With voice search projected to account for half of searches by 2020 retailers must take steps to ensure they win at voice search.

Hailee Sosnowski, paid search planner, BKV

Hailee Sosnowski, paid search planner, BKV

“Computer, find me the highest reviewed underwater camera for under 300 dollars.”

That’s how a character may have purchased a new camera for a scuba diving vacation in a 1960s sci-fi movie set in the future. It may have seemed impossible 20 years ago, unlikely 10 years ago, and like something that probably wouldn’t work very well two or three years ago. Today, it’s here and consumers are using it. Computers with names like Siri, Alexa, Bixby and Cortana are penetrating the market at breakneck speed. Alexa-enabled devices were the biggest sellers on Amazon’s Prime Day and Bixby is standard on Samsung’s new operating system.

Expect the boost in online voice searches to be at least as swift as the move from desktop computers to mobile devices. ComScore is forecasting that voice search will account for half of all internet searches by 2020 and Tractica estimates that 1.8 billion people will use digital assistants by 2021. The convenience of voice search makes it instantly attractive to consumers, but it also introduces new complexities that retailers who want to survive the age of voice must fully understand.

Consumers speak differently than they type

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Consumers tend to understand the keyword model that search engines use and search the internet using the fewest keywords that they think will yield relevant results. Someone using a desktop computer that is really looking for a highly rated underwater camera under $300 would probably simply search for “underwater camera” and then further filter results on returned websites to looks for reviews and price points. However, consumers using voice search tend to speak in complete sentences and talk to the search engine the same way they would speak to a person.

In the world of voice search, there are no silver or bronze medals.

This is a key difference when it comes to search marketing, or SEM, strategy. Retailers today compete heavily to rank highly for the best keywords and drive up the prices for purchasing them all, while simultaneously worrying about ranking well for seemingly endless variations on those words. With voice search, it is more important to own results for the specific phrasing and long-tail sentences that consumers use to search for products. These searches must lead to unique landing pages that give highly relevant results. If a voice search for the underwater camera returns models that cost $500 or have terrible reviews, the consumer is likely lost forever.

Consumers also sort through voice search results differently than traditional search. They generally turn to voice search when they can’t give undivided attention to a device or are using one without a screen, like Amazon’s Echo. These busy consumers will generally only look at the first one or two search results—in the case of screenless devices that also use voice to answer, only the first result is read. In the world of voice search, there are no silver or bronze medals, so predicting and dominating the right voice search terms is extremely important.

Voice search is bringing a bricks-and-mortar resurgence

Many retailers have seen great success with buy online, pick-up in store models, but online searches for local inventory is cumbersome for others. Almost half of all voice searches on mobile devices contain the phrase “near me,” indicating that many consumers are looking for items that they can pick up right now instead of waiting two or three days for a package to arrive at their front doors. Mobile devices know exactly where they are, and retailers interested in tapping into the rise of “near me” searches can boost bricks-and-mortar sales by making it easier for search engines to know what merchandise is available in each geography.

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This represents a seismic shift in how to approach both SEM and inventory management. Successful retailers have learned that updating inventory in real time keeps customers from purchasing an item that is actually out of stock and becoming frustrated. If a busy consumer conducts a voice search asking where to purchase a 128-gigabyte micro-SD card “near me,” it is assumed that the returned retailer has the item in stock. If the item is in fact sold out, the customer is likely to leave frustrated and never return, so be sure to keep inventory available at all times. If an item does sell out, take it off your site entirely or use an appropriate method to hide the page from search engines until inventory is replenished.

Think like your best customers talk

Consumers use voice search at all steps of their shopping journeys and rising to the top of any particular query requires a significant investment. It is therefore useful to understand which searches are likely to generate sales. Answers to questions asked when consumers are conducting research is often best left to other sources. Target key inquisitory phrases that indicate the searcher is ready to buy.

Questions that begin with “where” are typically asked by consumers that want to convert quickly. Retailers that understand which specific words and phrases consumers use in the final stages of their shopping journeys are more likely to capture those sales without dedicating resources to answering questions for consumers who may never convert.

Try conducting some test searches to establish a baseline of what questions are already leading to your website versus a competitor’s. Search query reports are also excellent resources that show how real customers are already using voice search. Retailers that have insight into where they currently stand are positioned best to know whether they need to dive straight into making voice search improvement a top priority or if they can take more time to develop a more deliberate strategy that can be tested in stages and altered over time.

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Wherever you stand today on voice search, it pays to begin proactive measures to stay on top of it rather than playing catch-up later. As search engines change the way they handle voice queries, implementing a winning voice SEM strategy is a fluid and iterative process. Be ready sooner rather than later so you don’t have to catch up to competitors.

BKV is a digital marketing agency and one of five firms that aligned their resources this year in a partnership they call unified.agency.