Tag Archives: digital assistants

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Event recap: State of Search with Brainlabs

On February 22nd, leading digital media agency Brainlabs hosted the latest in its series of PPC Chat Live events at its London HQ.

With speakers from Google, Verve Search, and of course from Brainlabs too, there were plenty of talking points to consider and digest. In this article, we recap the highlights from an enlightening event.

The theme for this edition of PPC Chat Live was ‘the state of search’, with the focus squarely on the trends set to shape the industry in 2018 and beyond. The speakers delivered a wide variety of presentations that reflected on the industry’s beginnings, not just for nostalgia’s sake but also to illuminate the future too.

Brainlabs has carved out a position as an innovative, data-driven search agency and this tone was carried through the evening, all ably assisted by Pepper the robot receptionist.

Although paid search took up the majority of air time, there was still plentiful room for ruminations on the evolving role of SEO and what the nature of search tells us about the modern consumer.

Digital assistants: empowering or simply enabling?

Peter Giles from Google opened the evening with a thought-provoking talk on the impact of new technologies on the way people find information.

Peter noted that the increased accuracy of voice-enabled digital assistants has led to a range of changes in consumer behavior. Some of these could be seen as empowering, while others perhaps play only to our innate laziness and desire for a friction-free life.

There were three core behavioral trends noted within this session:

Increased curiosity

Because people have access to an unprecedented amount of information, they are more inclined to ask questions. When the answers are always close to hand, this is an understandable development.

Google has seen some interesting trends over the past two years, including an increase of 150% in search volume for [best umbrellas]. What was once a simple purchase is now subject to a more discerning research process.

Event recap: State of Search with Brainlabs

Higher expectations

Although there is initial resistance to some technologies that fundamentally change how we live, once we are accustomed to them we quickly start to expect more. In 2015, Google reported that it had seen a 37x increase in the number of searches including the phrase “near me”.

Consumers now expect their device to know this intent implicitly and Peter revealed that the growth in “near me” phrases has slowed considerably.

Decreased patience

As expectations grow, patience levels decrease. In fact, there has been an increase of over 200% in searches containing the phrase “open now” since 2015 in the US. Meanwhile, consumers are coming to expect same-day delivery as standard in major metropolitan areas.

Event recap: State of Search with Brainlabs

Throughout all of these changes, Peter Giles made clear that brands need to focus on being the most helpful, available option for their target audience. By honing in on these areas, the ways in which consumers access the information are not so important.

The more significant factor is making this information easy to locate and to surface, whether through search engines, social networks, or digital assistants.

The past, present, and future of PPC and SEO

Brainlabs’ exec chair Jim Brigden reflected on the history of the paid search industry, going back to the early 2000’s when most brands were skeptical of the fledgling ad format’s potential.

In fact, only £5 million was spent on paid search in the UK as recently as 2001. The industry’s growth, projected to exceed $100 billion globally this year, should also give us reason to pause and consider what will happen next. The pace of change is increasing, so marketers need to be able to adapt to new realities all the time.

Jim Brigden’s advice to budding search marketers was to absorb as much new knowledge as possible and remain open to new opportunities, rather than trying to position oneself based on speculation around future trends. Many marketers have specialized in search for well over a decade and, while the industry may have changed dramatically in that time, its core elements remain largely intact.

This was a topic touched on by Lisa Myers of Verve Search too, when discussing organic search. For many years, we have discussed the role (and even potential demise) of SEO, as Google moves to foreground paid search to an ever greater degree.

Myers’ presentation showcased just how much the SEO industry has changed, from link buying to infographics, through to the modern approach that has as much in common with a creative agency as it does with a web development team.

Just one highlight from the team at Verve Search, carried out in collaboration with their client Expedia, was the Unknown Tourism campaign. Comprised of a range of digital posters, the campaign commemorates animals that have been lost from some of the world’s most popular tourist spots.

Event recap: State of Search with Brainlabs

Such was the popularity of the campaign, one fan created a package for The Sims video game to make it possible to pin the posters on their computer-generated walls. Verve has received almost endless requests to create and sell the posters, too.

This isn’t what most people think of when they think of SEO, but it is a perfect example of how creative campaigns can drive performance. For Expedia, Verve has achieved an average increase in visibility of 54% across all international markets.

The core lesson we can take away here from both Jim Brigden and Lisa Myers is that the medium of search remains hugely popular and there is therefore a need for brands to try and stand out to get to the top. The means of doing so may change, but the underlying concepts and objectives remain the same.

The predictable nature of people

For the final part of the evening, Jim Brigden was joined by Dan Gilbert, CEO of Brainlabs and the third most influential person in digital, according to Econsultancy.

Dan shared his sophisticated and elucidative perspective on the search industry, which is inextricably linked to the intrinsic nature of people.

A variety of studies have shown that people’s behavioral patterns are almost entirely predictable, with one paper noting that “Spontaneous individuals are largely absent from the population. Despite the significant differences in travel patterns, we found that most people are equally predictable.”

As irrational and unique as we would like to think we are, most of our actions can be reduced to mathematical equations.

That matters for search, when we consider the current state of the industry.

After all, companies like Google excel at creating rational systems, such as the machine learning algorithms that continue to grow in prominence across its product suite.

As Dan Gilbert stated, this gives good cause to believe that the nature of search will be fundamentally different in the future.

Our digital assistants will have little reason to offer us a choice, if they already know what we want next.

That choice is the hallmark of the search industry, but Gilbert sees no reason to create a monetizable tension where no tension needs to exist.

Google’s focus has always been on getting the product right and figuring out the commercial aspect once users are on board and this seems likely to be the approach with voice-enabled assistants.

Event recap: State of Search with Brainlabs

In fact, the technology is already available to preempt these decisions and start serving consumers content and products before they even know they want to receive them. The field of predictive analytics has evolved significantly over the last few years and the capability to model out future behavioral trends is already in use for companies like Netflix and Amazon.

The inflection point for this technology is dependent on people’s readiness to accept such a level of intrusion in their daily lives, rather than any innate technological shortcomings.

History suggests that, while a certain initial resistance is to be expected, ultimately we will grow accustomed to this assimilation of technology into our lives. And, soon after, we will grow impatient with any limitations we encounter.

That will create a seismic shift in how the search industry operates, but it will open up new and more innovative ways to connect consumers with brands.

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Optimizing for voice assistants: Why actions speak louder than words

“Hey Siri, remind me to invent you in 30 years”

In 1987, Apple came up with the idea of a “Knowledge Navigator”. You can see the full video here, but it’s a concept that’s remarkably – and perhaps, not coincidentally – similar to our modern smart device assistants, Siri among them.

Its features included a talking screen, reacting to vocal commands to provide information and sort calendars.

In theory, we’re there, 30 years later – though the reality doesn’t always quite match up to the dream.

Even when it does work, voice hasn’t always been exactly what people were looking for. The thing most adults said they wish their voice search systems could do was find their keys (though teens said they most wished it could send them pizza).

Although we’re getting to the stage where that’s possible now, the majority of developments in voice have been voice search – talking to your phone to find out information.

Showing search results for “Why can’t you understand me, you stupid phone”

But while talking to a device can be a better experience than playing around with a virtual keyboard on a phone or a physical one on a computer, there are two major issues with voice search.

The first is that it’s still clunky. Half the time you have to repeat yourself in order to be understood, particularly if the word you’re trying to get across is slang or an abbreviation of some sort, which is to say, the default sort of language you’d think would be fitting for “conversational” search.

It doesn’t feel smooth, and it doesn’t feel effortless – and that pretty much removes the point of it.

The other is that it simply doesn’t add value. A voice search isn’t achieving anything you couldn’t do by simply typing in the same thing.

Optimizing for voice assistants: Why actions speak louder than words

But recently, we’ve seen developments to the voice control industry, starting with Alexa. At this point, everyone’s familiar with the Echo and its younger sibling, the Echo Dot – it’s been in adverts, our friends have it, maybe we have it ourselves.

The Alexa devices were among Amazon’s best-selling products in 2016, especially around Christmas, and the trend doesn’t show significant signs of slowing. But if we’ve had Siri since 2011, why is Alexa picking up so much traction now?

The answer is that it’s not voice search. It’s voice commands. Alexa is more exciting and satisfying for users because it provides an action – you speak to it and something happens. You now can order a pizza – or an Uber, or a dollhouse.

Optimizing for voice assistants: Why actions speak louder than words

That’s what people have been wanting from their devices – the ability to control the world around them by talking to it, not just have an alternative to a keyboard.

Ultimately, the commands are more personal. You can go on a website and order a pizza, and you can customise it and pay for it and it’ll show up, but talking to Alexa is akin to saying to your friend “Order a pizza?” (Except Alexa won’t stop mid-phone call to ask you what the other topping you wanted was).

Where the majority of mobile voice commands are used for search, Alexa’s use cases are dominated by home control – 34% of users have Alexa play music, just under 31% get her to play with the lights, and 24.5% use it as a timer.

While Siri and the Google Voice Search system are both examples of narrow AI like the Echo, they make much more limited use of its capabilities – compared to Alexa, Google is not OK, and Siri can say goodbye.

“OK Google – who would win in a fight, you or Alexa?”

Alexa’s success has put Google into catch-up mode, and they have been making some progress in the form of Google Home. Early reviews suggest that it might actually be the better product – but it lacks the market momentum of the Amazon product, and it seems unlikely that the sales will be on an even footing for a while yet.

However, Google does have the advantage of some high-end technology, namely Alphabet DeepMind.

DeepMind itself is the company name, but the more familiar connection is the technology the company produces. DeepMind are responsible for the program AlphaGo that beat the world’s foremost Go player 4 – 1, as well as a neural network that can learn how to play video games with the same approach as humans do.

DeepMind can offer Google systems their machine learning experience – which means that Google Home’s technology might have more room to start leaning towards Deep AI in the future. Your device will be able to start adapting itself to your needs – just don’t ask it to open the pod bay doors.

“Watson – what wine would you recommend with this?”

The other major contender in the AI race has only just started dipping into the B2C commercial market, and not nearly to the same scale as Alexa or Google Home.

IBM Watson has, however, won Jeopardy!, as well as found places in healthcare, teaching, and weather forecasting – essentially, absorbing a great deal of information and adapting it for different uses.

Watson is now used by The North Face, for example, to offer contextual shopping through conversational search. Users answer questions, and Watson suggests products based on the answers.

Likewise, Bear Naked uses Watson to “taste test” their customized granola system for the user, so once you’ve designed your meal, it can tell you if you might want to cut back on the chocolate chips.

AI is a competitive market – and it’s a market synergizing with conversational and voice search to bring us ever closer to the computer from Star Trek, and even beyond it.

Optimizing for voice assistants: Why actions speak louder than words

For now, however, narrow AI is the market – and that means optimizing sites for it.

SE-OK Google

Voice search means that people are searching much more conversationally than they used to. The best way to accommodate that in your SEO strategy is to give more attention to your long-tail keywords, especially the questions.

Questions are opportunities best met with in-depth, mobile-friendly guides that offer information to your customers and clients.

But this also applies when it comes to using apps in the way that Alexa and Google Home do. People aren’t just making voice searches now – they’re also making voice commands.

With that in mind, to rank for some of these long-tail keywords, you need to start optimizing for action phrases and Google-approved AI commands like “search for [KEYWORD] on [APP]”, as well as carefully managing your API, if you have one. And it is worth having one, in order that you can integrate fully with these new devices.

Optimizing for voice assistants: Why actions speak louder than words

You can break down the structure of common questions in your industry to optimize your long-tail keywords for devices.

You’ll also need to look into deep-linking to optimize your apps for search. Deep-linking allows searchers to see listings from an app directly on search, and open the app from those search rankings, making for a smoother user experience.

Optimizing for voice assistants: Why actions speak louder than words

Search results show your app data and link directly into the app

This is only going to become more important over time – Google have just announced that they’re opening up their technology, “Instant Apps”, to all developers.

Instant Apps mean that if the user doesn’t have the app, it can “stream” the page from the app anyway. It’s not a stretch to imagine that before long Alexa won’t need Skills to complete commands – so long as you’ve properly set up your API to work with search.

Siri, likewise, already has SiriKit, which allows developers to build markup into their apps that Siri can read.

Optimizing for voice assistants: Why actions speak louder than words

“Alexa – What’s the Best Way to Deal with AI?”

Voice search is a growing part of the search industry. But it’s not the biggest opportunity of it.

Rather, companies should be focusing on integrating voice actions into their strategy – by deep-linking their apps, ranking for long-tail keyword questions, and making sure everything they want a customer can do, they can do with their voice.

What does voice search mean for your local SEO strategy?

The ubiquity of virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa, together with improvements in technology, has led to an uptick in voice search queries.

For businesses that rely on local search traffic, this has important ramifications for their strategy.

So how can businesses ensure they aren’t left behind when it comes to local search?

Produced in collaboration with Brandify.

OK, Google…what’s going on with voice search?

Voice search is a growing trend that has been pinging the radars of savvy search marketers for the last few years.

In 2016, conversational AI company MindMeld surveyed smartphone users in the US, finding that 60% of users who used voice search had started using it in the last past year – indicating rising adoption rates. This is backed up by Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Report, which found that Google voice search queries in 2016 are up 35x over 2008, now making up 20% of searches made with the Google Android app.

It’s not hard to see why. Voice searches are fast (humans can speak at 150 words per minute, versus typing at 40 wpm), convenient (instant, hands-free) and increasingly reliable.

Rising word accuracy rates are a big factor. Usage in the US grew from 30-65% between 2013-2015, with 35% citing improvements in technology as the primary reason for adopting it.

In its early stages, voice recognition had an accuracy of below 80%, rendering the service buggy and difficult to use. Today, Google’s word accuracy rate is over 90%.

But the real driver of widespread adoption has been the omnipresence of virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant – all of whom will automatically perform a web search if they are unable to answer a question natively.

SEO company HigherVisibility surveyed 2,000 mobile phone users and found that 27% of respondents use voice search assistants daily, while another 27% use them at least once a week.

What does this mean for search traffic?

More searches using natural language

Whereas regular searches usually just include keywords (‘IHOP opening times’), voice searches tend to be structured using full, grammatically correct sentences (‘what time does IHOP open on a Sunday?’).

In fact, Google is currently working to better accommodate these so-called ‘natural language’ queries. At the Google I/O developer conference last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai revealed Google Assistant’s ability to handle follow-up questions without the need to re-state the context.

This allows you to search something like “Who directed The Revenant?” followed immediately by “Show me his awards”.

More searches on mobile

The convenience afforded by voice search comes into its own when users are on mobile. Although available on desktop web for Google and via Siri for Mac (as of OSX Sierra), voice searches don’t make as much sense in a desktop environment.

Higher Visibility found that over half (53%) of those that used voice search used it when driving, and another 21% used it when doing another activity.

More searches with local intent

According to Meeker’s Internet Trends Report 2016, mobile voice-related searches are 3X more likely to be local-based than text-based queries. This makes local SEO critical for businesses seeking to appear in these results.

What does it mean for your marketing strategy?

Look to target long-tail and natural language keywords in content

For the question-answering content on your site, consider how someone might phrase their search query as a full sentence. If you’re stuck for inspiration, your website analytics should reveal at least one or two search terms that tick this box.

Creating an FAQs page is an easy way to optimize for this, as it both asks and answers the most relevant queries for customers – and puts full questions in prominent header tags.

Optimize your site for mobile

In October 2016, global mobile / tablet web browsing finally exceeded desktop, with the former accounting for 51.3%, and the latter 48.7% according to StatCounter.

Mobile-friendliness has been a ranking signal since 2015, but it’s particularly important for businesses who receive traffic from local search from mobile users – such as searches appended with ‘near me’.

Improve your local SEO to target searches with local intent

Google’s Venice update in 2012 improved the triggering of Local Universal results (aka the ‘three-pack’, shown below). This box pops up when faced with queries that have relevant local results, like my Neanderthal request for “food near me”:

Basic SEO advice aside, here are a few simple steps to improve your ranking in these results:

  • Verify your Google My Business listing including a long, unique and correctly-formatted description that includes links to your business. You should also upload high-resolution photos, opening times, a phone number and a business address that matches your website.
  • Use a consistent name, address and phone number (NAP) across your online profiles. That includes your Google My Business listing and your website. This information needs to be exact.
  • Acquire and maintain positive reviews as these have been shown to affect your ranking in local search results. For more on how to manage your reputation online, check out our handy guide: ‘How to handle negative reviews and manage your brand’s reputation‘ over on our sister site, ClickZ.

This article was produced in collaboration with Brandify. Click here to read our collaborative content guidelines.

This article originally ran on our sister site, ClickZ, and has been republished here for the enjoyment of our readers on Search Engine Watch.

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Understanding voice search: What are the implications for marketers?

Last week, Amazon added their voice search product “Alexa” to their iPhone app.

This is yet another signal in the continuing avalanche of signals that voice search is a major part of every major tech company’s strategy. One report by VoiceLabs predicts that voice device growth will quadruple this year. In last year’s Google IO conference Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that 20% of search queries were coming from voice search.

What data can help us to understand the impact of voice search when it isn’t yet a reporting field that is provided by most publishers? Also, what are the implications for search marketers?

What data do we have to potentially understand voice search?

Without specifically understanding voice search data provided by search engines we have to rely on other indicators. I like to use query keywords (who, what, where, when, why, how) as a way to understand how consumers may be using voice search. While not perfect, I think it helps give some insight into how consumer behavior is shifting.

People expect questions to be answered via voice search. I took a look at our data from this year vs. the same period in 2016. This data shows some interesting trends. Overall, query search term use as a percentage of total impressions was up 47% year over year.

Understanding voice search: What are the implications for marketers?

This shows that as voice search becomes more mainstream and search engines get better and better at providing answers, people are changing the phrases they use to search.

Breaking this down by the specific query used I think gives an exact picture of what types of expectations consumers have when asking questions. In just the last year, queries containing ‘Where’ and ‘When’ have risen by almost 300%.

These two questions lead the way due the local nature of many voice search queries, and the high likelihood of a receiving direct answer. While a term like ‘how’ is also up 13% year over year, it is still difficult to get answers to ‘how’ to do something via a voice query. However, saying “OK Google, where is the closest burger restaurant?” elicits a fairly specific response.

The implications of voice search for marketers

For me there are two key strategic impacts from the growth of voice search, both on mobile and from in-home devices. For each of these, there are several questions you can ask yourself to determine how voice search might affect your brand, and how you can best optimize for it.

1. How are my consumers finding my brand?

  • Do you need to create more localized content? If ‘where’ and ‘when’ queries continue their growth, there is an opportunity to dominate these queries with both paid and organic rankings.
  • What data is available through my search term report in AdWords? Search term performance in the dimension’s report is a great way to update and optimize your keyword list in general, and to understand the types of questions consumers are asking.
  • Do you need to create more query-driven content to rank in answer boxes?

2. Consider keyword experiences when question-style queries are asked. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What ad copy and landing pages are being used for question searches? If someone is searching for “where” or “when”, do you give them the same landing page that every other query gets? Is this the correct experience, or would a unique landing page and ad copy be more appropriate?
  • Is my location data current and accurate? The local pack is showing up more and more, especially via mobile devices, so making sure your data is correct in this space is critical.
  • Do I have the proper location extensions and product inventory available? There are ways to help consumers get the proper answers via paid ads. Making sure this content is eligible and aligned to your AdWords campaigns is key.

If you can think through the consumer experience when these question-style queries are asked, you will understand the gaps in your voice search offering, and the opportunities to provide a better experience.