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This article was first published in the May 2019 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Investment in digital marketing is an increasingly important means of attracting potential customers online. By 2020, it is predicted that companies will spend 75% of their total marketing budget on digital opportunities.

One development that is beginning to revolutionise search marketing is voice search. Google recently announced that 20% of searches on its mobile app and Android services are now carried out by voice, with an estimated 50 billion searches per month now activated in this way.

No matter what the platform or device, any technology that changes the way in which consumers behave and search needs to be taken seriously. Businesses that ignore this risk falling behind competitors who are investing in this area and are already seeing the benefits.

Digital assistants

Digital assistants like Amazon Echo’s Alexa, Google Home’s Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri offer voice control with smart speakers and artificial intelligence (AI) built in. All but the early iPhones can run iOS at a version that uses Siri, as can Apple Mac computers with operating system versions from the last few years. Microsoft Cortana is native on the latest Windows OS. As for Google, its voice assistant works on Google Home, as an app on Android and iOS, and on its Chrome browser. This means that most internet connected devices have voice search capability now.

The searches are on both Voice First devices (those that do not have a screen, like Amazon Echo and Google Home), mobile phones and increasingly desktop devices that have voice search capabilities.

The power of AI

As a consumer uses voice features on their device more, studies have shown that they start talking to the device like another person. This conversational language was, at first, something that held the effectiveness of voice search back. This is because initially the context of the searches was not being connected. For example, think of the following:

  1. You: Hey, Siri, where is the closest place to get a coffee?
  2. Siri: The nearest coffee shop to you is Starbucks on Main Street.
  3. You: How much does a flat white cost?
  4. Siri: A flat white costs $3.50 at Starbucks.
  5. You: Give me directions to walk there.
  6. Siri: Ok, here are the directions to Starbucks on Main St.

From interaction 3, Siri needs to remember that you are talking about Starbucks on Main St, even though you don’t explicitly say it. Now, a human finds this conversational connection very easy, but it has needed the rise of AI to make this work for computers. Few consumers realise the computing power that goes on behind the scenes to make their interactions with voice devices so simple. Few also understand that it is not their phones or computers that are giving them the answers: they are effectively just the microphone and speaker in this interaction.

Changing behaviour

The immediacy of voice search is influencing how consumers behave. When using a screen or keyboard to search, a person thinks, types and scrolls, selecting the most appropriate answer from a page of results. Voice search can be done carrying out other tasks and requires the person to speak, ask and listen to the top result that the search engine selects. As we speak faster than we can type, voice search is more likely to be natural and conversational than a more considered, thought-through keyboard search.


For business owners and marketing managers, the huge rise in voice search will impact consumer businesses more than B2B ones. However, both should be implementing plans to benefit from this technology. The main areas of impact are:

  • There is no screen for results. Only the first result is read out by devices, so being number two has little benefit: you are just the first loser. The fight to be the number-one search result is going to become increasingly intense for marketeers.
  • There will be longer and question-based search queries. Voice searches tend to be longer and more sentence-based than typed ones, so you need to optimise your content for themes rather than rigid sets of keywords.
  • AI retains the context of what has been said before, which means that the results provided are dependent on this and increasingly granular personalisation. Businesses benefit from engaging with a consumer early in their journey as the search engines will remember if the consumer likes a particular brand/location/store and then prioritise this in future.
  • Searches like ‘find a coffee shop near me’ take into account the user’s geolocation data to provide results. Local businesses that are early adopters of voice-search marketing will benefit as they race to be number-one listing.
  • Voice search is facilitating greater disintermediation. If you ask Amazon’s Alexa to order you a large pepperoni pizza, one will arrive from Domino’s: you do not get the choice. Being the chosen supplier or being number one in results gives massive market power when voice search is going direct to transaction.
  • Brands with greater awareness will benefit as consumers request a specific brand. If Amazon is asked or jeans, will it select the product for which it has the best margin? If you ask Amazon for Levi’s it will only select products made by that brand. If you have brand strength, then you have more power to control the conversation on voice devices.

The virtual future

Virtual assistants source their information from the internet and will only relay the information that they find. You can help your business be at the forefront of the search revolution by reviewing your digital marketing strategy to include theme-based optimisation and more structured mark up so that search engines understand the context of your website content, and understand how content can give you greater impact.

This is a new, multi-faceted area and you need experts to help you. Few agencies are actually working hard in the area of voice search as it doesn’t help them sell ‘creative’ services, so make sure you select your digital marketing agency carefully and don’t get left behind.

Tim Butler is founder of Innovation Visual, a digital marketing consultancy specialising in digital effectiveness.