People are changing the way they find information — again. The changes are happening with increasing speed, and businesses will have to change to meet them.
For a century, buyers looked for product information in printed materials like the phone book, catalogs and brochures, the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers, or through word of mouth from peers and local suppliers. If you were a company in the 1890s to the 1990s, you made sure you had current materials.
But in the decades from the 1990s to the 2010s, that method of search was replaced with search engines, which allowed you to find companies and products via computers. Suddenly, viable resources could be anywhere in the world. Companies moved their brochures online and people “surfed” (and eventually typed in search terms) to find what they wanted.
Then in 2007, this method was taken over by mobile devices. Surfing was replaced with more specific searches for precise information.
Now, we’re quickly moving on to voice search (e.g., Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant). In fact, market analysts estimate that by 2020 (which is now!) at least 50% of all internet searches will be spoken aloud.
Each advancement has allowed increased convenience and speed. But there is a more significant reason to believe voice search will be adopted more quickly. Until now, humans had to adapt to the technology. Whether knowing how to search a catalog or type in a search term, it was up to the user to learn. With voice, the technology has to learn how to adapt to the natural way humans prefer to interface: through speech.
Voice search is already here
Companies have gone from battling for the first page on a Google search to fighting for one of the top three spots. Voice changes all of that. Now the top search result is a “rich snippet,” also called position zero. This response is what gets read aloud (and often, that’s the only thing). It is usually followed by a “People also ask” section. Most people look no further. This requires new strategies to be in position zero. A brand that makes the second position (or even the top five results) will no longer matter; it will not be heard.
The implications run deeper. The position zero result is generated by artificial intelligence (AI). That means no one ever clicks on the site. The AI has searched the response and provided the information, so the site host may never be aware the information was retrieved. Until Google and others come up with an alternative, companies that rely on page visits for metrics or income will need a new strategy.
Will voice alter buyer behaviors?
Until now, a consumer would perform discovery, research, vetting, comparison, then act or buy based on their results. It was the user who would find a variety of responses and select the best answer. Each step a consumer took was an opportunity to connect and promote your brand.
With voice searching, this same consumer now will ask, hear an answer, and then act or buy. The AI scrutinizes all possible responses for them and provides the “best” answer. People will always choose the most convenient path. AI has replaced their steps and removed the consumer’s work — as well as the opportunities for brand connection.
5 possible consequences of voice search for B2B
- Limited “shelf space.” Voice only responds with one best answer. People won’t be presented with a selection, as if they are in a cereal aisle within a supermarket. If your information isn’t the best reply for the context of the question, it won’t be offered.
- Established brands are not safe. The best answer wins. Everyone is vulnerable. This offers an opportunity for brands that want to revise the established order.
- Results are weighted to known brands. Even though established brands aren’t safe, being popular helps. All of the work you’ve done to gain marketshare, mindshare and a better search engine response is considered toward being the “best” answer.
- Paid discovery isn’t a thing — yet. You can’t buy your way into position zero. But you can bet someone is working on it. And expect it to be very costly.
- Everyone will try to unseat the top position. Once someone has achieved position zero, it will be difficult (read: expensive) to replace them. It is better to act now and get the spot before others do.
What will the future of voice search bring?
Voice search will be the norm, not the exception. Google CEO Sundar Pichai, in a letter to shareholders, wrote, “The next big step will be for the very concept of the ‘device’ to fade away.” The screen is seen as an interruption to getting what you want, when you want it. Not only is voice three times faster than keying text, retrieval is also more accurate and efficient. Users go from eight clicks to an immediate response. Eventually, the AI will anticipate your need and proactively do things for you.
Tech companies continue to invest in speech technologies. For example, Apple has already patented a technique for recognizing whispers. And (in the “tinfoil hat” territory), Google and Oxford University trained a neural network to read lips. NASA is developing technology to transcribe “sub-auditory speech” (putting sensors on the Adam’s apple and under the chin to measure the conversion of nerve impulses into words when a person is reading silently or talking to himself — no speech required).
The race is still on for the best AI, the most accurate voice recognition, the most life-like conversation and ultimately, the most widely adopted interface. The company that wins will effectively own commerce even more than Amazon and Google do today.
Here’s what you can do now:
- Evaluate your content, current search results and online presence.
- Review every customer point of contact, paying attention to what people ask.
- Rewrite copy using natural language, providing direct answers to specific questions.
- Apply a Schema markup (structured data is better understood by search engines).
- Create content that ‘talks’ with customers and helps them quickly accomplish their goals.
- Confirm (or establish) domain authority (your area of expertise).
- Include “how-to,” comparison and number list content for rich snippets.
Want to learn more? Read James Vlahos’ book, Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think. Or ask Alexa to give us a call.