Voice search optimization: A guide to catching consumers’ ears

Are you prioritizing voice search optimization in your content strategy?

BY Linda Formichelli
Imagination Contributor

Say someone types “What’s the difference between a direct deposit and a wire transfer?” into Google. The desired journey is clear: You hope your beautifully SEO-optimized content on that topic soars to the top of the search engine results. The consumer reads or watches it and then takes the next step in your brand funnel goal. But what about when someone says, “Hey, Alexa, what’s the difference between a direct deposit and a wire transfer?”

Is your content marketing strategy prioritizing voice search optimization? Don’t be the brand that said “Why bother?” to digital marketing in 1999. We got top voice marketing experts on the line to share their insights on how to optimize content for voice search—and how to get started and how to measure results.

The rise of voice search optimization

Hey, Siri; hey, Google; hey, Alexa: These voice commands have become the norm for many households—and an expensive one for some. Whether you’re on your smart device or smart speaker, the stats tell us that many consumers would rather talk than type these days.

The Smart Speaker Consumer Adoption Report 2020 states 35% percent of U.S. adults have smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home as of January 2021, a 1.8% increase from the previous year. In 2021, 29.1% of marketers said voice assistants are an extremely important as a marketing channel—an uptick from 24.0% in 2019.

So as consumers find their voice, it’s crucial that brands be ready to listen. Here are three compelling reasons to get involved with voice search optimization:

1. Voice is big.

Since 2016, Google has been signaling in presentations and keynotes that it’s investing heavily in voice. And when the 800-pound gorilla of search makes a move, industries follow.

Rowena Track, former global vice president of digital for Cigna and current CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Stamford, urges content marketers to look back to the advent of social media—and not make the same mistake now that many businesses did back then. Track was in financial services when social platforms started cropping up, and industry leaders joked about the idea of financial services companies using these “teenager” platforms. “And now, as we all know, Twitter can move markets,” Track says.

2. Voice search boosts brand awareness.

When a voice device reads an answer to a user’s question, it mentions the website the answer came from. “In a way, it’s like a radio mention,” says Eric Newton, VP of marketing at Milestone. “When you sponsor content on NPR, it’s not the most commercial message, but you do get brand awareness.”

Brand awareness is already difficult to measure, and with voice it’s devilishly difficult. After a radio sponsorship, you can measure the lift in engagement and purchases, but with voice, it’s so early that accurate measurement doesn’t yet exist. (We’ll talk more about measuring results later.)

3. Voice search sends locals to your door.

Working to appear in voice search results is crucial for local businesses like retail stores, banks and restaurants. “People often use voice search because they’re in their car and their hands are busy, and they’re looking for food, things to do or an item to purchase,” says Newton. “Local searches have very high purchase intent, so being the result that comes up is particularly beneficial.” To take advantage of this fact, he recommends that content marketers make sure the local details on their websites are up to date, accurate and optimized. Also be sure your Google My Business listing is current and complete.

Even if they don’t pan out in terms of voice, all the strategies we’ll talk about next will most likely improve the results of your traditional content marketing. Even better, it’s not too difficult to repurpose content you already have for voice.

“I think you want to be involved now to gain knowledge and experience in the medium. That way you don’t risk being left behind on a channel that grows to, say, 33 percent of interactions.”

Erik Newton
VP, BrightEdge

For an effective voice search optimization strategy, redefine ROI

The call to action is a key component of content that converts. It also gives you something to measure. With more traditional forms of content, like blog posts and social media, it’s easy to articulate your CTA: Visit this webpage. Sign up for that financial newsletter. Download this industry guide. Then you measure how many people visited the page, signed up for the newsletter or downloaded the guide.

But voice-first search results don’t allow for visiting, signing up or downloading. Some devices, like Google Home and Amazon Echo, let the consumer send a search result to their phone or tablet, but the extra step makes it difficult for content marketers to track conversion. Measuring results is tricky enough with traditional content.

So how can you do it on voice? Start by redefining success.

Bret Kinsella, CEO and research director at voicebot.ai, says we need to stop trying to use the same KPIs for voice that we use for other content. He likens websites to cathedrals, and social media and landing pages to the bazaars we built around our cathedrals to feed people into them.

“Content marketers who attempt to cram voice into their cathedral, to simply imitate their website and track to similar metrics, will quickly become frustrated. Voice is different,” says Kinsella. “Sometimes voice experiences will be about new user velocity combined with conversion and other times they will be about the level of engagement. In fact, user attention per session as a corollary for engagement is often much better on voice than you will ever see on the web.

“If so,” adds Kinsella, “what is that value, and how can you measure it? Are there new metrics you need to set up? Content marketers need to start thinking about how they can define success within a voice-only environment, and they should design their voice apps to align with those objectives.”

We got this, content marketers. Just as we did with the internet, social and mobile, in the end we’ll figure out what metrics to measure for voice and how to track them.

And don’t be scared to get loud with your voice search optimization strategy

Once you’ve defined success, budget for disruption. Even if it takes years for content marketers to hash out the right metrics and ways to evaluate them, Track recommends setting aside 1 to 2 percent of your marketing budget now to try innovative and disruptive ideas. “We’re not talking millions of dollars,” she says. “We’re talking about a small amount of money that every marketer, I think, should set aside for disruptive technologies if they want to be a modern marketer.”

Newton agrees that content marketers need to stay on the cutting edge—and that this sometimes requires taking risks.

“It’s always good to be aware of new things, reading about them and running experiments,” he says. “Voice is large, and it’s growing fast, so businesses should double down on what they’re doing with content marketing for voice.”

How to optimize content for voice search

Voice search is much more competitive than text search because consumers get only a single result for a search. The big players in voice haven’t revealed how their virtual assistants decide which Google search result you’ll hear. In some cases, it chooses a result that’s in either position 1 or 0. In other cases, the virtual assistant rotates through the top four results.

However it works, what it means for the content marketer is clear: If you’re not in the first four search results, in terms of voice you simply don’t exist. Here’s how to help your brand rise to the top.

Write like you talk.

Voice searchers use more casual phrasing than they would in a text search, says Sherry Bonelli, owner of Early Bird Digital Marketing. Content professionals should strive to write in a conversational tone to push content to the top of the results. Train your content pros to swap stuffy language, $10 words and jargon for an easy-to-digest (and -speak) writing style.

Create FAQs.

Voice searches are more likely to be a question than a keyword search, says Newton. For example, while a consumer may type “pineapple peeling tips” into a search engine, with a voice search they’d ask, “What’s the best way to peel a pineapple?”

Content marketers can appeal to both types of searchers by using long-tail keywords with the question words: who, what, when, where, why and how. FAQs are the perfect type of content for this. For example, a produce marketing association may create an FAQ page on how to peel and chop particularly difficult fruits like mangoes, avocados and pineapples.

The more FAQs you have—and the more specific they are—the better. “If you have 50, 100, 200 pages of FAQs about your space and your products, that’s good content for the internet. And it’s also good content for voice,” says Newton. “When people do long-tail keyword searches, they’re much more likely to convert because they’re looking for something that’s very precise. As Google gets better at interpreting intent, it’s going to reward you for this type of content.” Wondering what your target market wants to know? Bonelli recommends the tool AnswerthePublic.com. Just type in a keyword, and it will show you the questions people are entering into Google and Bing around that topic.

Grab position 0.

Ever notice how, on some searches, Google pulls up the answer to your question directly from a website? For example, type “How do I shop for a mortgage?” and the top search result (below the paid search ads) is an actual list of tips from Investopedia.com. That’s called position 0 or a featured snippet. And it’s the result a virtual assistant will read in response to a voice search—so you want to get it.

Calm down and write on.

If you’re ready to make the leap into voice but worried about the time and resources it will take, relax. You don’t need to overhaul your content department or even create new content for voice: Simply repurpose and tweak what you already have. “Make it voice-friendly, the same way you made your content YouTube friendly or Twitter friendly,” says Track. For example, you might go through old blog posts and optimize them for voice by adding featured snippet copy or repurpose content from your newsletter into FAQ pages.

Complete your voice search optimization with a skill

Want to create your own Alexa Skill or Google Action? Just as with an app, your skill or action needs to be approved by the relevant platforms before it can be published in each marketplace.

Amazon also recently developed “Consumables”—in-skill purchases such as premium content, subscriptions, bundles and other products that are relevant for consumers as they use your skill. Skill creators receive 70 percent of the list price for Consumables. Right now, most of the examples Amazon offers relate to games, but creative content marketers can develop products to go along with their skill.

Finally, you need to let your audience know your skill or action is available; the voice-first platforms won’t let users know independently. Think about your CTAs. For instance, your online article CTA may be: “Ask Alexa for ABC Bank’s ‘Know Your Money’ skill to get tips on handling your account balance.”

Case study: How Cigna found its voice on Alexa

Setting aside 1 to 2 percent of your marketing budget for disruption and revamping your current content to be more voice-friendly are easy and economical ways to get started. But if you want to be a leader in the voice revolution, consider creating content specifically for voice.

Alexa Skills and Google Actions are the voice equivalent of apps that people can install on their devices, which give those devices more capabilities and access to more websites and information. They’re not difficult to develop: You consider a need that your brand can fulfill in a voice-only environment and build your action or skill using the relevant voice assistant’s developer platform.

That’s what health insurance company Cigna did with its Answers by Cigna Alexa Skill. The skill launched in March 2018 with answers to 150 common consumer questions, such as “What’s a formulary?” Within a few months, the skill garnered 3,142 users, 11 five-star customer reviews and tons of media attention. “We were not expecting the media reaction we got,” says Track. “That was very positive.” By September, Cigna had expanded Answers by Cigna to 250 questions and answers.

Before she moved to her new company, Track had been working on a road map for Answers by Cigna to answer Medicare-related questions—proving that voice marketing isn’t just for millennials. “All you need to have is a voice, and most people have a voice,” says Track. “For seniors, who may have dexterity and mobility issues, voice is a very attractive application to offer information and to engage them.

“We made our information available in as many channels as we can. Some people prefer to call the call center, some prefer to engage us on voice and everything in between,” says Track. The benefits are many: Answers by Cigna is showing consumers that the company is progressive, innovative and customer-centric.

“Answers by Cigna was a huge brand moment for us,” says Track.

published: April 06, 2021