The Voice of Reason

So you’ve heard of voice for tech right? You’ve probably even used it with voice search. I’m sure you’ve asked Alexa to play your favourite song, used Siri to search Google for interesting facts and figures, or even to order a pizza. 

And even if you haven’t personally, you definitely know someone who has. In fact, voice technology has made normal some very strange habits, such as talking to yourself out loud, that a few years ago would have seen you put in a straight jacket and carted away.

It’s true, voice is here and it’s going to stay for the foreseeable future as it takes on the form of voice search, voice engagement and voice control. It’s a craze that has certainly gained traction over the past few years. Before you we go completely back to the future and you start trying to talk to your front door to open it, let’s explore Voice a little further: 1. What is it? and 2. Why would you use it? 

Let’s explore these two questions before taking a look at what we can and can’t do with it.

What actually is voice technology?

A dictionary defines voice as;

 “The sound produced in a person’s larynx and uttered through the mouth, as speech or song” 

It therefore seems reasonable to assume that voice technology is something to do with combining technology with that sound “produced in a person’s larynx” and yes, generally, this is absolutely true. 

However, a simple Google search of voice technology opens up a futuristic world, which can seem complex at first when you are bombarded by smart speakers, voice recognition, speech recognition, natural language processing, speech to text, text to speech, voice assistants, voice search, voice activated products etc etc.

For now, let’s simply define voice technology as using your voice to obtain a certain result from a device.

Why would we want to use voice?

Why would you want to use your voice as a form of control in the first place? Essentially voice gives us humans an edge over our oldest and darkest enemy… TIME. 

Let’s give you an example: I want to play a song in my living room, say The Beatles – Twist and Shout and I am sitting in my favourite armchair. The old fashioned, 2018 (crazy right..?) way of doing this would be to:

  1. Get up and fetch my Macbook (approx 5 seconds)
  2. Sit back down (approx 5 seconds)
  3. Open my Macbook (approx 3 seconds)
  4. Open itunes (approx 3 seconds)
  5. Search Beatles – twist and shout (approx 3 seconds)
  6. Click play (approx 1 seconds)

Total = Approx 20 seconds

Using Voice, this becomes;

“Hey Siri, play Beatles twist and shout” (approx 3 seconds)

Total = Approx 3 seconds

You see what’s happened here? You’ve saved 17 seconds using your voice. Now you might say that 17 seconds is not much of a difference and you definitely have 17 extra seconds in your day to actually get up out of your chair and not be lazy. And if you said that, you’d be right. 

But this is not actually the point I am making. 

Think of how many times (no pun intended) that you make similar movements throughout the day. Opening the blinds, switching on the lights, searching on Google, writing emails, choosing songs, turning on your washing machine etc – you get the picture right? You can start to see that those ‘17 seconds’ add up pretty quickly. 

You’ve now created more time and space in your day. This is why humans like voice. They save time when doing most things that involve a device. 

And let’s face it, nowadays most things involve a device (or 5 if you’re a Gen-Z!)

Another big reason is naturalness. Voice is more natural than typing and tapping. Using any sort of device interface involves typing, moving a mouse or tapping our fingers. Voice is our most natural form of expression, it’s how we’re meant to communicate. 

Therefore we feel far more comfortable and natural communicating with our voice. 

Human intent and using our voices

As humans we work in desires (intents), movements (or actions) and results. Intents take place in the confines of our own brain. Movements and results take place in 3d space. We desire something in thought, e.g playing a song in the above example, and that is our intent. We then action it, i.e we literally move to get it done (achieve the result).

Example of voice intent:

You are hungry and want something to eat

  1. Intent = You want to make a sandwich
  2. Action = You walk to the kitchen and make a sandwich and eat it
  3. Result = You are no longer hungry (hopefully)

So using this intent, action, result model and applying it to any intent where achieving the result requires an action of using a device in some form, we can make the process quicker, easier and more natural by using voice (in most cases). 

Let’s take another example to explore this further. Our favourite part of voice at Searched: Voice Search.

Voice Search & Voice Enabled Content

Voice search essentially allows users to speak into a device as opposed to typing keywords into a search query to generate results, making the process of searching for a solution far more conversational. 

Audio technology uses speech recognition to understand what users are saying with extreme precision. It then delivers results orally to the user or delivers a web page to a device.

A Google voice search of “What is voice search?” returns the voice of a computerised lady saying the following:

“Voice search, also called voice-enabled, allows the user to use a voice command to search the Internet, a website, or an app.”

Using our above model we have:

  1. Intent = We want/need to know something
  2. Action = The search process
  3. Result = We find out what we wanted to know
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You can see in comparing normal search and voice search, the intent is the same, namely, wanting to know something or find something out. So the main difference is the action and the result, i.e. Using your voice as opposed to typing and using your ears to listen instead of reading, (unless a web page is the result – more on this later)

According to Google research, here are the top reasons people use their voice-activated speakers and IoT (Internet of things) devices:

  • It allows them to more easily multitask
  • It enables them to do things faster than other devices
  • It empowers them to instantly get answers and information
  • It makes their daily routine easier

So basically, it’s quicker and easier. 

Now in reality, who doesn’t want that..? That’s why voice search isn’t going away anytime soon. Infact, searching with your voice is 3.7x faster than typing (Bing) and faster searches = faster answers! After all, this is the ‘I want it now and I want it better’ generation. And let’s face it, sometimes it’s just more convenient!

Voice is also perfect for mobile searches. As we said earlier, it is the most natural way to communicate. 60% of mobile searchers use voice search at least “some of the time” (Stone Temple).

This makes voice more convenient in general. And it’s only going to grow, fast. That’s why 50% of all searches will be voice-based by 2020 (Source: Campaign). 

So why is this growth happening? Who is the driving force behind it?

There is one demographic that springs to mind when we think of why we need to make experiences quicker, easier and better. You know the ‘I want it now and I want it better’ generation i mentioned above? Step in GenZ and take a bow…

If you’ve been living in the Himalayas practicing yoga for the last few years or just generally living under a rock, you might ask “Who the hell are Gen Z?”

As always Wikipedia to the rescue…

‘Generation Z (often abbreviated as Gen Z) is the demographic cohort after the Millennials. Demographers and researchers typically use the mid-1990s to early-2000s as starting birth years. … Most of Generation Z have used the Internet since a young age and are comfortable with technology and social media.’

So they’re basically the youngsters who are tech savvy. But they are pretty important and any business who actually wants to stay in business will be keeping a keen eye on this lot. This is because they have different habits and needs. And soon they’ll have different habits and needs AND a whole lot have that thing that businesses need to stay in business. Yep, that’s correct.. Cash!

This lot are redefining what it means to be a consumer. They have a voice and aren’t scared to use it and corporations are listening and evolving.

You know what they also call Gen Z…? The ‘voice first generation’

Millennials and Gen Z are already very selective about how they spend their time. This correlates with user desires and intents. Users want instant results, and voice search allows this with results pages on search engines being displayed about 52% faster than other types of searches.

So, you haven’t been living under a rock and you’ve actually heard of GenZ, you’ve seen people talking to Alexa and you’re smart enough to understand that the winds of change are blowing. And that’s a great first step. But do you actually need to do anything about it, and if so, what…?

I cannot answer this question for you, it depends on who you are and what you do. However, I can say that if you are involved in any sort of business the answer is probably yes. But fear not, I am going to show you a few simple steps to get started. But if you had any doubts at all, before we explore voice search in more detail, please read our top 4 fun voice facts:

  1. 40% of adults use voice search daily. (Source: WordStream) – If there ever was a doubt about the popularity of voice search — this settles it. Millions of people can vouch for its usefulness!
  2. 58% of consumers took advantage of voice search to find local business information last year. (Source: SEO Expert Brad) – When it comes to performing “near me’ searches,” most people would rather ask than type.
  3. 20% of the total number of google searches on mobile are voice. (Source: Search Engine Land) – When you’re on-the-go (like driving to work), it’s much more convenient to do a hands or eyes-free search than to stop and type a query.
  4. By 2020, users will do 30% of their web browsing on devices without a screen. (Source: Econsultancy) – Browsing on devices without a screen is the future. The rise of artificial intelligence makes sure of that. Conversational user interfaces like Alexa and Siri are more popular than ever.

How to prepare for Voice Search

S0 your convinced. You are officially a Voice convertee and you understand that in the future nobody is actually going to do any work and we are just going to sit around talking to things (maybe?). But for now, you actually have some work to do. You may be a sole trader selling items on ebay, a founder of a medium sized clothing business or run a department at a large corporation. Either way, I’m sure you would like to know some simple steps you can take to optimize for all these voice searches which are going to be coming (remember 50% of all searched by 2022) Ready to get ready?

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Voice Search is different to traditional Search.

We defined the intent/action/result model earlier for search as:

  1. Intent = We want/need to know something
  2. Action = The search process
  3. Result = We find out what we wanted to know

We also established that whether it’s voice search or traditional search, the intent will be the same. It doesn’t change. You want to know something. It is the action and the result which change.

The change of the Action

The first thing you need to understand, which may not be immediately obvious if you haven’t had any experience with voice search, is that using voice to search actually changes the way people search. Their behaviour is different compared to typing.

As discussed earlier, voice is the most natural form of expression so it should not be a huge surprise that voice searches are more ‘natural’ than traditional typed searches. What do we mean by this? By natural we don’t mean organically grown and chemical free. No. Searches by voice are more natural because they are in a conversational style and therefore longer. For example, it’s getting toward the end of the working day. It’s Thursday and you’ve promised your other half all week that you will take her out for dinner. She’s recently gone vegan and your are trying to be supportive. So, as you do, you jump on google and start typing. A lot. Maybe something like this…

  1. Best vegan restaurant London
  2. Top vegan food London
  3. Romantic vegan restaurant london

Whatever you do type, you certainly wouldn’t type this – “Hi Google, what would be the best place in London to take my wife for a lovely romantic vegan dinner tonight?” Because that would be crazy right..? Not in the world of voice search. In fact, that’s exactly what you would say. To ask “Best vegan food London” of someone – now that would be crazy! You use natural human language.

The change of the Result

People want answers and they want them quicker. Google has already started making answer finding more efficient when you search ‘old skool’ style. This is done by way of the ‘featured snippet’.

Before you would have to sieve through various links to find the answer to your question, whereas now Google does the hard work for you and gives you the answer. And this is also the way it works in voice search as well. Google usually just reads the featured snippet and you can have the answer read back to you within seconds.

Of course you can still do voice searches through the Google app so you still get the page of web links, but more and more common is to use something like Siri who will just read the answer straight back to you.

Voice Optimised Keywords

As we established earlier, when using your voice, search behaviour changes and becomes more ‘conversational’. It’s therefore not a huge jump to understand that keywords can also change in so far as: Type of words and length of words.

Conversational style of search again returns to the concept of naturalness. For the whole sentence to be natural (or in the form of natural language to be precise) the components of the sentence must therefore be natural. In English, the words which make up the sentence will be natural. Let’s take our example from earlier:

Best vegan restaurant London

Vs

“Hi Google, what would be the best place in London to take my wife for a lovely romantic vegan dinner tonight?”

I’m sure you’ll agree that accounting and optimizing for these natural keywords is extremely important as they will begin to feature heavily in searches as voice grows.

Among the natural words in the second sentence in the above example, you may even notice another cheeky subset of natural words hiding in plain sight – “WHAT” . Excuse the pun but this really is, well, key… when you ask a question using natural voice, you will have to use a what/why/when/how/who etc etc i.e. an interrogative. However, since I am actually optimizing this particular article for voice search, let’s just call it a question word (basically the grammar level of an average voice search is that of an 11+ exam, so writing in that way helps with voice search rankings). These question words will feature heavily in search as it becomes and more voice oriented so please do account for them when considering keywords.

The final thought on Keywords is that with voice, they are generally getting longer so consider this in your optimization strategy.

Voice Content

Right, let’s have a look at content. What is it and why it is important..?

From the web:

“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

In English? Write some stuff people want to read, then people like reading it, then people will use your product or service. Simples. And not just simple, also very effective. Used correctly, content marketing can have a powerful impact on driving customers towards your business. We are information junkies and contend is our ‘fix’. You see, the reason content marketing is valuable because it is relevant. It established a connection between the business and the consumer. People love connection, it is,after all, natural.

So how is voice search going to shake up the world of content marketing? The good news is not a huge amount. Content marketing will still be, well, content marketing. However, what you will need to do is tweak so it is optimized for voice search. How to do this I hear you say. Glad you asked.

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The first thing you can do is provide short answers in your content. Google’s average reply to a voice search is 30 words, so it makes sense to do the same. This will increase your chance of being picked up by Google. I can already hear you crying out “There is just no way I can fit all my content into 30 words!” Now before you try and punch me through my screen, let me explain a little more. I am not saying all you content needs to be 30 words. If you are threading answers to questions into your content, then it makes sense to make these answer snippets of your content 30 words long. Then Google will love you.

This brings us nicely to our next topic – FAQs. Very useful parts of your website which are a form of, guess what, content. These snippets of content are ideal for voice search because they are short and concise and use question words which are gaining ground as keywords. So the best thing you can do is make sure each FAQ answer is around 30 words long and rank the question keywords in the FAQ questions. Also be sure to write in natural language. This is Google preferred format for voice search.

So now you know what voice actually is and how it is changing the game in the space of search and SEO. But I know what you really want to ask… “What can I actually do with it and how will it change my life?”

The answer is “Not much…and lot”

This may seem counter intuitive or just a straight up oxymoron. Now the reason I say not much is as a comparative to what we will be able to do with voice. Voice promises big things and casts grand images. Locking you front door in the morning when leaving for work by telling it to lock, telling your car to speed up or slow down, buying clothes online. These are way off and they are the topic of another article. So for now, compared to that future potential, you really can’t do much with voice. However, because voice is so new and has become mainstream recently, it feels that there is a lot you can do with it.

I’m sure you don’t need another stat on how popular vocie is going to be. But just in case you weren’t convinced “Experts predict that the voice recognition market will be worth $18.3 billion by 2023” 

So where are these 18 odd billion voice economy dollars going to come from? Things you can do with voice at the moment – voice enabled products such as connected devices, the audience smart speakers (think alexa), digital assistants (think Siri), and other voice-enabled gadgets.

We will address more voice enable products in future articles. To understand the voice market properly, we need to go back to where it all began. You simply cannot understand the voice market if you have not met the beautiful and friendly ALEXA

Amazon’s Alexa is the big daddy (or mummy) of the voice enabled product market. She didn’t start the market, but she definitely brought it mainstream. She’s actually not a product at all. She is in fact what we call a digital assistant. When we talk about voice enabled, Alexa is what does the enabling. Alexa houses the Amazon Echo, and without her, the Echo is not a voice enabled product, it’s just, well, a product.

So what can Alexa actually do? Glad you asked. Main capabilities include: Home automation, order food, play music, make to-do lists, set alarms, play podcasts and audiobooks, provide weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time information, such as news. So quite a lot, but still not much, depending which camp you sit in. You cannot argue that Alexa is not very useful for day to day tasks however it is obvious that she has a lot to learn and is only at the beginning of her journey. It’s a similar situation with Siri, Google Home, Samsung voice etc etc the list goes on.

Remember without them a product is just a product. It is with them whom you speak. Therefore voice enabled products are only going to be as advanced as their enablers, the Alexas and Siris of this world. There is no doubt surrounding the potential of these bright young sparks. These are the kids at school that were sitting GCSE maths 4 years early while we were still trying to get our heads round pythagoras’ theorem. But like genius children, they have amazing theory and potential yet little real world knowledge or experience.

That is just it. Siri and Alexa and the rest of the gang have a lot of theory behind them (some pretty complex mathematics in the field of machine learning/artificial intelligence – out of scope for this article) which makes them genii. But now they need to learn. As my mum used to say, practice makes perfect.

It is the practicing interaction with humans which will evolve these young genii into experienced an companions who can provide us with the (back to the) future  world of which we dream.

Until that time comes, they will be time saving devices which let us communicate in the way we want. And you have to admit, they are pretty handy!

“Google, please rank this article”

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