Retailers race for voice search top spot

As mobile commerce continues to grow, consumers are increasingly using voice assistants on their phones and in their homes to ask questions and eventually buy products, leading retailers to jockey for top position in the search results that provide the answers.

High Street brands are investing in-house and partnering with tech startups to help improve the search engine optimisation (SEO) across e-commerce websites, as the advent of voice search has changed which content comes first.

Digital marketing agency QueryClick surveyed over 150 chief marketing officers from UK retailers with a revenue of over £150 million and an e-commerce offering, finding that over half (53 per cent) will invest in voice search technology within the next 12 months.

Overall, three quarters of chief marketing officers said their brand will change its SEO strategy to ensure it appears in voice-led search results. However, only three per cent of brands surveyed have already adapted optimised for voice search.

This backed up research from voice security company Pindrop, carried out among 500 European IT directors, which found that currently only 28 per cent of businesses use the technology, but the number planning to use voice to speak and listen to their customers will triple within the next year.

Pindrop also found that 94 per cent of managers see voice technology as an important driver of customer satisfaction, with 88 per cent believing it will give a competitive advantage.

Obtaining the featured snippet spot, also known as position zero, at the top of the search results page is increasingly crucial in a voice search-dominated world, as this algorithmically-selected answer is what a virtual assistant will read out.

Since consumers tend to be more expressive when using voice search, retailers are trying to leverage natural language processing (NLP) and use machine learning to deliver better results.

This means product titles, descriptions and URLs must be written in a way that best reflects the questions people ask, and FAQ pages should be expanded using phrases that people actually use during conversation.

Page speed also plays a major role in voice search SEO, so fast-loading and mobile-optimised websites are another area of potential competitive advantage.

Chris Haines, director of consulting at retail engagement platform Amplience, explained that some retailers are attempting to game the system by including blocks of relevant text at the bottom of every product page.

“Traditional search prioritises blocks of text over anything commercial, like product images and links, to product grid pages, so it's one way to get the engines to promote pages that they would otherwise ignore,” he stated. “You’ll find that the SEO copy at the bottom is written with enough keywords to show up in a variety of searches, but if the answers were read aloud by voice, they wouldn’t offer any particularly actionable advice or links to products – it reads more like advertising copy.”

Artificial intelligence is not particularly good at structured language - product descriptions and data - but it is good at analysing natural language, said Haines. Therefore, creating more Q&A type content about product benefits, written in a conversational tone, is a relatively easy way to get AI to pick up content.

“One thing to remember about AI and voice search is that they’re heavily weighted toward localisation, because most voice searches are fairly task oriented,” he commented. “For that reason, it’s really important for brands to lean into local search terms to ensure their products are being discovered.”

Simon Niesler, senior vice president and general manager at cloud software firm Infor, said the power of a good AI engine is vital in getting better placements, as the role of digital assistants increases in importance for consumer buying behaviour.

“If you ask Alexa to order paper plates and disposable cutlery for an upcoming party, Amazon-branded, instead of generic products, will most likely end up on your doorstep,” he noted. “Whereas once upon a time, companies listed their organisation’s title with AAA to increase visibility in the Yellow Pages, companies now need to ensure their AI engines work with digital assistants to be top of mind for user orders.

“Companies must use machine learning technology to engage with the information surrounding the customer’s question, especially as this sort of contextualised understanding becomes the norm in connecting the consumer with the product,” added Niesler.

One company to go public with its voice search work is Argos, which launched Voice Shop earlier this summer, enabling shoppers to reserve for same-day pick up by using the Google Assistant on most Android and iOS devices, or smart speakers like Google Home.

Chief executive John Rogers said voice technology has the potential to revolutionise how people shop in the future. “Digital home assistants have soared in popularity over the past year and people are increasingly looking to their smart devices to help with the smooth running of their lives,” he added.

Naji El-Arifi, global head of innovation at Salmon, said that his firm's recent research showed 55 per cent of shoppers like purchasing through voice-activated devices. However, the move will not necessarily mean instant success, as the same study found 78 per cent of consumers still have concerns over voice shopping, such as devices listening in to conversations.

“As voice and gesture devices become more mainstream, and even brain-computer interfacing edges ever closer to reality, retailers need to act early to make a play in the market," concluded El-Arifi. “Voice experiences take time to develop, requires plenty of AI training and trial-and-error before they can be fully functioning.”

Research conducted by YouGov found that just 11 per cent of households that own an Internet of Things (IoT) device have smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home, while 77 per cent of households do not own any such device.

The survey also found that 56 per cent of non-owners of connected devices do not see the need for digital assistants, while 54 per cent of current owners said they were equally unsure of how helpful they were. Hacking of smart home appliances was the leading concern amongst 39 per cent of those asked, suggesting that the growing buzz around smart devices is being tempered by security concerns.

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