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Figuring Out Voice SEO

Asking a computer to do something is as old as “Open the pod bay door please, HAL?” It is also as new as Siri, Cortana and Alexa. And that is adding another layer to the SEO challenge.

Online retailers want to see their brands come out at number one —
in search results. Well-chosen keywords were sufficient when SEO was text-only. Voice adds another dimension to this, as those keywords are now tucked into vague phrases and nuanced queries. Making your brand number one will take a little more effort.

“For most retailers, they are still getting their heads around working with voice,” said John Franklin, associate partner and strategist at OC&C Strategy Consultants. “There is a lot of opportunity and optimization for companies to think about.”

“There is no significant difference between voice search and text search,” said Scott Ludwig, VP of professional services at Skyword. Still, brands have to be cognizant of how searches are uncovering their products, and take steps to make sure their good comes out at number one.

Layers of screening

First, understand that the voice feature will be sitting on top of a search engine, and will be optimized to work with the underlying platform. Alexa sits on top of Amazon. Microsoft’s Cortana resides above Bing. And Google Voice is placed on top of …. well, Google. Optimizing a brand for one platform may not make it optimal for another. And the voice assistants will show their strengths and shortcomings as a result.

“Take Amazon. It is clearly focused on retail,” Franklin said. Any online vendor selling through Amazon will try to optimize for selection, he noted, since you win the sale on the search. The online goal is to score the Amazon Choice listing, a bump up for products that were well-reviewed by customers. That will mean paying attention to fundamentals like product quality, warranty, return rates and customer service. If the retailer is thinking about the same journey as Amazon, they should align their effort so that the product ends up in the basket (reorder). They should offer customers a choice, and make sure they come in at number one on the search result, Franklin explained.

“You want to employ the largest search engine,” said Shane Barker, SEO expert and digital consultant. “I don’t see Google disappearing anytime soon.” Google is optimizing for voice and mobile, given its lead in these spheres. Cortana/Bing also offers possibilities. It is easier to index on a smaller search engine, and there may not be as many competitors, Barker noted. But his advice goes back to the top: “Optimize for Google.”

Layers of meaning

The search engine that lies beneath works pretty much the same, whether you input by voice or text. As for the voice layer on top, now you’re talking.

People can be very imprecise doing a search by voice. They naturally pause, using filler words until they can find the right words to fashion a query. Understanding the question falls under the label of natural language processing.

“The degree of vagueness matters,” Franklin said. In one recent study, about 30 percent of online shoppers were less than precise in their queries, so the voice-activated search had to interpret the request in the best way possible. But when that interpretation is successful and the search result is presented, then 85 percent of those “vague” shoppers bought the item that was recommended, he recounted.

Then there is the learning curve. Right now Google Voice is 95 percent accurate in English, Barker noted. “It will get smarter over time,” he added, as it will learn to conform with the user’s way of speaking. A  voiced question may run 50 words, 40 of which are about context or just filler. Natural language processing should filter out the filler and focus on the core words that are in the question.

Eventually, the platform will learn to ask the user “what did you mean”, added Ludwig. This represents the beginning of personalization, he added.

Sadly, it is going to take a little more effort for some voice apps to learn the quirks of their users, ranging from the tech novice…

…to the tech pro whose accent keeps his question from getting through…

Layers of structure

The foundation of online selling remains the same: what you sell has to match what the user is looking for. There are ways to make that match more likely.

Start with the questions. Look for the most frequent queries and figure out where those answers can be posted in a structural way, Ludwig said. One helpful starting point is AnswerThePublic, a free visual keyword search engine. Typing in a word  will show how frequently used are terms like “how”, “are”, “will”, “can”, “where”, “which” “what”, “who”, “when” and “why”—
the building blocks of a question. Again, look for patterns and frequencies, using that data to figure out how to differentiate your product and what the page priorities are, Ludwig explained.

Customer service is also a good source for query data. Once examined, e-mails, chat and phone calls will reveal patterns of inquiry that can be used to understand what content should be prioritized on the retail web site, Ludwig added.

Do not ignore the mobile dimension. Even offline retailers that have a web presence need to list their correct address, city and state to work with apps like Google Maps. “It’s not a search engine, but a wide supplier of business services,” Franklin observed. Be sure to describe what your business does and make sure that information is accessed by the search. Include business hours and prices.

“If anyone does a voice search, make sure your information is there, Barker stressed. If someone driving around Sacramento wants to find the nearest pizzeria, or the best one in town, that information should surface. “Make sure your information is correct.” he said. If the retailer is a chain or a single location, a Google ad spend should bump up the search response to the top five spots, he said.

Regardless of whether the business is online or offline, or whether the search is done by voice or text, the real foundation is making sure the information in the retailer’s web site is always correct, complete and up to date.

The bottom line is the same: just make sure you have all your stuff together.

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