With over 5 million Echo units reportedly being sold so far and Google announcing their competitor, Google Home, the world of the smart home assistant is becoming a reality.

So far Amazon’s focus has been on promoting the Echo’s use as a personal assistant – a device that can tell you the weather for the day, give you a news update, outline what appointments you have that day or even arrange for your laundry to be collected but what does this mean for your business and your marketing?

Voice search has been available for quite some time, with Google launching voice search in 2002 and steadily introducing it into their different platforms over time. Apple’s introduction of Siri changed things again by integrating voice search directly into the operating system and a number of others have followed suite (Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now). It is becoming clear that virtual assistants are altering how we interact with our devices and, more importantly, the internet – it’s no longer just keyboards, mice and touch that must be considered when presenting your information on the web.

People are used to text search – voice search needs interpretation

The difficulty presented by voice search is the level of interpretation that must be made from a vocal request to get the information the user wants. Most users are now used to typing their search requests in a specific way to achieve the best results. For example a written search for an emergency plumber nearby might be written out as ‘plumber ST5’ or ‘Stoke plumber’. Both of these requests present exactly the results I would expect – 3 or 4 adverts for plumbers in the Stoke area, a Google Places map with several markers and contact details for 3 plumbers followed by the search results (largely listings pages like Yell and Thomson Local).

Users are used to writing their requests in this way to get the right results with as little input as possible. With voice search it would feel very unnatural to say ‘Alexa, Stoke plumber’. First up there’s the fact that as a British person we couldn’t possibly be this curt, secondly there’s potential confusion around the usage of Stoke (are you asking Alexa to give your plumber a fired-up pep talk?). Finally there’s the fact this is a statement, not a request – would your virtual assistant know how to respond without knowing that this is a search request. There’s potential that the system would presume you were talking about plumbing and try to interact with your smart thermostat or radiator valves.

So instantly this has an impact on SEO. If you’ve optimised for Stoke plumber will you also appear for a more detailed voice search like ‘Alexa, find me the nearest plumber’. Equally will Alexa carry out the search as requested and simply find the plumber that is nearest its physical location or will it also filter this information using ratings, contact details etc.

Content is king – but will the bots take over?

There is an important aside here that is relevant to the web industry – this is another way for content to be accessed and it’s something you need to be aware of. Badly formatted content on your website will make it harder for devices like the Echo or Home to understand and interpret that information. So when someone asks ‘find me a local plumber’ if your details aren’t easily read by a machine you’re going to find that you don’t show up in the answers these devices offer. Ultimately if you’re not showing up for searches like these on standard search engines there’s no way you’re going to show up on voice searches.

The other element that needs to be considered is that this is information without a display. So far everything digital has relied in some way on a display, whether it’s simple text, images or video the visual element is crucial to data and information dissemination across the internet. Even virtual assistants on smartphones like Siri and Cortana presented information on the screen. These new devices don’t have displays, sometimes they can send data to your phone or tablet and I don’t believe it will be too long before a screen is integrated into one of these devices but this highlights, yet again, that content is king. Easy to understand content will always beat out thin and confusing content for the virtual assistant – even if there is a display to view it on.

This ties in at a certain level with the increase in Artificial Intelligence that is happening across the web – a prime example is Persado, an AI platform that produces copy for marketing campaigns. The system uses a database of 1 million words that have been tagged so that they are understandable by a machine – they relate words to emotional stats, trigger words etc. The AI is then able to produce millions of permutations of a marketing message in seconds, and identify the ones that are likely to perform best. In trials Persado have seen an uplift of nearly 50% in conversion rates compared with human written copy. It stands to reason that if an AI is writing better content for humans than we can write ourselves it can write better content for machines to understand too. I can foresee circumstances in the near future where AI copywriters and human copywriters work side by side to produce optimised content for all platforms.

Do you need to integrate?

The next thing to consider is integration – ways to connect services and software to the new technology. I’ve mentioned an example already above – asking the Amazon Echo to collect your laundry requires an integration (called a ‘skill’ in the Amazon ecosphere) with a service called Laundrapp. By creating this integration Laundrapp have stolen a march on their competitors by making their service more accessible. Equally Uber have created a skill for the Echo, and again are making their service more accessible than local taxi firms, consider the following conversations with the virtual assistant:


User: Alexa get me an Uber to Manchester Airport

Alexa: An UberX can be with you in 4 minutes and will cost £18

User: Confirm booking

Standard voice search

User: Alexa find me a local cab company

Alexa: I found several taxi firms in the local area, the number for Street Cars Manchester is 0161 228 7878

Whilst there is one less interaction with the Echo in the second example the user then needs to open their phone and either type the number in or open the Alexa app on their phone and select the number. They then need to speak to the person on the switchboard (the horror!) to finish the booking.

You can see how a user would prefer the first option. In the same way that they would prefer to use Laundrapp than call their local dry cleaners. Some will decry this as laziness but in a world where everything is connected and we’re suffering from information overload a system that reduces “life admin” is going to be welcome.

It’s time to act!

This is happening now – with the Echo and Home recognised as ‘early adopters’ devices, eventually they’re going to be as ubiquitous as computers and mobile phones. They’ll get better technology, their software will become more sophisticated and the integrations will be much improved.

Starting to consider your message for these devices now will ensure you don’t have a major headache further down the line.

Written by Ean Faragher, Operations Director at ExtraMile Communications.