CONVERSING with a machine used to be the stuff of science fiction, but with the rise of voice-activated smart speakers we are now entering a new era of voice technology. Thanks to voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana, there are tens of millions of devices we speak to every day, and that number is only expected to grow as voice-powered technology becomes more commonplace. Google CEO Sundar Pichai noted during his keynote address at the 2016 Google I/O conference that 20 percent of queries on Google’s mobile app and Android devices are already voice searches. In fact, by 2020 half of all searches will be conducted by voice, estimated Andrew Ng, former chief scientist at Chinese search engine Baidu.
The rise of voice-powered technology will add a new layer to how travelers interact with brands, and in turn the hospitality industry will need to adapt to a voice-powered approach to search and booking. As travelers turn to voice assistants to plan their vacations, resorts will need to adjust their website SEO strategies to be captured by voice search engines. Consumers today are purchasing low-cost products via voice-powered technology and are just starting to book travel—and tomorrow, resorts who unveil sophisticated voice-powered booking platforms will be best poised to capture these consumers.
Amazon’s Echo Show device, which debuted in June 2017 and combines Alexa with a touch screen and motion-sensitive video camera, may prove a pivotal product. Now consumers can ask a question and see the response, pull up a to-do list or even use multiple Echo Show devices as an intercom system. “We think this interface can open entirely new opportunities for hospitality brands to create engaging experiences—from displaying pictures or videos of a requested attraction to taking the customer on a guided tour of the property,” says Charlie Kindel, director of Amazon Smart Home, the retailer’s department for smart devices. Furthering its commitment to smart-screen products, Amazon announced the new Echo Spot in September 2017. It offers the display of Echo Show within a compact device. It’s clear that hospitality brands will have to shift their approach to reach consumers on these new platforms, whether it’s direct voice search or voice search with display.
Breaking new ground
Voice assistants have been integrated into smartphones since Apple introduced Siri, in 2011, but they didn’t really take off until the Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers were launched, in 2014 and 2016 respectively. “We had Siri in our pockets for years, with users able to push a button and speak to someone who has access to more information,” says Armand Rabinowitz, senior director of strategy and workgroups at Hospitality Technology Next Generation. “But the real improvement came when Amazon added the Alexa assistant to Echo, so it’s now ready to listen to your instruction without the need to press a button.” Echo uses on-device keyword spotting to detect a wake word, such as Alexa or Echo, and responds when a consumer cues it.
Voice technology has begun making strides in developed markets. “The largest outbound market in the world, China, has heavily adopted voice messaging,” says Terence Ronson, managing director for hospitality consultancy Pertlink Limited. “Consider that China’s online population currently stands at 751 million…[and] the low price of Echo Dot and similar gadgets, then this alternate user interface becomes a real possibility.”
This technology isn’t just transformative for the average middle-class Chinese or American, either. In developing countries such as India, where only a fraction of its 1.3 billion residents are online and there’s a 72.1 percent adult literacy rate (according to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2015 statistics, the most recent available), voice technology has the ability to help put millions of people online for the first time. There’s great potential as well for people with disabilities or the elderly, who may be able to accomplish tasks they couldn’t perform—or could only with difficulty—before.
There are still challenges. Convincing consumers to purchase a product by voice remains a hurdle, especially in hospitality. Kayak began offering voice-powered hotel bookings through Echo in July 2017, but it’s difficult for users to compare results or learn more details about a property via voice alone. “Without a screen, [purchasing] is limited to products customers are comfortable buying sight unseen,” Rabinowitz says. That often means items with a lower price point. “Fortunately, there are voice-activated devices that are coming with screens, like the Echo Show.” Screens could be a crucial addition because travelers can view and compare resorts before booking.
Although voice-enabled technology is in its early days, technologists are confident in its ability to reshape the world. “We believe that voice is the future and will fundamentally improve the way people interact with technology,” Kindel says. “It can make the complex simple—it’s the most natural and convenient user interface. Voice removes a lot of barriers and friction, and we’ve found that removing the tiniest amounts of friction from everyday activities improves customers’ lives.” Just look to consumers: Among people who use voice technology regularly, 87 percent agreed that “when voice technology works properly, it really simplifies my life,” reported J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group London and Mindshare Futures in a 2017 study, Speak Easy.
Making yourself heard
Voice technology has the potential to tap into new markets and reframe existing ones, but to fully leverage it, hospitality brands will need to learn new SEO strategies. There are marked differences between SEO for typed searches and the methods needed to optimize voice-search results—and the stakes are much higher.
“In the past, it might have been enough to rank on the first page for a search term, as customers would be looking at a screen and have the ability to scroll through the options to find what they think is the best,” says Amine Bentahar, the chief operating and digital officer for Advantix Digital, one of the country’s first digital marketing and SEO agencies. “With voice search, the websites and businesses that perform best will be the ones at the top of the list, as the digital assistant is going to give the user just one answer. The importance of ranking first and being the top recommendation will be paramount to online success.”
To achieve that top result, Bentahar advises developing content that’s more conversational in tone, especially on an FAQ page. In a typed search, consumers often enter simple phrases, so traditional SEO prioritizes short keywords, but in a voice search they ask full questions, which means a shift to long-tail keywords. (A long-tail keyword consists of multiple keyword phrases, each of which is highly specific.) Long-tail keywords are especially relevant for searches on smart speakers. Since these devices are almost always activated at home, queries may focus on research or shopping, and those results are impacted by keyword strategy. Resorts that optimize their long-tail-keyword strategy can improve their chances of appearing as a top voice result for stay options when owners research upcoming travel. As voice-booking technology develops and people become more accustomed to making significant purchases by voice, users will potentially be able to seamlessly transition from researching to booking.
Local SEO is especially pertinent to smartphone voice searches, which often happen when people are driving and looking for recommendations close to them. “A good strategy there will be to carefully categorize your business to make sure it comes up in these types of local SEO searches,” Bentahar says. He suggests adding locations throughout a website as well as contact details, which will allow users to reach out to a resort when it comes up as a search result. It’s often easier and safer, while on the go, to ask a question out loud than to type it—especially when driving—so being able to provide recommendations that are near the user is key. Resorts with last-minute stay options can optimize their local SEO to capture travelers looking for a room nearby.
Even while moving toward voice SEO, remember to optimize for both systems, written and voice searching, to reach the widest possible range of consumers. “Resorts today need to focus on the best practices for both voice search SEO and traditional SEO or risk losing out on a segment of customers who might use only one or the other method of searching,” Bentahar says.
Building the future
Voice search is just the beginning. It’s when new voice-activated commands (which Amazon refers to as skills) are developed and voice is combined with other technologies that it becomes truly powerful. Rabinowitz imagines one day not only being able to search and book on a smart device but also having it predict the stay options that would work best for the individual consumer based on past preferences, such as price point and brand—or even information consumers wouldn’t think to ask about, like that a friend has moved to the destination they are planning to visit. For example, an owner could ask for resorts with rooms available within a certain season and destination, and the virtual assistant could pull up options based on the owner’s Points or Weeks balance, the owner’s historic resort preferences and travel information about any friends or family staying in the area at that time.
For those brands that decide to develop their own voice skills, Amazon offers resources and a list of agencies that can help (developer.amazon.com/alexa/agencies-and-tools). Before taking the plunge, Ronson recommends conducting a proof of concept. “Maybe enlist the help of focus groups for testing the concept to be sure it really works for what you’re trying to achieve and that those folks would actually use it,” Ronson says.
Always keep utility and guest needs in mind. Bentahar suggests that commands could be developed that would allow consumers to use an at-home smart speaker to update a booking, ask questions about amenities or get directions. Resorts can consider the in-room experience as well. For example, a voice-enabled checkout skill could be built that would ask guests about their stay while settling the bill. “Enabling guests to tell a device feedback that’s going to be recorded just as it’s stated and will go to the right channels could certainly increase the percentage of feedback we receive,” Rabinowitz says. Guests who share their concerns directly during checkout may be less likely to share complaints on TripAdvisor or another public forum.
The next great leaps in voice technology will take users even further into the realm of science fiction. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible in the fields of artificial intelligence, machine learning and speech science, and we’re working hard to innovate quickly,” Amazon Smart Home’s Kindel says. How these developments will play out remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: There is opportunity for hospitality brands that experiment with voice technology today to surpass guests’ expectations and set a new standard for tomorrow.
Image credit: illustration by Dan Matutina