04 May 2018

Four steps to making your marketing content voice search-friendly

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    It's been a big couple of years for voice search. 

    In May 2016, Sundar Pichai, Google's CEO, said they were already seeing one in five searches conducted by voice (how many searches you do in a day?), smart speakers officially had their hockey stick moment with more than 25 million sold in 2017 (basically, everyone in Australia, and a few of our pets, has a smart speaker), big brands teamed up to integrate voice search into their customer experience (Walmart and Google are 'changing the way we shop'), and myriad agencies launched - Versa in Australia, for example - that specialise in voice experience.

    By any measure, that's actual momentum. It isn't just an experiment in Silicon Valley or half-cooked beta tests that flopped; these are real-life use cases proving the tech in real life. But, for the most part, the domain of voice search (or voice experience) is only being tended to by the tech nerds. Sadly, the marketers that understand or are interested in this space are few and far between and, frankly, that's a problem.

    So, some real talk.

    I believe marketers are on the cusp of falling behind the eight ball with voice search and we need to pay attention to what this means for our marketing. So many have asserted that this is to be a seismic shift that compares with the introduction of smartphones a little over 10 years ago, and it may even be bigger. And it's coming very soon - both Comscore and Tractica say that, by 2020, half of all searches will be executed using our voice. Check your watches, because it's five minutes to midnight, friends.

    Woah. Heavy. Let's take a moment.

    Ok. What does that all mean for marketing? Search has always been about content, it's the reason why search engines sprung up in the first place because we couldn't find the stuff we wanted to read because there was so much of it - what's new, huh? - and, since then, search engines have continued to be the thread that holds the web together with all kinds of content now added to their massive catalogues of data. So, it makes sense that voice search will continue to be about content and quality, relevant, useful content winning the day. 

    Right now, there isn't a bunch of content on the internet that meets voice search needs very well. There are a few snippets, but I'd hazard a guess that it's one to two percent of the internet, at the most. Enter the marketing opportunity: by moving first and creating audio-ready versions of our marketing content, we have the opportunity to fill this growing void and ensure the content we want our customers to hear is what they do hear. The alternative? The algorithms do their own thing and, before you know it, negative comments, incomplete reviews and misinformation about your brand are being played over speakers all day, every day.

    Let's own voice search rather than getting owned by it.

    It is, of course, relatively early days for this tech, but let's not forget how quickly these things take off. There are three things that, right now, help to position your marketing content in a way that is voice search-friendly and, over time, can help you to capitalise on the voice search opportunity.

    First things first, how does your content sound?

    I don't mean this question metaphorically, but, literally, how does it sound when it's read aloud? Ask yourself:

    • Does your content flow naturally in an almost conversational-style when it's read aloud? This doesn't mean it has to have a casual or quirky tone, but does it sound like something that would come out of your mouth if you're telling someone else about your product/service/brand?
    • Is it easy to digest the information you're sharing in that content? Have you structured your content in a way that prioritises important info or are you burying the lead? If you're not giving the most pertinent information up front, voice search queries may not return your content to a relevant search query because what you're trying to say just isn't clear.
    • What question does each of your content items answer? Can you tell what someone might say (or type) into a search to get there? If you can't articulate that in a way that a customer would, it's going to be challenging for voice search queries to favour your result. Likewise, if you have multiple items answering the same/similar questions and they're not clearly labelled or prioritised, you're making it hard for Google to prefer your content over others. And Google just doesn't do hard.
    • Take a snapshot of your content, perhaps some of the most and least visited or engaged with items, and audit that content with these questions in mind. Once you've identified the answers to these questions, you can begin thinking about re-structuring your content in a way that makes sense for voice search.

    Know what your customer is asking

    Many marketers can't give a good answer when asked 'what are your customers searching for when they land on your site/app/profile/some other online thing?'. Search is the most inherent digital behaviour we have and it's not going away. Search engines have accustomed us to use only a question or phrase to get to something specific. It makes sense this is how they find your marketing content; sure, you might get a bunch of traffic from paid media campaigns, but those are increasingly informed by what people are asking for elsewhere. 

    Voice search demands that marketers get back into keyword research the way that perhaps we used to do five to 10 years ago. The 'snippets' at the top of search results pages are the things that Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa and others are often reading to you when you ask a question. These snippets are more heavily influenced by keywords that match a user's search phrase or term. So, we have to begin looking at those common keywords (for larger volumes of content consider a keyword planner tool) that reveal specific questions your customers are asking so you can deliver highly tuned content that meets that need.

    Keyword research is not about stuffing your content with term x or phrase y, because that hasn't worked for years and it certainly isn't about to come back into vogue, thank you very much. Keyword research in the context of voice search, however, is critical because that snippet may be the first, or even the only, interaction your customer has with your brand.

    Get to work prioritising, re-imagining, tweaking and testing your content

    So, you've realised your content doesn't sound great when read aloud, you have a clear idea of terms and phrases people use to get to your content and you're ready to do something about it. Firstly, yay, congratulations! Getting to this point is a high-five moment, because you're aware of the big opportunity that voice search represents. There are four things you want to do to get your marketing content to the point that it's playing nice with voice search.

    1. Prioritise based on organic search traffic
    Unless you are a multi-billion dollar marketing department with little else on the cards for the next 12 months, you probs can't afford to spend the time and/or money re-factoring all your content to suit voice search. So, start with the data; identify the content items that get most of their traffic from search and start working on adjusting your content from the top down. Generally, you're probably getting 70 or 80 percent of traffic from 10 to 20 percent of content; start there because it's an obvious, substantial opportunity.

    2. Re-imagine your content formats
    It's likely your current content formats ('templates', 'article types', 'page types' etc) are not well suited to voice search queries. Spend time doing the work up front to re-structure these on technical and editorial levels. Are you using heading 1, 2 and 3 formats in a way that makes the content easy to read? Are you writing soft, crooning introductions to your content that don't immediately answer a customer's question? Once you've decided on a small number of revised formats, only then should you start re-working the content.

    3. Make tweaks, not large cuts
    Remember, you're working with hard-working content, so it's likely doing ok in search already; don't compromise that and don't create duplicates for voice search. Firstly, re-structure the content to fit a new format, keeping your keyword research in mind. Next, re-write intro paragraph/s into juicy, useful, easy-to-hear snippets. Finally, tweak that  metadata for pages, videos, images etc, written with the right keywords in mind, but in a way that sounds human. I recommend getting a search-savvy, experienced journalist or editor to work with you on this; SEO or advertising copywriters will not deliver the best outcome.

    4. Test. And. Learn.
    Search adapts to new content and queries very quickly; previously, you had to wait for months (like, a lot of months) before you knew if you'd had an impact on search traffic, but now it's not uncommon to get a result within weeks or just days, depending on traffic volumes. Commit to a testing program with your updated content, keeping a close eye on the data and asking your journalist/editor to make changes based on the data. Start with 10 percent of your content and, once you're winning, increase by 10 percent more and so on.

    The most important take-away here is that you don't have to re-work all your content right away. Yes, the voice search wave is building, but if we start moving in this direction now, we'll be well placed to take advantage of the opportunity once this thing matures in a couple of years. The important thing is to start now, however; making marketing content voice search-friendly is a long term play, so the sooner you start paying attention and optimising for this medium, the greater the advantage you have over competitors and pundits on the internet who might want to hijack the way your brand sounds to your ideal customer.

    Article First Published on Cognitives Voice.

    Written by: Andrés López-Varela

    Andrés a digital and travel marketing consultant based in Sydney, Australia working with brands locally and globally. He is the former Global Content Editor for Tourism Australia, who owned the delivery of TA’s digital content roadmap and made content operations more effective on a global scale. Andrés is also a podcaster, producing and co-hosting The Destinationists, a show for the modern travel marketer.

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