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How To Optimize for Voice Search (Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant) – Courtney Cox Wakefield
The Agents of Change

How To Optimize for Voice Search (Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant) – Courtney Cox Wakefield

Thanks to Siri, Alexa and Google Home – among other devices – voice search is having a huge impact on content marketing, and will account for nearly half of all searches by 2020. Which makes sense when you think of the consumer convenience it offers with better efficiency and cool tech options.  But as Courtney Cox Wakefield reminds us, optimizing your content for voice search is a totally different beast than optimizing for text. So if you want to be found in voice search, you need to make some changes to your current SEO and content marketing strategies.

Rich: For fifteen years my next guest has been on a mission to destroy digital marketing mediocrity. She’s helped dozens of clients and employers abandon the gut feeling approach to marketing, challenge the status quo, and drive digital innovation.

She contributes to marketing publications such as The Journal of Brand Strategy, and is on the Editorial Board for The Journal of Digital and Social Media Strategy. She also co-authored a book on voice search, the very topic we’re covering today. I’m very excited to welcome to the show Courtney Cox Wakefield, Courtney, thanks for joining us.

Courtney: I’m happy to be here, Rich. Thanks for having me on.

Rich: Now I know that we talked about the fact that you work at Children’s Health, which controls a number of hospitals around the country. What’s your job there?

Courtney: So my job here at Children’s is mainly to control and drive the strategy for our digital experience for consumers. So that’s everything from people who maybe are learning about a condition and they may not even know they need health care for their child yet, but they know that they’re looking at some symptoms and they need information, all the way down to someone is actually a patient and they’re trying to access care while they’re inside of our system and they’re coming to our website for information about that, all the way to paying their bill.

So we’re really responsible for making sure that experience is good and that also people can find us and have access to us. We’re really heavily focused this year on patient access and making sure that no matter who the person is, no matter what device they’re on, no matter what language they speak, that if they’re a part of our target audience they will be able to reach us and access this information that they need.

Rich: Ok. So with all that being said, how did you find your way to voice search? What was the impetus that drove you to focus on that?

Courtney: It was really out of necessity. If you think about pediatrics and parents, parents have their hands full all the time, literally. If you think about the questions that you might ask yourself when you have a newborn and it’s your first kid. Our kid was just born 6 months ago and there’s a lot of times when I’m in the kitchen holding my kid and I have a question, I might shout it out to my wife or hopefully I might be able to say to Alexa, “Hey Alexa, what’s the dosage of Tylenol for a 6 month old?” And Alexa may say you can’t give Tylenol to a 6 month old, or this is the amount that you should give. It really helps for parents, because their hands are full, to be able to use a hands-free device like Alexa or even Siri or Ok Google on their phones.

So when we thought about how we can make sure that our content is there, we thought Ok, we’ll build a Skill. The more research we did the more we realized that Skills really aren’t the way to go. People aren’t invoking Skills as often as they’re just asking organic questions to these devices. And there weren’t a lot of comprehensive resources out there to learn about how to optimize for voice search.

So my friend and I said if we’re going to do all this research anyway and figure out what the best way to optimize for this is, we might as well write a book about it to help other people. So yeah, it was really out of necessity just knowing that for our target audience it was something that was going to be used probably more than other target audiences.

Rich: And for those people that don’t know, I would say that Skills are something in the Alexa or the Amazon ecosystem, that’s basically the equivalent of an app. Would you agree with that?

Courtney: That’s correct.       

Rich: Right, so I agree with you. So many people have come to me over the years asking me to build them a mobile app. And when we’ve talked to them we realized they just need a mobile-friendly website because it’s much more accessible and people are used to using it. And unless there’s a really specific need for there being an app, a website is the way to go. It sounds like it was something very similar to what you experienced to where most people are not going to say, “Alexa, open up the Children’s Skill so I can ask it a question”, because that’s just more friction than they need.

Courtney: That’s right. Google Home works slightly differently, you actually don’t have to invoke a Skill to use it. But because Google has modified so much information and really pulls from the answer box, If you’re familiar with search, that answer box that you get at the top where sometimes it will just give you the answer immediately instead of taking you to another website. Because they’ve built up those answers so frequently, you’re almost never going to get an app invoked or a Skill invoked – or an “action” is Google’s case as they call it – invoked for most searches that would be related to our topic. Usually you’re going to get an answer box read out to you. So it was really important for us to focus on that.

Rich: So there’s certainly a lot of buzz around voice search these days, and goodness knows almost all of us use search almost every single day, whether it’s Google, Alexa, and Siri. How did you optimize for voice search at Children’s, and then how did you scale it?

Courtney: So there’s a process that you’re already following, more than likely, at your company, and if you’re not, you should be. To optimize for those insta-answers. Insta-answers are also called “feature snippets”, they’re also called “answer boxes”. It’s that same answer that I was talking about at the top of Google.

So whenever you’re optimizing for voice search, it’s basically one and the same. Google Home, Amazon Alexa, even Siri, are pulling from those Google results to give the answer, so really it’s one and the same. You’re going to want to optimize for those things, but there’s some slight differences to make them more likely to be read out in voice search, and that I put a lot of focus around semantic search or the way that Google is able to understand your content.

So the first thing that we did is say what are the pieces of content that our searchers are really wanting to know. So we went out and we actually did some user testing to find out what are the common questions that people are asking. For us we had to result to using usertesting.com, because our patients get hit so often with questions that we really didn’t want to try to tap them again specifically. But for many of you guys, you should be able to go directly to your customers – especially those that you know and trust – and ask, “How do you speak about our product?”, “What are the questions you were asking before you came to us and actually became a customer?”

You can go to your call center and ask what are the questions they get asked all the time, what type of language do our customers use that we don’t use, what are the things that your salespeople hear when they go to sales calls. Collect all that information and then just start to look for themes and look for the things people are asking for over and over again.

For us, if you think about conditions, people want to know about symptoms, they want to know about causes, they want to know about what are the things we can do to treat them. They ask those same types of questions over and over again. Whatever it is that you sell or whatever service you provide, you’ll have those as well, even down to selling luggage. People are going to ask about dimensions, they’re going to ask how heavy it is, , is it a TSA-approved lock, they’re going to ask those same types of questions over and over again.

And when we got those trends we said, ok great, now we’re going to go back to Google and we’re going to put some of these questions into Google and just see what is coming up

Rich: I just want to pause you for a second. I’m wondering, were you specifically thinking about voice search at this time, or were you just thinking about how our customers talk about our products and services?

Courtney: It’s specifically looking at how people talk about it. Because the way that someone searches in a text search is going to be different than the way that they search in a verbal search. 

Rich: I would think so, yeah.

Courtney: So you might go in on Google and say, “children’s ER”, and you would expect to get results that are relevant to you. But if you go in to do a voice search, you’re going to say, “Hey Alexa, what’s the nearest ER that can treat my child?” So the way that you speak at it is going to be very different. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we’re looking for trends.

So for us, things like “nearest” came up over and over again, so we made a big push toward local, which we can talk about in a moment. But we started putting in those trended questions and seeing what comes up.

So there were sort of two different results that were coming up. There were those local-based results, so we knew we needed to make an investment in local. We already made somewhat of an investment in local but we knew we needed to do more, and we can talk about that. But the thing that I think is relevant for most users or companies is that answer box was coming up. And we started to see trends when we’d put in certain types of questions.

So if I would put in “5 different symptoms” questions, I would see that symptoms are always formatted as a bulleted list. That’s important. Because now I know when I build my template for conditions that I need to make sure that template always displays symptoms in a bulleted list.

Rich: Let me make sure that I understand what you’re saying so far. So you’ve got these questions, you’ve kind of got your idea of what your customer is looking for, and you plug these into Google. Now you were plugging them into Google through typing it out, not through speaking to Google Home Assistant, correct?

Courtney: That’s right.

Rich: But you’re getting the snippet showing up there, which is basically often the same answer that Google Assistant would speak to you in if you asked it. Is that correct?

Courtney: That’s exactly right. It’s one and the same.

Rich: And what you’re telling us is then you see what’s appearing in that snippet box as an example. Like if people are looking for symptoms, the answers that Google tends to give back are formatted as a bullet list, so you now know that if you want to get into that snippet box – and therefore be the result that Google provides – then you need to create a bulleted list for the symptoms answer. Correct?

Courtney: That’s exactly right.

Rich: Perfect.

Courtney: So same thing goes for tables, which is usually what we see with dosage information. Interestingly with something like “causes”, we almost always see a paragraph. People want to really understand the cause more than just sort of see a bulleted list, it kind of requires a little bit more meat to it.

So we took all those trends and this is where it gets to scaling it. We just built our templates so that it was a no-brainer. When a strategist or one of our web editors goes in to build a conditions page, they go and look at that template and see that when they write symptoms out they’ve got to be in a bulleted list, when they write information about causes, it’s got to be in a paragraph. So people that have nothing to do with SEO, they don’t really understand SEO, they certainly don’t understand voice search, are able to strategically create content that works for voice search because we’ve done this scalable research on the front end.

That makes a big difference for sites like ours where we have over a thousand conditions listed. If we’re going to rewrite that content we want to make sure we’re not going to have to go back and re-optimize it for search, we want to get it right the first time.

Rich: And one of the other big takeaways that I’m hearing is, even if you’re not concerned with voice search right now, what you’ve done is really the right way to go about it. You know what people are searching for that you want to be found for. You’re taking a look at what Google considers to be the most relevant, best formatted content, and you’re using that as a model to then create the best content you possibly can.

Courtney: That’s right. It’s a double win. You’re going to win from a featured snippet perspective, and you’re going to win from a voice search perspective.

Now one caveat there – and Rand Fishkin talks about this a lot – Google is commoditizing our content. They’re taking the answers directly from our content and they’re giving it to their users without having to visit our site. For us that’s not a problem, because Google doesn’t provide pediatric healthcare and they usually can’t provide enough advice in that small little snippet or voice answer to keep someone from clicking through or to keep someone from pursuing more information. So for us it’s not a problem because they’re more than likely going to end up clicking through. And even if they don’t, Google is not going to write them a prescription, they’re going to have to come to our office or another specialist to get care.

Where it becomes a real problem is for somebody like you or a lot of your listeners who make money off of their content. They get advertising revenue, they write blog posts, and those blog posts lead to some leads that maybe would be going to somebody at Google instead of going to them. I think of advertising and things like that, that people have started to commoditize. That is a real problem.

If that’s you, if you’re the person that makes money off of your content through advertising revenue, you’ve really got to take a second look at this and wonder if voice search is the right move, is it inevitable that somebody is going to dominate this, and I might as well make a dime off of it now. We’re not in that position so it’s difficult for me to give advice on that, but if I were in that position I would be taking a really hard look at whether or not I wanted to invest in that.

Rich: Well here’s a question for you. So I’ve asked Google questions, I’ve asked Alexa questions, I don’t remember them saying, “Children’s Hospital says xx”. How do they identify that the content that they’re giving this mother thinking about dosing her child with Tylenol or whether or not she can give them honey under the age of one? How are they saying or letting people know that this is coming from you rather than this is just coming from Google’s knowledge base.

Courtney: It is subtle, which is probably why you haven’t noticed it. But at the beginning of every answer, if it’s an answer that they’ve pulled from someone else and not from their knowledge graph information, they will literally say, “From Children’s Health”, and then they read the answer.

Rich: Ok, alright. And you can argue back and forth whether or not a company like mine would benefit or not benefit from being the answer. I would think that it’s better to be mentioned for name recognition at least, even if they’re not driving traffic to your website.

But my question is, we’ve talked a lot about Google, Google obviously owns search. But Alexa, I don’t know the exact numbers but I’m guessing more people have Alexa’s than Google. Did you have to create two separate bits of content, or how did you optimize so that people in the Amazon ecosystem would get your answers just as frequently as the people in the Google ecosystem?

Courtney: It’s really interesting. You would expect that Amazon would want to build this content library themselves. But I think just out of necessity, because Google really is owning that space – and probably for the foreseeable future will own that space – they actually pull in the Google answer box directly as their answers.

Rich: Oh really?

Courtney: In most cases. So the only sort of exception to that rule is if you’re doing shopping on Amazon, or with a partner that’s on Amazon, or if you’re looking for something local. Yext has actually partnered with Amazon Alexa to push all local information directly to Alexa. So if you want to be in the Alexa database and know that y our local information is correct, you really need to be using Yext or uploading your information directly to those content aggregators. There’s a big 4 of local aggregators that you cam upload your data to and Alexa is pulling form that as well.

So local is actually a huge market for voice. Voice searches are 3x more likely to be local-based than text searches are. So when somebody is looking to do a search on voice, a lot of times more often than not they’re looking for something local. So there’s a big market there.

I spoke earlier about saying we noticed that we really needed to be focused on local. We had been using a vendor that was manually updating our local profiles before, and we really said we can’t do this anymore, it’s unsustainable. We had a full-time person spending about 60% of their time, plus paying an agency, trying to manage 52,000 points of presence – between all of our locations and all our physicians – and as you can imagine, they were just chasing their tails. So it was really important to us to partner with Yext and say we’re going to upload all of our data to you guys in one platform and you guys are going to overlay the data everywhere else.

It may not be the right choice for everybody, but for us it certainly was and it made a big difference. Now that person is still spending 60% of their time managing local, but they are managing it much more efficiently. They’re able to do things and produce results that are significantly higher than they were able to do before. And so it’s been a really good investment for us, and form a voice search perspective makes a big difference. Because if somebody’s looking for an ENT specialist and they ask, “Where can I see a pediatric ENT in Dallas?” we’re going to be the ones that come up because we partnered with Yext and got our data directly fed into Alexa. 

Rich: And so from that standpoint, it’s not that you’re necessarily doing anything specific on voice search at that point, this is just good local SEO that you’re doing. Then because voice search is so local-centric, there’s voice benefits.

Courtney: Somewhat that, but also because Yext is partnering with Alexa, Alexa is literally pulling that database of local information from Yext immediately to give that answer. So it actually is a voice-specific optimization when you partner with Yext. Now it has a bunch of other benefits that have nothing to do with voice, but this partnership with Yext in particular helps with voice search on the Yext platform.

Now voice search for Google Home is always going to pull from Google My Business. So as long as you have Google My Business optimized, you’re going to be good on Google Home.

Rich: Right. And Yext, like other platforms I’m sure, is also feeding information in Google My Business as well.

Courtney: That’s correct.

Rich: So you have this robust content marketing team, a 4,000 page website. What advice would you give to us mere mortals who maybe have a website that’s 5, 10, 15 pages, or doesn’t have an entire marketing team behind it? What can the average person do to increase their chances of being found in voice search?

Courtney: So the biggest things that folks with small sites and not as big of a team can do, is really focus on those questions that you hear all the time. We talked about this a little bit. If you’re hearing a question over and over again, you really need to try to answer that question as best as possible. And then looking at the questions that show up in Google when you enter that same question, figuring out how you can create a piece of content that answers a lot of these questions that are related. That’s going to put you in a really good position. Most content creators, especially in industries where people have small websites, are not looking into writing content to answer people who are asking questions. That can help you not only show up in that first position that somebody asks on the voice search, but also that second and third question.

Because what Google is essentially doing is giving you insight into those questions that are asked before and after the question that you put in. They’re revealing the goldmine of data that they’ve been collecting for 20 years and they’re just saying here’s all the information we know. It really can be a goldmine of information for folks that otherwise don’t have a lot of time to do research. You don’t have to, it’s all right there.

And if you’ve never looked at the people that also asked questions, I would encourage you to put in a search on Google. It’s literally labeled, “people also asked”, and if you open one of the tabs it will reveal more questions. So you can start to really dig deep and see what are all these related questions to this topic, and just start building content around those.

Eventually you will start to see, ok, now I see another question that reveals to me a new piece of content that I need to write. And you can write another piece of content, because you don’t want to put every single question that people ask into one piece. But that is a great place to start for just one man shops or solopreneurs to create really great content for the people that they’re trying to reach.

Rich: So that brings up an interesting question that I wanted to get to. When you discover these questions, are you creating a new article/blog post/whatever, for each individual question? Or are you more going for that pillar content type thing where you’re trying to answer every single question about honey and children, or dosage, or whatever it may be? How do you decide whether it’s going to split off into a new article or whether it’s going to be part of a giant, all-encompassing article?

Courtney: It’s a good question. For us, there’s things that make it really clear. If it’s content that’s related to a treatment page, or a condition page, all of that content is going to live in a centralized place because the parent that’s looking for that information is stressed, they’re not wanting to click all over our site to find the information that they need.

So I think it depends on sort of where in the journey that person is, and you need to think about that. How stressed is that person, how willing are they going to be to explore and browse into our site.

For something like honey and whether infants can have it, we would probably find other related questions about other things that kids can’t eat. For honey and whether or not infants can have it, we would be more likely to find other questions around other things that kids can’t eat. And so in that case we’re not trying to create a comprehensive piece about all the things that kids aren’t allowed to eat, because we can go on and on about that. We would try to create separate articles about each of those individual things, when they can’t eat them, why they can’t, all of that type of content. We would likely split those things up.

So it’s really context-based and really based on where in the buyer’s journey that person is.

Rich: And my last question is about analytics. Can you define an analytics piece, does it look different for a voice search versus a text based search when you’re looking at your own analytics?

Courtney: Yeah, it does. We have very little insight into how many people are searching on voice. And for us it doesn’t seem like a problem because we know anything we optimize for is going to show up in the features, and we know we get results for the features, we know that we get clicks, we know we get a lot of positive brand impressions.

So for us, knowing that we don’t know how many people are doing a voice search for that is not as important. I think that’s probably true for almost any brand. But eventually people are going to demand being able to have the information about voice impressions, I would expect that Google and Amazon and Siri and these other platforms are going to have to start providing this information at some point.

And there’s certainly a market out there for whoever creates that platform and whoever figures out how to test it, how to actually get accurate results about impressions. If that person is out there, I’d be happy to pay them for their analytics data. But for now, we’re sort of stuck. It’s almost like SEO circa 2007/2008, where a lot of what we’ve focused on is ranking instead of traffic data and conversion data, because that’s what we had our hands on.

Rich: Right. And it may not be relevant anyways. If I’m holding that proverbial baby and I want information, there’s the nice piece of branding you get by telling me how much Tylenol or no Tylenol to give my child. But I can’t go to a website – at least on a smart speaker – without a screen, so it’s really going to just be about what Google of Siri or Alexa can tell me at that point, and so there’s not really that traffic. If there’s going to be traffic it’s probably going to be foot traffic, because I need to go to Children’s and have my child looked at. So I think it’s a completely different set of metrics that you’ve got to think about when it comes to voice search.

Courtney: It is. And I imagine a world where my phone knows that I search this thing on Amazon and when I walk in the clinic it connects. I wish that was all happening right now. In the world of privacy, that’s actually becoming more difficult than ever, and so there are companies that are popping up trying to solve that problem.

But we have a real challenge on our hands when it comes to analytics just across the board that’s coming down the pike as privacy becomes more important to folks. So I’m not optimistic that this problem is going to be solved anytime soon. But I know at least for us in our company or many other companies that I’ve worked with, it is a good investment of their time because they’re going to get that Local Features snippet anyway.

Hey Rich, I wanted to add one other thing that I failed to mention earlier. We started talking about semantic search, but I didn’t really go as deeply into it as I wanted to. One of the things you’ve got to make sure that you’re doing when you optimize this content is write your headings in a way – the title of the piece, the heading above your paragraph – in a way that it’s easily read.

So if above my symptoms I just write “symptoms”, that’s not really optimized for voice. I want to optimize it by saying, “what are the symptoms” or “symptoms of xyz are…”, because when Alexa or Google reads it out, I want it to be really easy for Amazon to say I can read this text really easily and it sounds natural, it sounds like something that would be spoken. That’s going to make you more likely to be selected for that spot and be read, because Amazon and Google don’t have to do anything with that information, they can just use what you’ve written right there and it’s easy for that person to understand.

Rich: Do you have any evidence, or anecdotal evidence even, if those headers should be written as questions, so we’re literally repeating back what the person may have asked, or if we should be providing answers to the questions we believe has just been asked?

Courtney: I don’t have any evidence yet, it is something that we want to test. We’re in the process of migrating all of our content to this structure, and once everything is migrated we will begin to test these different variants. Like, should we make it a question, how long should it be, how does capitalization play in, do they have a colon at the end of it, should it have a period or no period at all.

We’re in a period of trying to evaluate what are all those tests that we want to do. So no, I don’t have any answers on that yet, but stay tuned we will.

Rich: You are definitely trailblazing out there, and when you get these answers I want you to let me know so we can have you back on the show.

Courtney, this has been great. I’m sure people want to follow up, where can we send them, where can we find you online?

Courtney: So if you’re interesting in checking out some of the work I’ve done at Children’s, you can go to childrens.com. If you want to connect with me personally you can connect with me on Twitter @CourtEWakefield or at cwake.digital, that’s my website where you can read my blog post and find out more information about me and just get connected. I’m most reachable on Twitter, so if you want to just tweet me and ask further questions, I’m happy to answer them.

Rich: Awesome. Courtney, thanks so much for stopping by today.

Courtney: Yeah, no sweat. Thanks for having me on, Rich.

Show Notes:

Courtney Cox Wakefield’s passion for online marketing has helped businesses create innovative strategies, including optimizing for the booming voice wave!  Learn more at her website, follow her on Twitter, and definitely don’t miss out on the blog.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing