A CEO friend invited me over for dinner recently. While splashing a final drizzle of hot oil over his famous green curry, he asked Alexa for an update on March Madness. His college had won, so he broke out a fancy bottle of wine. (Apparently, my presence alone didn't warrant the good stuff.)
While we ate, I asked him if he remembered who'd told him the score. "Alexa," he said.
"No," I pressed. "Where did the news actually come from?"
It took a minute. Then he understood: Not only had he missed the source of the news, but he'd also missed a sweeping change already underway in how people get information.
If talking is the new typing, then the new SEO (search-engine optimization) is VSO (voice-search optimization). By 2020, more than half of all internet searches will be made without the use of screens. That means, rather than typing a topic and clicking through links, many consumers will instead get answers while conversing with smart speaker devices, their cars, TV remotes, and more.
At the moment, voice-interface platforms--Alexa, Siri, Google Home, Cortana, Bixby, and Watson--control the conversational ecosystem. There is little transparency to show how results are returned to people. Consequently, startups and clever marketers will soon set about learning how to game VSO systems in their favor.
Maybe even sooner than you would think. It's estimated that by the end of this year, almost half of U.S. households will own a smart speaker. Among those that already do, three-quarters of them use it daily--and a quarter have made purchases via these devices.
Amazon is betting big on this voice-driven future. In recent months, it has partnered with or invested in several homebuilders--including Lennar, the nation's largest--that will construct Amazon-connected homes driven by voice-activated digital assistants. Meaning: security, lights, garages--all driven by voice, and all driven by Amazon. And Amazon and Marriott launched Alexa for Hospitality, which lets guests ask general questions to a virtual concierge, or request fresh towels.
Not surprisingly, by the end of the next decade, the vast majority of shopping purchases will be made by voice. Already, 37 percent of Millennials say they always or usually shop by voice. Retailers are scrambling to add artificial intelligence to ensure their sites can be crawled via voice and virtual assistants. The startup BlueRoo makes a chat plug-in that lets customers shop by voice on a retailer's website, Facebook Messenger, and social media, or inside a brick-and-mortar store.
It's not only retailers that must rethink how consumers will find them and how they'll communicate with people. Every business needs to. Currently, spoken and typed queries can bring up different results. This means companies must start using structured data with a defined length and format (think numbers and names) to accommodate VSO and "featured snippets," which are heavily used for voice search. This is one reason Google released a tool called Speakable, which allows publishers to mark up sections of news articles and optimize them to be read aloud.
Audioburst uses artificial intelligence to index audio broadcasts, which makes them easier to find and surface what a consumer might want. For example, if she wants details on local sports or elections, or product recommendations, she can ask a voice-activated app on Google Home or Alexa to deliver a set of clips. In 2019, Audioburst and LG Electronics will collaborate to build conversational dashboards for cars.
Which brings us back to my friend. Like you, he has an opportunity to get ahead of what's next. Those who move to optimize voice search for their businesses will be the first to claim that conversation with consumers, which is a huge opportunity to build relationships with current and potential customers. Intimate, one-on-one voice time with people in their homes? That deserves a glass of the good stuff.