One of the hottest gifts of the most recent holiday season was a smart speaker. From the tiny $30 Google Home Mini or Echo Dot to $400 beasts like Google Home Max or Apple HomePod, these speakers are connected to the internet and feature built-in digital assistants powered by some of the latest AI advancements.
Mobile phones and tablets are taking over the web, with about 57% of worldwide internet traffic coming from one of these devices.
What are the common threads between the two kinds of devices? Digital assistants and voice search. Each one of those smart speakers is an always-on portal for voice search via the Google Assistant, Alexa, or Siri. The very same artificial intelligence that powers the digital assistants in some of these smart speakers is available on your favorite smartphone, tablet, or even desktop.
At the recent Connected Health Conference in Boston, voice search technologies and their capabilities came up in several presentations. In highlighting the importance of these new technologies for healthcare practitioners, MedCity News aptly quotes a keynote by Noelle LaCharite, a senior manager at Amazon Alexa Machine Learning, “Voice is everywhere…People love it. Customers, patients love the idea of saying something and technical things happening on their behalf when they do that.”
These powerful tools are way more than a fresh parlor trick or source of corny iPhone jokes. They represent one of the fastest developing search technologies. In fact, according to ComScore estimates, “50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020.” Even more intriguing for proponents of digital assistant enabled speakers, like Amazon’s Echo devices or Google’s Home speakers, Mediapost estimates “About 30% of searches will be done without a screen by 2020.”
By those estimates, there is no question voice search is a growing force in pursuit, but even if it never reaches those levels, it is already an essential component of a robust search marketing plan. In a mid-2016 keynote at Google I/O, CEO Sundar Pichai reported that voice search represented 20% of the queries from Google’s mobile app and Android devices.
Search engines aren’t the only beneficiaries of these technologies, hospitals and medical practitioners are increasingly looking at ways to utilize these devices to help serve their patients better and, in some cases, even reduce costs by providing more efficient means of completing paperwork, providing care instructions, and also tracking health information. As Robert Glatter, MD, notes in a recent post on Forbes, “But now, hospitals and C-suite executives realize that such voice recognition technology may also be lifesaving in ICUs, on regular medical floors and even in the operating room.”
Mayo Clinic Teaches Alexa First Aid
Using the Alexa skills kit provided by Amazon to “teach” the digital assistant new things, Mayo has developed the free Mayo Clinic First Aid skill for Amazon Alexa devices like Echo and Echo Dot.
While explicitly not for use in a life-threatening emergency, when you should be calling 911 instead, you can now ask Alexa for advice on treating a burn, bandaging a wound or distinguishing if someone isn’t breathing.
As more people acquire digital assistant enabled devices, usage rates are likely to soar, which will allow the machine learning and natural language processing engines behind these assistants to become more accurate. As voice search becomes more precise, people will, in turn, find them more useful and increase their use of voice search via these platforms even further. In this way, virtual assistants represent a disrupting force in SEO.
Unfortunately, outside of certain circles, it can be difficult to find any discussion of the benefits and limitations of voice search and digital assistants and how these technologies should be considered a critical component of a future-facing marketing plan as well as what healthcare marketers should be doing to embrace voice search.
Voice Search Basics
What does all this mean for the average healthcare practice’s search marketing efforts? Is there a difference between the Google Assistant, Siri, and Alexa when it comes to search? Should we focus on one over the others?
Bottom line: voice search optimization isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. Each platform is more siloed than traditional web browsers, and each uses different data sources. For example, with general voice searches, Google Assistant uses Google data, Siri relies on Bing data, and Alexa blends Bing and Amazon data. Furthermore, some of the assistants seem hardwired to avoid specific questions. The net effect is, each assistant responds to the same queries in different ways.
For example, when asked, “what is the best mobile phone?” Google Assistant pulled up Best Smartphones 2018 by Tom’s Guide. Siri, in turn, responded, “You’re kidding, right?” and, when pushed further, “Seriously?” Alexa, in a somewhat more helpful mood than Siri, replied that I should consider the features that matter to me and to read some reviews on Amazon.
On a more medically-focused note, when prompted “How can I treat my varicose veins?” Google Assistant provided a link to WebMD’s Varicose Veins treatment page and read the featured snippet. Siri directly returned a list of results. Alexa recommended the WebMD skill (i.e., software to add additional features and data sources to Alexa) and offered to let me enable it.
From these examples, it could be easy to consider skipping Siri and Alexa in favor of the more powerful Google Assistant, but it is important to remember that Siri is the default on every iPhone and Alexa is at the core of almost 70% of all smart speakers.
Making Search a Conversation
At this point, you might be asking, “what is different about voice search optimization and traditional search optimization anyway?” Should we still be doing the same SEO tasks we’ve been doing? Will voice search optimization replace what we’ve been doing?
In a sentence, you should keep doing traditional SEO tasks, because voice search optimization relies on many of the same indicators. Keyword research, though modified a bit from how you may have traditionally handled it, is now more critical than ever. You need to know what people are asking and how people are searching for your practice and the services and treatments you provide. This is a basic step in laying the foundation for an SEO campaign, but with voice search, you want to explicitly look toward those featured snippets in Google searches (i.e. the text box at the top of some search results). This is where the Google assistant gets the information it will read back in response to a voice query.
Tailoring your keyword research to discovering the keywords and phrases that generate a featured snippet will allow you to:
- Provide a better answer to the query
- Edit and markup your content to increase the likelihood of grabbing that featured snippet
- Focus your content on more conversational queries like “What” and “how” questions, that typically result in featured snippets
Two popular tools for finding keywords that occur in featured snippets are SEMrush and Moz Keyword Explorer. Both allow you to restrict your research to keywords with a featured snippet. Alternatively, you can use a little trial-and-error approach by manually searching and seeing which terms come back with a featured snippet; this takes more time, but it is free.
From there, you can compare your list of keywords with featured snippets and the list of your page one keyword rankings to find the keywords you’re most apt to get a featured snippet for by doing a little optimization.
Optimizing content for featured snippets
Now that you have a list of keywords and content to focus on, you can work on optimizing your content for the featured snippet and, by extension, voice search. For example, does the currently featured snippet feature a paragraph of text or a short, bulleted list? Does the page with the featured snippet have a better user experience, better markup structure, or perhaps better page/domain authority? What elements on the page do you think set it apart from your content?
A thorough understanding of your search competitors will help you understand how you can either provide a stronger answer on your page or tweak the format of your page to help Google better understand your answer and replace the current snippet with your content. This can be a painstaking process, but it isn’t vastly different from a traditional SEO model of researching keywords, creating content, and tweaking the content to improve rankings. Many of the same factors should be taken into account in addition to the voice search specific factors including:
- Page load speeds
- Mobile friendliness
- Having photos and links
- Good overall page experience
Don’t forget; voice search is particularly popular with younger people, who don’t necessarily remember the early days of search engines that laid the foundation for disjointed and unnatural sounding keyword phrases. Younger people tend to use more natural and conversational phrases to search. Don’t be afraid to go after those longer queries.
Voice search isn’t limited to web searches
While Google excels in the general web search space, Amazon’s Alexa is slaying in other areas like voice-based e-commerce, voice-first apps, and different types of interactions. For example, in our previous search, Alexa recommended the WebMD skill. Were we to enable this capability, rather than receiving the same featured snippet as everyone else, WebMD can use the Alexa language processing to get additional information and provide us more specific results from WebMD.
This kind of extensibility is why, while Google will likely be the leader in the virtual assistant and web search space, Amazon is positioned better for transactional searches and custom data sources thanks to Alexa’s skills API, which enables anyone to create software for Alexa-enabled devices.
Voice Search Optimization Checklist
☑ Do keyword research and gather content ideas
There are a lot of great tools and techniques available for figuring out the kinds of questions people are asking about your practice, your services and procedures, and the conditions you treat. The most basic is to listen to your patients—what are they asking in consultations, at the front desk, and when they call in?
From there you might consider bringing in a few tools to help expand your horizons. A couple of great options for finding questions and keywords people are using include:
- Answer The Public — this free tool allows you to put in a topic and provides all sorts of keyword data including questions, phrases, and related keywords. The questions section is a fantastic way to get started on finding question-based queries that are more likely to get a featured snippet.
- Google Suggest — this is a feature built-in to Google search, but it can be a powerful way to quickly and easily get keyword data. All you have to do is start typing keywords into Google. As long as you don’t hit enter or click search, a selection of popular searches will drop down. You can mine these suggestions for questions and phrases related to your practice.
- UberSuggest — If using Google Suggest to get keywords one at a time is too slow; you might consider using something like UberSuggest. This free tool automates some of the work of mining Google Suggest data by taking a keyword input and automatically adding a character or other modifier to the keyword. It then captures all these suggestions and returns them in a big list.
- Google Keyword Planner and Search Console — If you have a Google account set up, you can use the tried and true free keyword tool Google provides for AdWords customers. It’s not perfect and it isn’t the most full-featured, but it is free data. Additionally, assuming you have Search Console integrated with your site, you can use the last 90 days worth of search data to see your search rankings and actual keyword data that has brought in visitors to your site.
- People Also Ask boxes — In addition to featured snippets, many question searches will generate a box of related questions people also ask. Not only do these boxes offer more opportunities for capturing more search real estate, if you get the featured snippet for that question, but also these boxes are a great way to see questions related to your initial query that real people are searching.
☑ Go after featured snippets and People Also Ask boxes — These two components represent some of the most desirable real estate on search results pages. Not only is the featured snippet highly desirable because of the increased visibility and traffic offered by its prime location, but also it will be the only answer the Google Assistant reads back for voice searches. Landing this spot will also help get your site listed in People Also Ask boxes, which can expand your reach beyond the questions you are targeting into related questions. According to a study done by STAT, PAA questions are often duplicated, with one question in their study showing up on 21 different search results pages.
Frequently asked question pages are great tools for capturing traffic via traditional SEO and voice search optimization. At their most basic, these pages provide precisely the kind of content most featured snippets and People Also Ask boxes require — a question and its specific answer. Building out a page with an influential series of related FAQs about a topic can help quickly boost the featured snippet real estate dedicated to your website and provides a firm basis for your voice search optimization efforts.
☑ Bolster your local search and entity authority — Don’t neglect proper local search optimization. Ensuring you’re focusing on getting listed in maps, business directories, and review sites is an easy way to signal to search engines that you aren’t some fly-by-night operation. Additionally, if your patients review you, good reviews are a strong signal that your practice is credible and valuable and typically result in higher local search rankings. These reviews, in addition to many other factors, combine to create a metric often called entity authority. The higher your entity authority, the higher your content ranks. This is one of those proprietary metrics that no one fully understands (outside search engine development teams), but it consists primarily of data that helps determine your credibility including:
- Name recognition (online directory listings)
- Reputation (patient reviews and media mentions)
- Engagement — both online and off; including things like average time people spent in your practice, how often people visit. Search engines are expanding their data collection at a rapid pace and as more data is collected they are able to consider more data points in calculating authority metrics.
As voice search and voice-first devices continue to expand their foothold in search, establishing and implementing a solid voice search optimization plan will become increasingly important. Using the tips and tricks outlined here will not only help you get a leg up on embracing voice search for your practice but will also help enhance your existing SEO efforts. That sounds like a win-win.