“Open the pod bay doors, HAL?”  Talk about a voice command that caused all sorts of commotion.

In 1968, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey presented a vision of the future in which advanced technology unflinchingly, unblinkingly viewed us mere mortals as a problem. And for many decades, shouting commands to an ephemeral computer remained the stuff of science fiction.

Today, however, you probably find yourself comfortably addressing Alexa, Cortana, Google, and Siri in similar terms.   For businesses, intelligent services that leverage voice present a complex set of challenges — and voice search presents one of the greatest challenges yet.

This article discusses four key areas for brands to explore that will help them navigate the impact of voice search.

1. Behaviour – What is voice search and why does it matter?

Put into the simplest terms, voice search is the ability to talk to a device and get answers back.  Gartner estimates that by 2018, 30% of all searches will be completed via voice search, while Andrew Ng, formerly of Baidu, pegs the number at 50% by 2020.

Generally, humans can speak four times faster than we can type. On one level, voice search feeds our need to move fast. On another level, it’s about ease. Voice search is very natural. It’s just so much easier to ask for something out loud than it is to type. But questions are asked in a very different manner to how they are typed, and this will disrupt SEO as we know it.  

Voice search is in the palm of your hand. It’s in your car, either through an embedded system, or through systems like Apple Carplay and Android Auto. It’s sitting on your shelf, in the form of an Amazon Echo, a Google Home, or an Apple HomePod.

2. Expectations – How does voice search impact your business?

Voice search radically changes the way results are provided to consumers. The consumer asks a question and hears an answer, which means there is essentially just one spoken result. Unlike traditional web-based search, where many results are displayed as a list — encouraging exploration, engagement, and choice — voice search is all about the one best answer. This means the pressure has never been greater to get your house in order, to optimise correctly and to employ every option you can to secure an engine’s trust. Ideally, if you’ve done everything you can and gained the trust, you’ll be the one answer trusted enough to be spoken out loud.

But don’t think that once you reach this goal, it’s cemented forever. Just like in regular search, the engines are always testing — always seeking to refine and present even better “best” answers to their searchers.

While this high level is important and should be pursued, there is another layer here. For each system providing voice results, an app backs them up. In that app, more results are shown. And even in a consumer’s living room, they are free to ask their voice assistant to tell them the next result, so while the goal is to be number one, not being number one isn’t an immediate death sentence. These apps become a kind of filing cabinet for your journeys. Everything you ask, seek, explore or question is collected with answers immediately on hand.

3. Context – Do you understand your customer’s journey?

Businesses must understand the customer’s journey to thrive in today’s environment. This well-covered concept remains a true test of a company’s ability to position itself. The goal is pretty simple — position yourself at locations along the customer’s journey where you provide useful information, products, or services. Search engines invest in this area themselves — and watch to see if others align.

How well you align impacts how the search engines rank you. If you prove to be more useful to an engine’s customers, then you rank well, and more frequently. If you provide a less than ideal solution to portions of the customer journey, the engine holds you back and tests others in higher positions. Therefore, it’s vital you understand where you fit in the context of what a searcher is trying to accomplish.

Voice search, within the larger picture, understands a lot of context these days, the systems powering voice search are getting smarter.   A wide variety of data points exist to feed these knowledge-based systems — your physical location, the time of day, your past questions, and what you’re doing on your mobile device at the moment (searching the web, looking for images, using maps, in your calendar, if you’re in a particular app, and so on).

As a business, your ability to understand these moments of context that exist for an individual, and to meaningfully map yourself to them, will determine your level of success with voice search. For almost a decade, search has been a race between businesses to try to claim top rankings on select keywords, but these trends are changing.

Now it’s all about context. The systems, networks, connectivity, and devices give us a deep, rich understanding of much context today. The last mile is understanding how you fit into the mix. What do you bring to the table and how do you benefit the consumer. If the last decade was a race for keyword relevancy, the next decade is going to be a race of contextual relevancy. And the adoption of voice control is changing the landscape quickly.

From basic keyword research to true digital agents, consumer behaviour is changing — and to gain supremacy means being contextually valuable. The upside is that with this shift, the concept of context opens up so many new ways for a business to bring relevancy… way more than being simply keyword-relevant ever could. Essentially, it opens the playing field much wider, enabling big brands to expand into new niches, and for startups to claim a new space and cement a hold on their future. Small business, big business — the playing field is much more level now.

4. Investment – What can you do to keep your business competitive?

Gain control over your digital knowledge

Before you can expect digital assistants to know the facts about your business, you need to make sure you know them yourself. The foundation of any voice search strategy is organising and centralising all the public facts about your people, products, and locations in your own knowledge graph. It’s important to have a central source of truth so you can easily make updates and maintain consistency. 

Actively manage your knowledge

Your business is dynamic, and so are the facts about it. Store relocations, seasonal changes, special promotions, weather closures — it’s all in flux. That means managing your brand’s knowledge isn’t a ‘one-and-done’ project. And both your customers and intelligent services — like voice search or intelligent assistants — expect increasingly rich knowledge about your business (i.e. whether you are LGBTQ-Friendly, or if you offer WiFi).

Publish your knowledge

As soon as you organise your knowledge, publish it to all the places intelligent systems look to supply answers to voice searches — that means intelligent services themselves, wherever possible, plus your website, apps, and any internal systems. Anytime a piece of knowledge changes, publish again. This is an active process.

Refocus your website and digital assets on the conversational long tail

Search engines don’t work miracles. If you hide your content, or make it difficult to discover, it won’t show up when people search for it. Your website, videos, and other content are key to contextualising the public facts about your business for intelligent services… but only if those intelligent services can find and understand them. And make sure your site is mobile-friendly.

Embrace Schema markup

Your website and digital assets should leverage Schema.org markup to ensure proper association of your content with categories that the engines understand and elevate in answers and results sought by searchers.

And once you’ve mastered this, get ready for visual search – the next frontier.