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PHOTO: israel palacio

Ten years ago, the concept of searching for information and making purchases by talking to a device was a futuristic notion. Fast-forward to 2018, and phrases like “Alexa, when does the Giants game start?” or “Siri, order an Uber to MetLife Stadium,” are an ordinary part of our lives.

One out of every five searches performed on a mobile device is made by voice. Meanwhile, voice-enabled smart home devices continue to gain popularity. In fact, the number of Amazon Echo devices installed in the U.S. grew from 20 million to 30 million in the fourth quarter of 2017. Those trends are not expected to slow down. According to a 2016 Gartner report (fee charged), “‘Conversational AI-first’ will supersede ‘cloud-first, mobile-first’ as the most important, high-level imperative for the next 10 years.”

A company’s website used to be the first place customers looked for information. Now consumer traffic is moving elsewhere as intelligent third-party sources like voice assistants dominate the landscape. According to a survey conducted by my company, Yext, 73 percent of high-intent traffic for businesses is going to services like search engines, voice assistants, maps, apps and chatbots, rather than a business’s website.

Businesses Are Behind on Voice Search

Consumers have clearly embraced voice search. Businesses, on the other hand, are still learning how to get discovered via voice search, and how to leverage this new channel to their advantage. Before the explosion of voice, when users typed a query like “best Thai restaurant near me” into a search engine, they received multiple results. Voice-enabled assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon Alexa often only share the single “best” answer to such queries. If businesses want to stand a chance of being chosen as the “best” result presented to consumers, they must understand how to provide the deep digital knowledge that voice assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant need.

A business today needs to be able to provide answers to detailed questions like “What time do you close?” or “Do you take reservations?” on command. Delivering those answers — and prevailing as the single answer in a voice search — requires companies to understand not only what questions their customers will ask, but also how to organize and serve their digital knowledge to the AI systems that underlie voice assistants.

Related Article: Mastering SEO for Voice Search: 4 Tips for Marketers

Context Is Key for Relevant Results

As voice search becomes more advanced, it is also becoming more conversational — voice technology has achieved 95 percent accuracy for English-language speech recognition. Now that consumers can ask search engines questions almost as naturally as they would pose questions to other people, businesses need to ask themselves a question: “What else can we tell prospective customers to help them make buying decisions?” The list of answers can go on and on. For example, people researching a restaurant will want to know everything from the average wait time to the gluten-free options on the menu. By effectively serving up that kind of information to voice assistants, businesses can increase their exposure to potential customers and drive revenue.

A critical part of preparing a business for voice search is identifying and documenting its customer touchpoints. Consumers are seeking out more targeted answers than ever before. Search queries that include “near me” increased 900 percent in the last two years. This demonstrates that users expect personalized search results based on their location and use history. The more a business can enhance its relevance through specific attributes — hours of operation, menu offerings, amenities and so on — the more likely it is to appear in personalized voice search results.

The evolution of the customer journey won’t end with voice search. Amazon, Google and Microsoft are already pioneering visual search, which allows users to take or tap a picture and search for the items or places in the image. While visual search isn’t mainstream just yet, it’s poised to be, especially as augmented reality solutions like Google Lens grow in accuracy and accessibility. It’s projected that 50 percent of all searches will be completed via either speech or image search by 2020. By preparing for voice search with a digital knowledge management strategy, brands can get ahead of these evolutions and establish themselves as the online authority on their products and services.

As customers increasingly rely on intelligent services to find businesses, businesses will need to feed these services the right answers about them in order to win customers. The pace of change in search discovery is accelerating, and taking advantage of these shifts in discovery presents significant opportunities for growth.

Related Article: How Voice Search Speaks to Your Customer's Needs