The Evolving Role of Voice Search

Posted on Tuesday, 26. February 2019 in category Search Engine Optimization. 4 min read • Written by

Clark Boyd

People have always been fascinated – at times even obsessed – by the attempt to recreate the natural world.

History is littered with examples of inventors who devised new automata that could replicate the functions of living organisms.

In 1739, Jacques de Vaucanson unveiled his Digesting Duck (or Canard Digérateur) to an amused audience. The copper-plated ‘duck’ could swallow grain and then seemingly digest it, before defecating the metabolized matter.

Fast-forward through the next few centuries of automata and we see numerous other ingenious evolutions in this field, as displayed in the image below.

Typically, these enterprises isolate a function (sound creation or touch, for example) and then aim to create a working simulacrum of the action.

Luminaries from Ada Lovelace to Thomas Edison have applied their intellect to creation of these machines, driven by the pursuit of deeper understanding of the world around us.

Over time, one area has fascinated inventors more than any other: human speech.

(Image taken from )

Our ability to communicate verbally is complex and imbued with connotations both scientific and cultural.

To create a machine that can understand the nuances of language and then respond in kind, is a multifaceted endeavor that still occupies the finest minds at companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

Voice Search Today

And so, to modern voice search.

Search engines are programmed to answer questions, but not to understand them.

This is an important distinction as we consider how to use this technology to connect with an audience.

The technology is now at the inflection point where it will go convincingly beyond the realms of novelty and into the arena of genuine, quotidian usefulness.

Google’s Super Bowl ad made reference to this, with the impressive claim that over 1 billion words are communicated daily through its Translate service.

This draws attention to a vital aspect of voice-based interactions: anyone can use the technology.

As more of the global population moves online, content can be accessed in any language and translated out loud, instantaneously. That removes a number of barriers to entry and will be the driver of mass voice search adoption in the coming years.

The reverse is happening too, as Google offers instant speech-to-text transcription for the 5% of the world who are hard of hearing or deaf.

We are still in the arena of high-functioning automata rather than sentient machines, however.

The launch of Google Duplex, replete with the customary live demonstration, marks another significant step forward for the industry.

This moves us closer to what people have sought through the generations, from the Digesting Duck to Siri: a machine that can replicate the functioning of a living organism.

To take advantage, we need to understand how this can benefit both brands and consumers.

Developing Clear Structure in Content

Fortunately, we can gain invaluable insight into the inner workings of Google’s Natural Language Processing algorithms through the Cloud Natural Language API.

It is possible to extract text and see how it is broken down into entities, as in the screenshot below:

This matters for brands, as it provides findings that can be used directly to shape content creation.

The rules of syntax are more important than ever, within this context.

If we can communicate our argument clearly, using the agreed structural formats, we have a better chance of being understood by a search engine. In an age of structured snippets and fragmented exchanges between people and their devices, this is an essential piece of insight for any brand. a

Google’s John Mueller also cited this factor in a recent webinar:

There are plentiful excellent resources on this front, including the Economist Style Guide and The Careful Writer.

We can also see the categories that Google uses for content via this link.

Therefore, when creating some new content, we should plan out the structure of the piece logically, with clearly defined semantic fields and target keyword topics. By offering short snippets of text that clearly respond to a common query, brands can help the search engines deliver the answers the audience craves.

Adding Some Style

If every brand follows these rules and structure their content in a formulaic fashion, our exchanges with consumers will be monotonous. Moreover, consumers will not be able to distinguish between different brands.

Brand voice has been overlooked by some SEOs in the past. We aim to rank for target keywords through our knowledge of the inner workings of a search engine.

As we have seen above, those inner working are changing – so we need to change, too.

David Ogilvy once said, “Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image.”

We would do well to keep this in mind as we consider voice search. When a search engine reads our content out loud as part of a conversation with a consumer, that content becomes a part of the brand image.

As a result, we should pay close attention to how we express those messages. Simply ranking for a target query is no longer enough; we must focus on the impact we have once we get there. Each interaction in the prolonged, research-heavy consumer journey matters; voice search is simply opening new avenues for us to shape those paths.

Brands must think beyond text content for voice search.

We are dealing with a different sensory experience when a digital assistant facilitates a dialogue and it would be more fitting for brands to create their own audio content, rather than have their text read in the voice of Google or Alexa.

After all, we only speak to people who we find interesting, enlightening, or entertaining. Those same rules will apply to the future of conversational voice search.

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