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GUEST COMMENT How will voice search impact retail?


When we need something in today’s digitalised society, we search for it online.

Whether at home, during our daily commute or at work, online search is now an integral part of our day-to-day lives; and continues to grow. These searches have become increasingly seamless over time. We’ve moved from searching on full desktops to portable laptops, to convenient smartphones.

Searching by voice could be the natural next step from this, as evidenced by its tremendous growth over the past few years. Indeed, the widespread investment in voice-enabled devices, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home has led to predictions that, by 2020, half of all searches will be by voice.

The modern, omnichannel customer will often search for products online before committing to a purchase, and as general searches naturally migrate to voice platforms, so too will product searches. Considering that the online retail marketplace becomes more competitive by the day, voice search could be a key source of competitive advantage for retailers looking to set themselves apart from the chasing pack. However, because voice search tech is fairly new, there is naturally a degree of uncertainty as to how retail businesses might be affected by this step-change.

So, how might voice search impact the retail sector?

A lifesaver for local retail?

The ongoing spate of high street closures in favour of e-retail has left retailers of all shapes and sizes – but particularly more local, high-street businesses – scrambling to find ways to survive in a changing market. However, considering the fact that 22% of voice-related searches are actually for local information, voice search may provide an unexpected growth avenue for more local retailers.

Because local organisations tend not to be bound by the strict tone-of-voice guidelines which restrict the messaging – and subsequent keyword search visibility – of larger corporates, these businesses can be more easily found through general voice search queries such as “find a XXXXX shop near me”. Not only this, but smaller businesses can be more agile in adapting their copy and messaging to better fit changing customer needs.

Because voice searches only return the single most relevant answer to a query, competition will naturally intensify for this top spot. However, small businesses with hyperlocal relevance, that take the time to optimise their online offering – particularly their SEO – can excel at a regional level.

Could voice search further compound Amazon’s dominance?

On the other hand, at a time when Amazon is arguably more dominant than ever before, the early market supremacy of the Amazon Echo could prove worrying from a competition standpoint. Not only do Echo owners tend to spend more on Amazon, but the sitecurrently accounts for 85% of voice commerce transactions. With this in mind, there is a danger that the high volume of voice searches on this device could naturally push more purchases towards the Amazon platform at a time when retailers of all sizes are struggling to compete.

Such a move could render retailers that neglect their online offering (particularly those that do not trade on third-party marketplaces such as Amazon) essentially obsolete. This effect is compounded by subscription models such as Prime which, coupled with the evident bias of an Amazon-based device, could signify one-way traffic to Amazon in many areas, to the detriment of smaller online brands.

By virtue of this, competing could naturally be seen as difficult, but the solution is actually fairly simple – treat Amazon as a valuable ally, not just competition. A multichannel approach; i.e. also selling goods on Amazon, and thus spreading the risk across multiple channels, is a key – and often overlooked – avenue for growth. Indeed, we carried out research which found that only 39% of businesses currently make use of multichannel options such as Amazon and Ebay – a clear missed opportunity.

How retailers can prepare for this step-change

For businesses that already put time and effort into their content, there is no huge leap that needs to be taken, but ensuring content is formatted for voice – in a concise, easily- digestible way – is key.

It’s also important for businesses to research and understand exactly what questions users are asking about the products they sell. This can be achieved via internal brainstorms, as well as surveys of sales staff, customers, and social media queries related to the brand.

The featured snippet – the summary paragraph displayed at the top of search engine results – is the holy grail when it comes to voice search. Not only is this an invaluable source of organic traffic, it’s also where voice devices tend to pull their answers, and businesses looking to succeed must, therefore, format their product data to fit within this snippet. Marking up data is also crucial, and using schema to turn raw data into easily actionable information for search engines is something that will help search visibility across the board.

Finally, classic SEO best-practice principles still apply to voice search. This means ensuring relevance is passed via internal linking, as well as making sure all on-site content is unique, helpful, and using the keywords that users tend to search with – avoiding jargon where possible. From a technical perspective, ensuring site speed is high is naturally crucial; not only does poor site speed make potential visitors click away, but site speed is also a vital page ranking factor made all the more important by the fact that voice only returns the top ranking answer to search queries.

Why is voice search so crucial now?

While voice input has been around for quite some time, we’ve now begun to see it become an increasingly common part of our day-to-day lives – particularly in a retail setting, with 53% of retailers set to invest in voice search over the next 12 months.

Arguably the most important factor in this rise is the continued increase in smartphone usage. Not only do an estimated 85% of the UK population carry smartphones – devices ideal for voice input – but the concept of virtual assistants (such as Siri) popularised by these devices have paved the way for the likes of the Amazon Alexa and the Google Home Assistant to take search to the next level.

Substantial investment in voice-activated devices from the likes of Amazon, Apple, and Google over the past few years has also been pivotal in the public accepting the technology in a mainstream capacity.

Despite this growth, and consumers making over 50 billion voice searches per month, optimising for voice search has thus far been worryingly overlooked by brands. As it stands, only 3% have adapted their SEO strategies to account for voice-led search results – a concerning lack of preparedness.

The retail sector is going through a period of irrevocable change, and retailers must adapt to this if they are to survive. While voice search may feel unnatural at first, we must remember that e-commerce felt the same way in its formative years. Businesses that opted not to sell online subsequently spent years playing catch-up, and the same could very well be true for voice commerce.

Amidst a backdrop of ongoing store closures and continued investment in emerging technologies from giants such as Amazon, exploring new avenues for growth – such as voice search – is no longer a choice, but a necessity for retailers looking to survive and thrive on an ever-changing high street.

Author: David Gerrard, head of SEO, at ecommerce digital marketing agency at Visualsoft.

Image credit: Fotolia 

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