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7 min read

The Future of Voice and Visual Search: SMX Expert Panel

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Savvy SEOs understand that it’s important to stay up to date with the latest tools, techniques and technologies in the ongoing pursuit of better online visibility. While the Year of Mobile (how many years of mobile did we actually end up having??!) has morphed into an everyday part of search engine optimisation, two new technologies have given rise to a whole abundance of new thought and opinion around how they might change the way we market ourselves in the future.

And what are those two technologies?

Voice and visual, of course.

Scan the line up of any conference or industry publication and you’ll no doubt find plenty of insight into how the rise of voice and visual search will affect the SEO industry and, more broadly, marketing as a whole. That’s why we were so pleased to be invited to host an expert panel on the subject as part of SMX, a leading SEO conference, by the good folks at Bing. Here’s our round up of the top tips and advice from the session.

Voice search is still in the ‘education’ phase

One of the first questions I asked of the panel was how voice search was being utilised in their agencies and by their clients. What became clear quite quickly is that we’re still very much in the education phase.

That’s not to say we’re in some way ignorant to what voice search can do for us. It’s more that, as an industry, we’re yet to prove it. And that comes in large part from the fact that Google and Bing too are yet to really get to the bottom of how they anticipate voice search becoming a part of our everyday lives and, ultimately, how it can be monetised in the future, too.

Ben spoke of how their clients are operating in a much more competitive SEO landscape – as is true for many of our clients, too. The prevalence of SERP features often means that you can see your own website’s ranking fluctuating simply due to the introduction and removal of those features, and the suggestion is that the traditional 10 blue links are giving way to a much broader range of search results.

In this way, voice has the potential to enable our clients and our marketing teams to start to plug that gap, by essentially giving us access to another facet of the SERPs.

As Ben suggested, some brands are already leveraging the capabilities of voice search to boost brand engagement and sales using Alexa Skills and Google Actions. For example, Tide’s Alexa app, Stain Remover, doles out advice on various types of stains. Campbell’s Kitchen reads out recipes and then helps guide the cooking process. Nestlé has also rolled out a “GoodNes” skill, which delivers voice cooking instructions on Alexa devices.

Best tip: Start thinking about the use of ‘actions’ and ‘skills’; these are elements of voice search that, providing you have built them for yourself and not many competitors have, you stand a good chance of capturing the early adopters of voice search. Check out how to build actions here.

Visual search is much easier to monetise today

With Pinterest’s investment in its own visual search functionality, Bing doing their thing and Google bringing out Lens tech, the prevalence of visual search is increasing – and many brands, according to our panel, are already taking advantage.

For fashion or retail brands, where visuals are essential, this has been a real growing point. For those dabbling in Pinterest, the large audience and the fact that paid placements are so well camouflaged in the results are delivering plentiful rewards when it comes to hitting the audience when they’re in that ‘inspiration’ phase.

Arianne talked about how her team at Epiphany has started to see examples of Shopping ads being pulled through into Google Image Search, and Bing has released the ability to include up to 10 images within your product listings, in addition to their “Intelligent Image Search” feature which allows you to find items within an image that you like. This doesn’t yet appear to be using ads, but it’s only a matter of time.

Best tip: If yours is an especially visual brand, start advertising on Pinterest and making use of Google Shopping and Bing Ads’ visual elements.

James point out that Bing does not want to limit the scope for advertisers to just its own product offerings. Microsoft’s vision is, according to James, to democratise artificial intelligence, which means empowering every person and organisation to create their own AI solution, tailored to their specific needs. For example, McDonalds used Microsoft’s speech recognition to improve their DriveThru service, transcribing customer orders in a quicker and more efficient manner. Uber have used our facial recognition technology to create a driver verification system that improves customer trust and safety.

This is not voice and visual search as we typically think about it, but it’s the same core technologies being used in creative new ways to solve customer problems.

Advertising will undoubtedly drive the use of voice and visual by marketing agencies

When asked what holds them back from investing more in voice and visual, our panellists were unanimous – it’s the lack of advertising opportunities.

While this may seem counter-intuitive given that many users presumably shy away from ads, the reality is that advertising can be the clearest way to measure ROI. Especially given the lack of solid tracking available for voice search in particular, the search giants need to provide a quantifiable platform on which to review the output of any voice, or indeed visual, campaign.

But this isn’t easy, Arianne explained.

“There’s a number of interesting considerations to be considered as voice in particular rolls out – if the aim is to return the one “best” answer for you, how do you represent your brand online so that the assistants can find out everything they need?”

Best tip: Consider your priorities. If you are smashing it in the text based SERPs and keen to explore a new avenue, voice – and in particular, visual – can provide that opportunity. But be aware you may not be able to track the results too closely just yet.

As James pointed out:

“For many clients it is a case of priorities. We are all busy people, and finding the time to dedicate to new disciplines like voice and visual search, where the opportunities are still nascent, is difficult to justify. I think voice search will be the next digital obsession, in the same way that mobile has been for most of the last decade. Much as we saw with mobile, those advertisers that are willing to experiment whilst the technology is still in its infancy, will be ahead of the curve once it becomes a marketing “must have” rather than a “nice to have”.”

Attribution and reporting are the biggest roadblocks to voice and visual search today

When it comes to us marketers making use of the potential of voice and visual search, the panel was in agreement – attribution and reporting need to improve for widespread take up to occur.

For us at Impression, our differentiating point is that we’re very data-driven and results-focused. But how can you truly be those things when there’s no way to quantify how much of your traffic, and therefore how much of your revenue or sales, came from voice?

Ben agreed, suggesting that “Many of the leading reporting platforms out there don’t enable us to report on visual search impressions for example, and voice search reporting and attribution is currently non-existent.” If the likes of Google were to provide voice insight through Search Console, it would almost certainly open the voice market up to a lot more businesses who simply won’t be willing to take the plunge until they know what they’re getting back.

Best tip: You’re going to have to wait for attribution to catch up, but in the meantime, clients who have excelled in traditional search may be inclined to explore the potential of voice.