In January 2018 there were an estimated 1 billion voice searches. Furthermore, unlike other digital developments such as Google and Snapchat glasses, voice search won’t be a flash in the pan trend. Two-thirds (65%) of Amazon Echo or Google Home owners say they can’t imagine going back to the days before they had a smart speaker.

Today, voice search is an organic search environment, however, it is inevitable that voice search will become a paid-for advertising channel, based on a cost-per-click (CPC) model and it will significantly impact the search advertising industry.

Double trouble

Search marketing boils down to two things: input (the search query) and output (the search results). Voice search changes the input from written to spoken, which changes how companies collect, process, and respond to data. It also changes the output options.

Visual results

One mistake marketers often make is to think of voice search as ‘voice in – voice out’. While this is an obvious route, it’s not the only option.

More detailed information is better presented visually and finding the right information often requires multiple searches. When search platforms receive a voice search query there is an opportunity to refine the data processing methodology in a way that is more natural and allows the platform to collate multiple data points in order to answer your query.

Let’s say I have a smart speaker at home and I want to find a holiday. I can say to the speaker “find holidays in Greece next month”. The speaker can ask me more detailed questions about my requirements in order to gather more data and present me with better results. For example “how long do you want to go for”? “Do you want an all inclusive holiday?” “Do you have a budget in mind?” All of these questions are things that I would have naturally thought of myself if I was searching physically, but the beauty of voice search is that you can get to the granular details very quickly with the aid of built-in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The holiday options can then be presented to me (and others) as text and links in an email. Voice input – visual output.

For advertisers, this presents an opportunity to refine bids as the query is refined, making their overall marketing more efficient. For example, the first query for ‘holidays in Greece’ is a generic term that will attract many brands, refining the query to ‘all inclusive holidays’ allows brands that do not offer all inclusive holidays to drop out of the competition, thus saving cost.

Audio results

Over the last decade, the number of paid-for ads appearing on search results pages has grown to the point that it’s not uncommon for above the fold real estate, on mobile and desktop devices, to be entirely advertising. This model will not work for voice search because the human brain can’t retain the information from multiple ads when that information is presented in audio format. The main role of voice search is to return the single most relevant answer, meaning that competition for airtime will be fierce, and expensive to win.

For brands with deep pockets (think Procter & Gamble, Moneysupermarket, etc.) this won’t be a problem. Smaller brands will struggle to enter the market and will struggle to justify the investment.

A big opportunity for smaller companies will be local queries in the retail and hospitality sectors because proximity matters. However, large companies will be a threat here too because an independent restaurant will have to compete with household names.

Another consideration is trust. Today, voice search users are not presented with adverts, only organic results and platforms will need to carefully manage the introduction of ads so as not to dilute consumers’ trust in the authenticity of the information presented to them.

Search publishers will have to think carefully about how they monetise voice search because as the number of typed queries declines, so could their revenues. Making up that lost revenue will be a challenge because there are fewer ads in voice search. Although the CPCs may well be higher than traditional CPCs, if the return on investment (ROI) isn’t there for brands, investment will wane and efforts will be focussed on organic voice search optimisation.

Search marketers will have to re-engineer the way they think about paid search as the world moves into a voice-dominated era. The priorities should be: think carefully about the queries in which you invest budget in; carefully monitor ROI trends, and make sure that your voice search strategy is integrated with other channels so as to offer a consistent user experience and maintain trust and engagement across all channels.

Voice search presents a plethora of opportunities for marketers and success will come to those who take a multi-device, multi-input/output approach. Brands and search platforms are going to have access to much more data than they do today and it is vital to adjust the way this data is analysed and turned into actions.