The power of conversational search

The proliferation of smart devices and the improving capabilities of AI-powered voice assistants mean that voice searchability is no longer a mere ‘nice to have’


Hey, Siri. Are marketers and their businesses investing enough time, money and effort in improving their conversational search rankings? 

Given that Juniper Research forecasts that consumers will be using voice assistants on more than 8.4 billion devices by 2024, while MarketsandMarkets predicts that the global conversational AI market will grow from £3.4bn in 2020 to £9.8bn in 2025, there’s a strong case that they should be doing more.

Consumers embrace new technology if it makes life simpler and more effortless for them. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Firms that have already invested in achieving higher voice search rankings are benefiting from it. For instance, translation service Lionbridge started optimising for voice search in July 2019. Twelve months later, it had almost 47 times more ‘featured snippets’ – the short text at the top of a page of Google search results. This improvement aided a 127% year-on-year increase in traffic to the firm’s website.

“Businesses should view optimising for conversational search as mandatory,” argues Olga Andrienko, head of global marketing at Semrush, which manages Lionbridge’s marketing analytics. “We have already seen the dramatic effect it can have on businesses’ search results. As voice assistants are further integrated into people’s everyday lives, this influence will grow.”

Nick McQuire, chief of enterprise research at tech consultancy CCS Insight, agrees. “As one of AI’s most important areas of development, conversational search is progressing rapidly,” he says.

Bringing AI to the masses

Conversational search development has accelerated “because it sits at the centre of two important trends”, McQuire suggests. First is the improvement in AI speech technology. Second is the need to improve information search in businesses. “This area”, he says, “is often listed as ‘broken’ by customers owing to information silos, especially across several data stores, documents and applications.”

McQuire continues: “The fact that all the big tech firms have started to tackle this area with products and tools demonstrates the scale of the customer need.”

Conversational search is a more complex matter than people simply using their voices instead of keyboards, though. For instance, on what smart device is the search being conducted – a screen-less Apple HomePod, a Google Nest Hub Max or an in-car Amazon Alexa?

While companies can pay to appear on the first page of a conventional typed search on a computer screen, mastering conversational search is not so straightforward. For one thing, marketers don’t always have the same real estate for advertising. 

If a device being used for voice search has no screen, how likely is it that a business will pull traffic to its website if it ranks outside the top three search results? Equally, if the device has a screen, a more visual response is presumably better. Notably, the average answer length for the three most popular voice assistants – Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant – is 23 words, according to Semrush.

Convenient and contextualised answers

Semantics aside, the crucial point for marketers is that consumers want their problems solved quickly. So says Kashif Naqshbandi, CMO at IT recruiter Tenth Revolution Group, who adds: “Most of the time they are not just looking for a ‘what’, but also a ‘how’ and ‘why’. This is why question-driven conversational search has spiked.”

Naqshbandi explains that few people are now searching online for, say, a “mountain bike” and then clicking through web pages of information. Instead, they are asking specific questions – for instance, “what sort of mountain bike should I buy?” – to seek a contextualised answer.

“Consumers are more accustomed to these fast, personalised interactions that help them cut through the digital noise and find a solution,” he says. “Marketers have to evolve to deliver interactive, dialogue-based experiences to stay competitive.”

Euan Matthews, director of AI and innovation at ContactEngine, a developer of conversational AI systems, agrees that people ultimately want to save time wherever possible and are happy to pay for convenience. 

“Consumers embrace new technology if it makes life simpler for them. Otherwise, what’s the point?” he says, attributing Amazon’s continuing ascendancy to the time it saves customers. But he adds that a “big pitfall” for marketers is to focus only on the search element.

To illustrate his point, Matthews says that some devices, when asked about the best local Indian restaurant, say, will now offer a follow-up option of booking a table through Google, and – if the user accepts – they will add this booking to the digital calendar. 

“This time saving is not because of the conversational search,” he says. “It’s more because that search has been seamlessly married with the ability to execute a transaction on your behalf. Marketers must consider how to marry conversational search and the transactional capability of the voice assistant, because this is what saves consumers time and makes it more likely that they’ll progress down the sales funnel.”

The direction of travel is clear, so marketers must alter their course accordingly. “We will see more advances in the ability for conversational search to end in a transaction – and this will drive uptake,” Matthews predicts. 

Will it ever replace keyed search? “I doubt it,” he says. “Some searches are best not voiced aloud.”