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Will Voice-Activated Assistants Change Search Advertising?

Executives from Microsoft Bing, Google DoubleClick, SEMPO, Wordstream, and Yext discussed the future of search marketing and voice-activated assistants.

With sales of voice-activated devices rising rapidly, marketers and platform companies face a big question: what will Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana mean for the search advertising?

In a panel moderated by The Drum’s Lisa Lacy, the question of Connected Intelligence-powered assistants and agents’ impact on SEO ads was put to a panel of executives who think about this daily: Purna Virji, Senior Bing Ads PPC Training Manager, Microsoft; Mike Grehan, CMO of Acronym and CEO SEMPO; Larry Kim, founder of Wordstream; Christina Connor, Global Product Lead, DoubleClick Search; and Duane Forrester, VP of industry insights at Yext (Full disclosure: Yext is GeoMarketing’s parent company. More details on that relationship here).

Distinctions Between Assistants And Agents

Understanding how people are using voice-activation is the first step, noted, Grehan, who cited a study that found 60 percent of voice queries are from people seeking a service, not search,

“When you look at the patterns that you go through, voice is about recommending and suggesting, and then you have discovery, and then you have all those keywords that are not being used to find something on the web,” Grehan said, at the panel event, The Drum Search Awards USA, which was hosted at the Yext offices in NYC.

Another point of distinction: understanding the differences between “agents” and “assistants.”

“Bill Gates did a paper where he talked about the difference between personal assistants and personal agents,” said Yext’s Forrester. “We’re all used to personal assistants, where you ask Cortana, ‘Get me an Uber’ and it opens the app and with one click, you’re ready to go. That’s versus the agent, which is actually empowered to take actions on your behalf. That fits in the world that Mike’s talking about, where it knows my affinity programs.”

Businesses are going to have to develop systems and skills they want to be a part of the “virtual conversation.”

“The way to participate is for a business to develop a ‘skill,’” said Bing Ads’s Virji. “To use the travel example, if Expedia had a skill that it creates for Cortana, I could talk to Cortana to book me a flight. I could say, ‘I’m going to Boston next week, can you get me a hotel?’ Expedia would know that the last time I stayed at a Hilton and ask me if I want to stay there again and if it wants to use the same credit card. Because Cortana is my agent, it can do all that activity in less than 60 seconds.”

The Future Of Advertising

A report from Forrester this past spring warned that it was high time for CMOs to face the facts that digital advertising has not worked when it comes to engaging consumers and that the emerging role of voice-activated digital assistants and the connected intelligence that powers the devices by Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft will lead to only further breakdown of traditional marketing models.

The report, The End Of Advertising As We Know It? by Forrester analysts James McQuivey and Keith Johnston, posits a “great unraveling” of advertising that’s coming with the new models taking as much as $2.9 billion away from display advertising in the next year.

Lacy put the question directly to Google DoubleClick’s Connor: Can search advertising even exist in this voice realm?

“The answer is ‘not yet.’ We’re still trying to figure out what voice search is like, what’s a good experience versus a bad experience, what kind of questions people are asking, and how that conversation evolves over time,” Connor responded.

Bing Ads’ Purna Virji and DoubleClick’s Christina Connor

“Until we get to the point where we understand how people engage with voice search for the long term,” Connor added. “Then, we’ll be able to take steps in terms of commercializing it. Until the art of voice search has been figured out, we won’t be able to fully commercialize it.”

Wordstream’s Kim interjected that this challenge is not exclusive to pay-per-click advertising.

“If what you’re saying that a voice is going to read out a direct answer to a person’s query, then that obliterates both paid and organic search. What you’re saying is that I’m just going to get one answer, instead of 10,” Kim said.

AsVirji cautioned, it’s impossible to predict what format voice-centric advertising will take. Kim was dubious that the marketing models would quickly disappear.

“I would imagine that Google would not want to destroy a $70 billion revenue stream,” Kim said. “So I would think there could be a ‘voice ad’ before the ‘voice answer.’ Would they want to list out 10 organic answers? Probably not. ‘We want to annoy our users by speaking three answers.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Connor then suggested that the current cross-channel/multi-channel approach would naturally incorporate voice-activation and Connected Intelligence.

“We’re so used to thinking in single channel formats,” Connor said. “We’re talking about voice-to-voice right now. However, there’s also a conversation happening about cross-channel, cross-screen, the Internet of Things. What if you ask your Google Home a question and the response comes up on one of your screens? There are infinite possibilities for commercialization. You might ask a question and your Google Maps app pops up. Who knows where we’re going to be in two- to five years?”

Consumers Want Many Answers, Not Just One

For Kim, there’s still more doubt about marketers having to make any drastic changes when it comes to voice-activation.

“This is the Kool-Aid that I hear: you have to optimize for a gajillion long-tail queries for voice SEO,” Kim said. “Well, no, all these algorithms can infer the intent. So you don’t have to create a billion more keywords for every query.”

In Connor’s view, which emphasizes the notion as voice-to-voice operating within a range of connected marketing channels, when it comes to someone seeking a quick answer, voice will make traditional interruptive forms of advertising difficult, if not impossible.

But marketers can continue to count on the fact that consumers aren’t always going to want a single answer. They’ll always want choices.

“When you’re in the discovery phase — ‘show me my options for the best Thai restaurants within a three-block radius’ – I don’t just want one answer,” Connor said. :I want to be able to see all of them. I want see all the various price options for a hotel in Miami. You want to be able to visualize it as well.”

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.