April 20, 2015

Google Now, Voice and Predictive Search, and What It All Means for Marketers

Google’s recent I/O conference put a bow on what we’ve known for a while now: The search giant is leaving behind the text-input box in favor of users’ voices and contextual information. In other words, if the search giant has anything to say about it (and with two-thirds of the U.S. search market, they clearly do), what marketers and consumers know simply as “search” is changing in very big ways.

Google search

While there were many announcements and awe-inducing unveilings at I/O, it was impossible to ignore the search-related innovations Google showed off, including an enriched search engine that would go beyond simply answering the current query and actually preemptively answer a user’s next question.

Searching for the population of India? Here you go – oh, and why don’t we also give you some key data about the country, along with the populations of China and the U.S.

The search titan also underscored its increasing focus on voice search, emphasizing that the experience can be conversational, not just robotic and awkward.

Then there’s Google Now, which has been out in the wild for nearly a year now and is something of a convergence of the voice and predictive natures of search Google is pushing. It offers smartphone users a traditional search box accompanied by cards that pull up potentially relevant information (e.g., birthdays, traffic, weather, nearby events) based on the user’s location and search history.

Searching is becoming more convenient and frictionless for consumers, with the end game appearing to be eliminating the need or meaning of “search” altogether. Simply sharing your location, past behaviors and other contextual signals is quickly becoming enough to be served all the information you need.

This is great news for everyday users, but what about marketers? How are they supposed to feel about these innovations in search and what should they be doing to position themselves to reap the rewards of this evolution?

Focus on the fundamentals, but…
Google’s recent search-related innovations remind Grant Simmons of “Star Trek.” Simmons, director of SEO and social product at The Search Agency, says that despite the nifty advances, the fundamentals remain the same.

“Bottom line, search marketers, in every circumstance, will have to focus on the fundamentals: understand intent and context,” he says. However, Simmons adds that marketers will also need to focus beyond the current landscape. “Search marketers will need to look at research, data, and understanding or testing to start planning for the next phase of search, beyond just the intent and context.”

He likens Google Now to “a personal butler who can think one or two steps ahead of what you’re planning on doing.” This means marketers need to follow suit.

“Technically speaking, when a user receives predictive results when conducting a search, then it really wasn’t a search at all,” says Alicia Brayboy, online marketing associate at Lattice Engines. “It’s now turned into big data-driven recommendations, peer reviews and algorithm based results. No one is really ‘searching’ anymore because in .001 seconds, whatever is first is usually the answer they’ll choose. Companies need to make sure they’re at the top and stay there.”

Brayboy adds that voice search, while not quite groundbreaking, could impact paid-search tactics and keywords. She says the conversational tone of voice search will make broader search terms more significant. “Think about it: When you’re speaking to someone, are you more likely to say ‘predictive marketing’ or ‘predictive lead generation,’ or ‘know which leads to pass to sales?’ Most likely the second phrase, but as a digital marketer, targeting keywords around ‘know which leads to pass to sales’ is going to send lots of unqualified leads to my website and bring many headaches, from bidding and balancing my SEM budget.”

Local and mobile
“A world driven by voice-activated searches and predictive results will be a boon to performance marketers,” says Keith Trivitt, director of marketing and communications at MediaWhiz.

“Perhaps the most appealing aspect of predictive search is the positive effect it will have on local search marketing and, particularly, local mobile SEO campaigns,” he says. “The ability for brands to develop search and SEO campaigns built around voice-activated searches and predictive results will have significant positive implications for their online marketing efforts, particularly for local businesses that are dependent on consumers’ growing use of local mobile search queries.”

Trivitt, gleaning the insights of his colleagues at MediaWhiz, shares three things marketers should be doing now to put themselves in strong positions to thrive amid the changes in search:

1)   Build search campaigns to rank for mobile-specific searches: “As more consumers switch from desktop browsing to local mobile search, there is a big opportunity for brands to launch paid and organic search campaigns aimed at mobile devices,” according to Trivitt. Since mobile marketing is less crowded than traditional online marketing, this is a “low-hanging fruit” for marketers.

2)   Make sure your site is mobile-friendly: Trivitt notes that Google’s mobile search index of sites differs from its index for desktop-based searches. The search engine’s mobile results will favor websites that are optimized for mobile devices.

3)   Strengthen your local game: “Google recognizes that mobile users are on-the-go and are often searching for something close to them,” he says. This means on top of having a mobile-friendly site, businesses should ensure that their pages on local search-oriented sites (e.g., Google+ Local, Yelp, etc.) are up-to-date and accurate.

In a post for Search Engine Watch, Guillaume Bouchard, co-founder and president of NVI, echoes the importance of local search, especially if you believe (as he does) that Google Now will eventually hit desktop search. He says businesses should prioritize their presences on Google-owned properties.

“To stay ahead in the game, search marketers now need a better understanding of their customers’ interactions across channels and devices,” Bouchard writes. “And although we can’t know specifically what Google Now identifies outside of its usual search algorithms, we know it’s search based entirely on contextual needs.”

By Jason Hahn

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