“Tea, Earl Grey, hot.”
Those words, uttered countless times by Captain Jean-Luc Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” perhaps sum up what the vision of the future was even just 20 years ago. It was a concept of a world in which we could directly speak to our computers and receive immediate feedback – a reaction to meet our needs in real time. As we roll into 2017, we move forward, as well, with the voice-enabled revolution, bringing our homes one step closer to having the conveniences of the 24th century in the world of today.
So What Are Voice-Enabled Services?
iPhone users perhaps know voice-enabled services better than most, with the launch of Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, as part of iOS 5 back in 2011. This “virtual assistant” allowed users of the latest iPhones to speak to their phones to complete a number of basic commands, ranging from composing text messages to asking about the weather – along with a smattering of joke responses. Perhaps you remember saying “Open the pod bay doors” to your iPhone, harkening the assistant’s response to the famous line from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
While cracking smart responses was one of Siri’s strong suits, its arrival to the scene in 2011 perhaps had a far greater impact in bringing the concept of speaking to our devices to life and in the hands of millions of active smartphone users. It wasn’t long before many felt comfortable working with Siri and communicated by talking to their phones instead of through them. Since then, numerous other applications have appeared on the market, most notably Google Voice Search, Microsoft’s Cortana, and in recent months, Amazon’s Alexa.
Let’s Talk Talking Hardware
Of course, voice-enabled services only work if there’s a proverbial ear listening, and that’s where hardware comes in. We’ve already covered the iPhone, and in the years since, Siri has found a home on Apple’s other devices, including the iPad, the Apple Watch, Apple TV in 2015 and – late last year – moving to the company’s computer line as part of macOS Sierra. This has made it ubiquitous for Apple users and means help from the digital assistant is only a “Hey, Siri” away at nearly any time.
Google Voice Search
Google Voice Search made the next play, rolling out and evolving from its earlier incarnations to become a similar personal assistant for Android devices. As with Siri, users ask questions for Google to search and receive answers in real time. Stuck at the airport in Cancun and need to learn how to ask “Where is a taxi?” in Spanish? Pull out your phone and ask Google Voice Search to get the answer you need in seconds.
Microsoft’s voice interactivity truly came into its own with the launch of the latest console, Xbox One. When connected with the Kinect – “Kinected,” perhaps? – owners can ask the entertainment system to control a wide variety of functions, including watching TV – even a specific channel – switching to a specific game or app (like Netflix or Amazon Video) or to record a highlight gameplay clip. This functionality brought voice control out of our phones and into the living room. Voice activation’s place in the home only expanded with Siri’s addition to the Apple TV and our next entries – Google Home and Amazon Echo. Like Siri, Microsoft’s digital assistant has been further upgraded as well, developing into Cortana, a voice-activated personal assistant that has become an option not only on the Xbox, but also on PCs, allowing spoken interaction and engagement on a range of topics.
Google stepped up voice recognition with the introduction of the home-centric hub, Google Home. This networked home device is capable of listening to your questions and providing a range of services without requiring any manual inputs. This includes all the capabilities of Google’s voice search – “OK Google, how many tablespoons are in a cup?” – and receiving spoken answers in return. It’s also capable of integrating other useful features into your life, including your daily calendar and task lists, managing your entertainment – music and video playback, for example – as well as controlling internet-connected devices throughout your home, like thermostats, lighting or smart TVs.
Finally, Amazon has introduced the Echo, a similar home hub device powered by Amazon’s new AI – Alexa. Like Google Home, the Echo is designed to offer a number of resources to owners. Whether you’re looking for information on a particular topic, need to place an order, want to play music or even control other aspects of the home – more on that in a minute – the Echo listens and responds, placing your order with the ecommerce giant for delivery or pumping out the latest hits from your favorite artists. The Echo and Home perhaps mark the latest high water mark and the next step in the greater evolution of search and shopping.
What Does Voice Search Mean for Business?
Cutting through the chatter – quite literally – the burning question now is what does this all mean? And the answer may seem as confusing as this cycling interaction between Siri, Alexa and Google Home.
Voice capabilities further expand upon something that has been trending in SEO for the past few years – a push toward more natural content. From a writer’s perspective, this has meant putting copy online that not only provides good information, but also engages the reader, entices them to read more and provides details – whether fact-heavy topics or casual knowledge subjects – in an easy to understand way.
The same concept now advances on to voice. As people start having conversations with their devices on search topics, we need to begin adapting our search optimization approach in kind. Let’s use a hypothetical case to illustrate.
Searching for Answers for My Clogged Sink
At my home, my sink has clogged, and now I’m in need of a plumber. While screaming expletives at the backed up pipe – which hasn’t solved the problem – I remember my Google Home is on the kitchen counter and say “OK Google, what plumbers are nearby?” My Google Home hears my request and searches online for plumbers near my home and gives me a list of options, providing phone numbers for me to call, as well, to request some help.
This example illustrates several key aspects of the changing nature of modern search. Before having a Google Home, I would probably have gone to my computer or pulled out my smartphone and typed in a relevant search phrase (probably something like “Plumbers near Buffalo NY”). Instead, I’m asking my home device for plumbers nearby, which relies on a second key aspect of search – location.
Making sure your business’ location is accurate, properly classified (in this case, as a plumber) and searchable in Google and other search engines is incredibly important for anyone looking to be found in this context. If I live a block from the fictional plumber Buffalo Backups, but they haven’t listed on Google My Business as a plumber, I’ll likely get the number for Nickel City Pipes and Clogs two blocks away instead, since they have updated their location information and classification for Google Home to identify them when I asked for plumbers.
Finally, that brings us to the context of my search – most notably, I’m not using a robotic approach to search any longer. Before my Google Home I would have searched for what I needed with a few keywords – “plumber,” “Buffalo” and “near.” Now, though, I’m having more of a conversation with search, using natural language to find what I need instead of using the search patterns I’ve been using for years.
This also means content and SEO needs to respond in kind. Now, it might be better to write a blog that seeks to answer those questions more clearly. While I review my options for a plumber to come give me a hand, finding a blog titled “How Did My Sink Get Clogged?” from a local plumber might be exactly what I’m looking for – and can perhaps help me prevent this from happening again.
Listening to what new technologies are bringing to the table is the key to succeeding in the evolving marketplace and the adapting world of search. By understanding how people are finding you – and how best to make sure you’re found – you can make your business’ voice heard and customers will listen.