How might voice search impact local businesses? Columnist Megan Hannay shares her predictions and provides some advice on how SMBs can prepare for a future without rankings.
Just last October at the Street Fight Summit, many marketers ranked voice search as the most “over-hyped” marketing tactic of the year. I think this is because many of them aren’t seeing the full scope of the technology. We’re putting on our consumer brains and thinking about the current awkwardness of speaking to Siri in public, not of a future inside self-driving cars or those moments when we just don’t want to get up from the couch.
Currently, most voice searches happen on mobile phones. But within the next few years, it seems likely that devices with this capacity will increase in prevalence — and technological capability — in private spaces, where voicing out-loud intent won’t feel so silly.
What might voice search mean for local?
Most who do believe in a voice-dominated future are in a love/hate relationship with the idea. Some predict we’ll lose all local organic space to ads. Others foresee a future in which anything less than the No. 1 rank is worthless. I see both conclusions as an incomplete picture.
A recent Moz study demonstrated that only 3.4 percent of Google local searches result in ad clicks. While it’s possible to anticipate a future in which voice search results are entirely paid ads, the fact that consumers seem to largely prefer organic suggests that Google would have a hard time retaining customers with such a model.
Imagine if Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” search were a paid ad spot — who would click that button? Replacing the organic “best” option with the highest bidder changes our perception of the result. For businesses, this is further encouragement to tap into the power of organic local reach via accurate data and local knowledge sharing.
Additionally, I think it’s a fallacy to assume that instant answers will beget a world where only the lucky top-ranked result wins. Rather, as I’ll show in this post, voice will make filtering for exactly what a consumer wants a much simpler process. So instead of a single No. 1 rank for a given local keyword (e.g., “divorce lawyer Los Angeles”), there will be dozens of No. 1 pages based on the other parameters a searcher indicates in her query (“a female divorce lawyer within a 20-minute drive from my office in Los Angeles who has experience in custody cases and pre-nups, with at least a 4.5-star rating and who can meet during my lunch break this week”).
So a “post-rank” world doesn’t mean “a world where there’s only top-dog answer” — it means “a world where there are many equally top-dog answers.”
Below, I’ll go over some ways local and brick-and-mortar businesses should prepare for a voice-dominated future. In the next couple of posts, I’ll explain how this trend will affect national and online-based service providers. Many of the factors that will affect local reach are arguably more organic than SEO tactics. And most will still require the expertise of digital marketers.
One note: These are predictions. The closest I’ve come to a crystal ball is a fortune teller in New Orleans who intuited that “sometimes I worry about things.” But many of these predictions have foundations from people in the search and marketing community with far more experience than I do, such as Cindy Krum, Mike Blumenthal and David Mihm.
Local results in a voice search future
In a “post-rank” world, much of the digital effort will be focused on ensuring that a business’s digital presence is an accurate reflection of the real world via detailed service descriptions, numerous reviews and prolific interactions.
At least three factors will increasingly affect local results in a voice-first world:
1. Local reach will be affected by searcher proximity to local businesses
Essentially, mobile searches that vary by even a mile or so can produce drastically different local rank results. See Darren Shaw’s research for more on this. Desktop-based searches can be less specific, since they depend on IP.
For the most part, this factor cannot be influenced unless you move offices. If your location is farther out of town (and farther from the local population than your competitors), your business may not surface as often in voice results for searchers in the center of town.
2. Local reach will be affected by how ‘good’ the business is
David Mihm pointed out in a recent post that as Google’s capacity to measure real-world engagement with businesses increases, positive engagement signals will mostly likely improve local rank. Many of these signals will be directly affected by the quality of the business’s services, such as:
- How many locals frequent the business?
- How many people return after a first visit?
- How many positive sentiment social media mentions does the business have? (Remember, Google has access to the Twitter fire hose now.)
Hopefully, most local business or franchise owners already care about the quality of their products and services. But soon, this quality — or lack thereof — may directly affect their digital presence. If search engines can only offer one answer, they want to send customers to an experience they’ll be satisfied with.
3. Local reach will be affected by how well the local business’s digital presence serves searchers’ needs
So I need to find a local, well-reviewed appliance repair specialist to come to my home between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. tonight. They also need to have experience with Samsung refrigerators.
The screen shot below shows my current (March 2017) mobile result for “fridge repair.” Google already has much of the information needed for my specific request, save the Samsung specification.
Looks like today I’m going with Sears Appliance, as they’re the only top-ranked business open at a time that works for this particular request. But I’ve actually had a repair person come to my home who didn’t specialize in my appliance model, wasting my time and his, so I’ll need to call first to ensure that Sears can repair my specific fridge.
I anticipate that in a couple of years, Google Assistant will be able to perform this task for me, based on a query like, “Ok Google, I need a fridge repair specialist, rated four stars or higher, for tonight at 7 p.m., and make sure they can work with Samsung products.” And that’s it — Google will take care of the rest; after telling me the name of the business and confirming that I’m OK with a 4.2-star-rated service, the entire process will still take less than a minute.
I anticipate that apps integrating service businesses’s team schedules with Google searches will soon become a staple of local search, completing the last piece of this cycle.
The pieces for this transaction are almost together on the infrastructure side for Google, but further research on my end shows a plethora of local businesses on Yelp and Facebook that haven’t yet taken the time to build out a clear Google My Business listing or their own website. This includes one local business with excellent reviews that’s been in the area for 20 years and provides services 24/7.
Yes, finally. Here’s the voice-search factor marketers can invest in.
Optimizing for voice search via detailed content
Local businesses need to prepare for voice search by ensuring “long-tail” details are clearly displayed on the web.
Remember my Samsung model problem? We’ll soon live in a world in which a consumer won’t want to spend 10 minutes calling around with a question like that; she’ll expect to find it, well, instantly.
Maybe some weekend, I’ll want to find a local restaurant within walking distance of my home that’s good for a date night, features vegan options and live music and has a booth available at 7:30 p.m. that night. The more details search engines can parse through, the more long-tail local searches a given business will be able to service.
Even if Google doesn’t yet have markup options for such specific details, local websites featuring structured data will have an advantage in a voice-search world. More details — even those that don’t yet have markup options — can only enhance a website. Mobile search expert Cindy Krum recently explained why it makes sense to anticipate more integration between search engines and local listings:
Google will push more and more assets into their cloud, because it allows them decrease their reliance on crawling, and increase their understanding [of] how users engage with the content over time.
I don’t see many small business owners with the technical know-how to apply structured data to their websites, so it’s almost certain that these responsibilities will fall to local marketing agencies. Then again, building a good-looking website is much easier than it was 10 or 15 years ago, thanks to providers like Squarespace and Wix. I don’t see why Google (and/or some savvy startups) wouldn’t work to simplify the data-add process for local business owners in the coming years.
Optimizing for voice search via reviews
Local businesses need to prepare for voice search by curating customer reviews.
I’m excited to see how the future of voice affects reviews, and I anticipate it’ll change the experience for both reviewers and review readers. Google already initiates questions on more objective business characteristics. We already have pop-ups after leaving local businesses, inviting us to quickly rate our experience. It’s an easy jump to anticipate voice searches in which customers request a local experience with “good reviews” or “four star or higher reviews.” The extra selective may request “four point five star or higher” experiences. If we’re going to make a quick choice, we want to know that it’s a good choice. I’d be much more willing to make an appointment with a 4.3-star hair stylist whose website I haven’t seen than a 2.7-star hair stylist.
At the end of the day, reviews are a reflection of the entire business. No amount of marketing can fix a poor customer experience, but marketers can ensure that customers who do report positive experiences are encouraged to leave reviews on public directories or search engines.
Optimizing for voice search via local branding
Local businesses need to prepare for voice search by establishing a local brand.
This is the qualitative branch of local reach. As search engines’ abilities to understand real-world interactions improve, more attribution will be built between local brand and local prevalence. Businesses are already building this capability between digital ads and foot traffic. It’s not a long shot from here to measuring the number of event attendees at a business’s event booth, or the match between your business and its logo on a local Little League team t-shirt.
Search will increasingly become a digital map of real-world relationships, whether it’s conveying the quality of a product, the details of a service or a brand’s prevalence in the community.
I performed zero voice searches during my research for this article, as there’s not yet an instant answer for “how will voice search affect digital marketing?” Clearly, we’re still in the toddler years of this technology.
But my research methods also highlight a stark difference between search types: quick answers and deep research. Both take space in local marketplaces, but each will respond to different types of queries. And, in my view, each will be serviced by a different business type. So in the next post, I’ll dive deeper into how content and community development may affect local reach, even in a post-rank world.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.