as well.
Android has more than twice the market share of Apple when it comes to mobile, which is huge. Google is still the biggest player in the room- so understanding how their digital assistant work should be a critical element to your overall strategy.
Google has put a ton of research into voice search, and the result is their digital assistant, Google Now, launched in 2012, a more laid back and casual version compared to Cortana and Siri.
Optimizing for Google Now
Given Android’s popularity it is essential to have a solid Google Now strategy for voice optimization. Here are some specific actionables:
Google Now Review Strategy
Not surprisingly, Google is going to use their own Google reviews here, so you’ll want to make sure you have claimed your profile and are building a positive profile through acquiring good reviews.
Google Now Local Optimization
This is going to be the same as your desktop strategy, make sure your Google My Business listing is claimed and up to date, make sure your citations are consistent, and that your website utilizes the localBusiness Schema markup.
Google Now Search Optimization
The most unique thing you can do here is get your service or company listed in Google’s Knowledge Graph. Google Now will access and utilize its Knowledge Graph to provide users with relevant responses to their queries. What is the Knowledge Graph, you say? It’s that cool panel that shows up on the right hand side of the search engine results page. It has a handy picture, information, and relevant links to the entity it represents. How does Google use it with voice?
According to a great blog post written by Kirsty Hulst on the State of Digital that “Google will chat back to you when the query has a knowledge graph result; she’s currently fairly good at having a natter about the weather, giving directions, music, events, famous people and brands and as the knowledge graph expands, so will her vocabulary.” 
Ok great, how do we get there?
Well first off, if Google doesn’t think your brand is important enough, you won’t show up here. It bases this on how many people and entities are talking about your brand online. If you are there, there are several strategies you can utilize to maximize your impact.
Jill Kocher has a comprehensive blog post on optimizing for the Knowledge Graph, you can read it in its entirety here. In the meantime, here is a quick summary:
The image or logo of the Knowledge Graph draws eyes, so you you want to maximize its value. You get to choose the image here, as well as where it links to, so make it count.
Include your phone number contact information in the Schema Organization markup. This will be included in the Knowledge Graph and provide a quick and easy reference to contacting your company. You can include multiple phone numbers here, which can increase the size of your KG.
Include all of your social media sites in your Google profile section. This will help beef up your Knowledge Graph snippet with additional content. Remember, the bigger it is, the better.
Finally, Kocher recommends maintaining your Google+ profile. Your posts will show up in the Knowledge Graph, and it will send affirming signals to Google that your brand is healthy and relevant. If nothing else, the Knowledge Graph should show up for branded search, and should work similarly for voice branded search.
Amazon is a very attractive opportunity for small business owners when you consider the exposure to a very strong consumer base. With 244 million active users and 54 million Amazon Prime customers  the numbers speak for themselves.
It makes sense that Amazon’s long term plan will be to pair the needs of Echo users with the products and services that it, and its partners provide, and to make this as seamless and as user-friendly as possible. Now the product side of things is pretty solid. Amazon already boasts a robust online solution that allows users to search through millions of products and filter by ratings, popularity, and the like. This system can be relatively easily adopted to Echo and voice based results, especially with more advanced user preferences.
The service side of things is a bit of different story. Amazon jumped into this space in 2015 with the launch of Amazon Home Services, or, more accurately, the rebrand of Amazon Local Services. In any case, the idea of vetted, local service providers is the basis of Amazon Home Services.
If it wasn’t obvious, they make a percentage of revenue by facilitating the connection between companies and leads, and the price varies depending on your service. To recap we have a ton of Amazon users, we have an explosive new voice-enabled digital assistant in the form of Amazon’s Echo, and we have a stable of vetted local service providers. Peter Krasilovsky from Think Tanking wrote earlier this year:
“We’ve been wondering how long it would take for it (Echo) to hook into local services. Last week, HomeAdvisor added its Instant Booking feature, which sends service pros out to a location. CEO Chris Terrill said in a statement that ‘Smart-home platforms are the next big growth accelerators for local home services, and no other player in our category has the scale or technology to unlock the power of the connected home for homeowners.’” 
Currently the way Alexa natively works, however, is just like Siri and Cortana. It is using Yelp to provide users with service options.
Optimizing for Amazon’s Alexa
Ok, optimizing for Alexa introduces a few new things, based on how it currently works and where I think it is going. Let‘s dive in.
Alexa HomeAdvisor Strategy
First, if you don’t have a HomeAdvisor account, go ahead and set one up. With the Instant Booking feature it makes a lot of sense to get on board, in my opinion either it will continue to grow or Amazon will just acquire HomeAdvisor and integrate them into AHS.
Amazon Home Services
The next thing to do for service based companies is to go through the Amazon Home Services vetting process. A word to the wise here- the process includes background checks for your employees and has high standards for acceptance, including requesting links to third party reviews, particularly Yelp. I’d recommend any business develop a healthy Yelp profile before applying to be listed on Amazon Home Services.
Once you are listed you should be good to go. The native results for a query will rely on Yelp and if users are HomeAdvisor customers they’ll likely enable that skill and ask for home services through that channel. In either case you should be well positioned for success on Alexa moving forward.
Whew. That was a lot of ground to cover. To help you walk away with some practical actionables, I’ve provided this recap:
- Based on how we humans behave (and have behaved in the past), voice search is going to be BIG.
- Some of the biggest and most valuable companies in the world are investing a lot of time and money in digital assistants, including Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.
- Now is a good time to update your digital marketing strategy to be ready for increased voice search marketshare.
- Write content for your site using more conversational language and who, what, where questions.
- If you don’t already, make sure you have a mobile friendly, responsive website.
- Make sure your site and brand is optimized for local. Claim your business listing on Yelp, Google My Business, Apple Maps, and Bing Places.
- Create and implement a proactive review generation strategy that can get you leads from Yelp.
- Engage on social, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like- it is an increasing ranking factor.
- Create a profile on Amazon Home Services and HomeAdvisor.
- Pay attention and optimize for Bing- many of the non Google digital assistants use Bing as their default search engine!
 “Adage.com”, September 15, 2003
 "Radio Broadcasting". W2uc.union.edu. Archived from the original on May 15, 2008. Retrieved 2009-07-22.
 YPA / Local Search Association
 http://www.medialifemagazine.com, Bill Cromwell, January 29th, 2016
 Comscore.com February 2016 U.S. Desktop Search Engine Rankings, March 16, 2016
Tobacco companies also advanced the appeal of proprietary names, commercial symbols and packaging. Marketers packed bales of tobacco under named labels and began to literally “brand” their products with hot irons that burned the marketer's name into wooden packages-hence, “brand names” such as Black's Twist.