Is Your Destination Ready for Voice Search?

As smart speakers like Echo, Google Home and Apple's HomePod become ubiquitous - what do you need to know about voice search?

I am still processing all of the amazing content shared at Tourism Academy 2018 in Louisville, KY. If you couldn't join us, read up on conference highlights and the biggest takeaways here. Alex Heimann's discussion of voice search was one of the more thought-provoking Tourism Academy sessions, and since the conference, we have received a ton of smart questions and positive feedback about this topic.

In his session, Alex shared eye-opening stats about recent growth in voice search, urging everyone there to start thinking about voice now. For example, today about 20 percent of all queries are voice searches, and that number is projected to climb as high as 50 percent by the year 2020. Currently,only 7 percent of U.S. households have a smart speaker, but in a few short years (by 2020) smart speaker market penetration will climb to a staggering 75 percent of U.S. households.

Voice will impact every area of our digital lives, including travel planning and booking.

As smart speakers become ubiquitous, I can see voice search impacting every area of our digital lives, including travel planning and booking. To help Tempest clients to stay top-of-mind with travelers, our SEO and Content teams remain focused on voice search applications and optimization. 

Here's a little bit of background about voice search and what destination marketers can do to embrace this new technology to reach their audiences.

How does voice search impact the travel industry?

Notice we didn't say how "will" voice impact the travel industry. We're talking in the present tense because we already see big shifts happening today. Tech giants like Google and Amazon are in a veritable "arms race" to build the best solutions in natural language processing and artificial intelligence. 

Take a look at this quick demo video from Google I/O 2018 showing how Google Duplex can handle complex phone conversations like a human. In this example, Google Duplex is booking a hair appointment but think about applications for travel: hotel bookings, dining reservations, flight reservations, activity booking, and more ...

Have you tried conducting voice searches for your destination's top things to do, events, or major destination drivers? This is something our team tests regularly and the results are fluctuating and changing on a daily basis.

The biggest trend that we've noticed, and leading industry research supports this, is that optimizing your website content to win featured snippets in Google, can help you to reach voice searchers. 

The Importance of Featured Snippets

Optimizing website content to win featured snippets is critical in the voice search space. Featured snippets sit at the top of organic search results and show users the actual answer to their question. If your destination marketing website has the right content strategy and SEO optimizations, you can improve your chances of showing up as a featured snippet for valuable searches. 

80 percent of voice search results are powered by featured snippets.

Voice Search Ranking Report by ROAST.

Below is an example from Visit Jacksonville. This search is for "Free Things to Do in Jacksonville FL" and a page on VisitJacksonville.com is visible as a featured snippet for this query. 

There's a nice bulleted list of free activities and the ability to click through for more detail and information. Winning a featured snippet like this gives your destination prime real estate in search engine results pages (SERPs). Featured snippets are visually engaging and give users the immediate satisfaction of answering their question right then and there. 

An example of a featured snippet result.

When Google first started testing featured snippets, of course, I sat up and paid attention. At first, marketers in the SEO community were a bit miffed because they felt that by answering the user's question right in the SERP, Google would decrease click-through-rates to our client's websites.

But now that voice search is on the rise, the prevalence of featured snippets in search results makes a lot of sense. We've been optimizing and winning featured snippets from day one. But now we fully see their true potential in the voice space.

How Featured Snippets Connect to Voice Search

Using the Google Home assistant, let's take a look at the same "Free Things to Do in Jacksonville FL" query from a voice search perspective.

See how the voice assistant reads out the featured snippet content in order to answer the user's question? The voice assistant also reads the branded URL "VisitJacksonville.com," which is excellent for building brand awareness for this organization.

In our testing, we have seen fluctuations with voice assistants saying the exact URL of the destination website, or sometimes saying the brand name of the destination e.g. "Visit Jacksonville." This is something we will continue to watch for as it may impact decisions around branded URLs.

Let's look at one more example regarding Garden of the Gods, a big attraction in Colorado Springs, CO. This query asks for information about the total acreage of the park and the top result in a desktop search returns a featured snippet from Visit Colorado Springs. The featured snippet attributes the answer to the DMO website and the preview image even shows a bit of the DMO's logo as well. 

An example of a featured snippet result.

Now listen to the same query via voice search on Google Home. In this instance, the voice assistant reads out the URL VisitCOS.com and attributes the answer to this domain. From a branding perspective, if search assistants continue to read URLs and not brand names, we will be thinking about the implications and next steps from a brand and digital marketing perspective.

Listen to the Voice Search

As you can see, featured snippets are critical to reaching voice searchers, but they are just one piece of voice search optimization. In our ongoing digital marketing campaigns, we have found a range of successful SEO and content tactics for improving our client's brand reach in the voice search space. 

What is driving the rapid growth in Voice Search and Smart Speaker adoption?

Similar to the rise in smartphone adoption, voice search is here, and it's only going to get bigger. Remember, today about 7 percent of U.S. households have smart speakers, but analysts project that by the year 2020, market penetration will climb to 75 percent. The rapid advances and adoption of smart speakers are driven by several factors. 

1. Decreasing Manufacturing Costs
It has never been less expensive to produce a box with a microphone inside of it. There is a low cost barrier for businesses to offer smart speaker solutions and all the big names from Amazon, Google, and Apple, to Microsoft and Sonos have entered this space.

2. Deep Pockets
Voice search is also rapidly advancing due to the unprecedented amount of funding that big players like Google, Apple, and Amazon are able to invest in research and development. These giants are all moving to build the best teams in the world around voice search, natural language processing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. In fact, there are about 10 times more "Machine Learning Engineers" being hired today than there were five years ago, according to LinkedIn's latest employment research.

3. Advances in Natural Language Processing
We are also reaching an inflection point where natural language processing and voice assistants are actually starting to work! Since 2012, when this technology was first introduced, error rates have dropped significantly. Most voice search technology is powered by machine learning, meaning that the more frequently people use voice assistants and smart speakers, the more data there is to improve the technology.  As engineers leverage real user data to improve natural language processing, voice assistants will just keep getting smarter and better at understanding and responding to our questions.

What's Next?

If you haven't already, start testing voice search for your destination. We encourage our friends in the travel and tourism space to go out and try top voice searches for things to do and major attractions in their area. You can use your smartphone, or initiate a Google Assistant search right in your desktop search bar (see below). If you have any questions as you are exploring voice and travel, please reach out. We are happy to help.


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