AdviceAngie PetkovicFeatures

Will voice search change how hotels find customers?

This is a statistic I see reported quite a lot, but as with many things it has morphed with each telling. This was originally predicted by a guy calls Andrew Ng at Baidu in 2014 who in fact said “In five years’ time, at least 50% of all searches are going to be either through images or speech.”

It wasn’t just about voice search but about the use of imagery too. From there, the quote was paraphrased in the “Internet Trends 2016 report” by Mary Meeker, who added 2020 into her prediction. It’s still being used today, but as with many things, five year predictions are often just that – predictions – not yet realities.

That’s not to say voice search is not important, but it is proving more difficult to benchmark usefully, mostly because the popular analytics tools have not yet perfected the metric reports so that we explicitly know what and how is being searched. Instead we have to assume that voice search is gaining momentum and that it is an important adaptation for your website.

So, what do we know now?

Google currently suggests that one in five mobile searches is carried out by voice, and Hitwise highlights that 60% of searches happen on mobile. Therefore we can assume around 12% of all mobile searches on a website are likely to be done using voice technology. Smart speaker use is then recorded separately and the stats around this are even less clear, but a well-respected article in Econsultancy estimated 26.4 million smart speaker voice searches per day in 2018.

Demographic data is somewhat harder to find but a report by Captech Consulting at the beginning of 2018 highlighted that 53% of smart speaker users are aged between 18 and 36, 32% are aged between 37 and 52, leaving just 13% aged 53 and over.

These are big numbers; certainly bigger than most hotel website traffic, but they are still important when extrapolated back to your own website traffic. Determining the urgency with which you address voice search can be done by reviewing your own customer demographic. The older your target audience, the slower the rate of adoption; but that doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore it completely. In my opinion, optimisation for voice search is a must, and you can’t take too long about it in real terms.

So how can you optimise for voice (and image)?

In the days of old, websites used to rank pretty well with the help of ‘keyword stuffing’ – adding as many keywords as possible into the coding, the page copy and the meta tags, not to mention blogging and social media.

You might even remember the awkwardly long sentences that seemingly went nowhere and had multiple synonyms for the same word. The search engines soon became wise to this, recognising that SEO skill did not necessarily deliver quality search results and so algorithms were adjusted to make search terms more specific (at the same time reflecting changes in search behaviours to include more naturalised language) and those who perfected the ‘art’ of SEO of old quickly saw rankings drop.

I’m telling you all this, because the good news is, voice search and desktop search are not actually that different and you don’t need to make huge changes to capitalise on either. Here’s what you need to focus on for voice (and frankly for search in general):

  1. Natural language and not keywords: As per my point about the change in search, we (consumers) became used to creating terms like hotel + Cheshire + book. Now, we’re used to searching for ‘book a hotel in Cheshire in May’. This naturalised language was good for organic website ranking, bad for keyword stuffing and it is the same for voice search. Think about what you would ask for in person and you’ll be pretty close to the mark e.g. ‘Find me a hotel in Cheshire in May’.
  2. Long-tail key phrases: As a general rule of thumb, text / typed searches are an average of three words, whereas voice is more likely five or six words. The focus needs to be on long tail terms and phrases and producing regular content helps with this. So for example, you might write a post of ‘Things to do in Cheshire in May’ which includes your hotel as a place to stay. This new content gives you opportunity to focus specifically on what your guests are searching for, without adding irrelevant content to the website. It is worth noting that the change to ‘naturalised language phrases’ above does mean that there are more search terms to compete for, but the downside is that if your website doesn’t have an exact phrase match, it won’t rank as high as one that does.
  3. Don’t be too complex: Thankfully, when it comes to hospitality, there’s a wide understanding of what you are purchasing and it isn’t a particularly complex topic. A common mistake being made by content marketers is writing about particularly complex topics in a bid to gain search authority, however a study by Backlinko found that the average spoken search uses the language / reading level of a 14 year old, i.e. straightforward to understand. Search engines apparently add priority to content which appeals to the masses – hopefully something you are doing already.
  4. Get listed online: Take advantage of the Google My Business listing and make sure your business is listed on the map. A lot of verbal search is associated with location and this is a quick and easy way to help optimise.
  5. Include locally optimised content: Search and particularly voice search is becoming increasingly locally-focussed, so your content needs to be too. As with the long-tail keywords (above), regular content allows you to optimise for local, adding place names and information into whatever you are writing. This will support with better search overall, as well as voice search too.
  6. Get your website performing right: Exactly the same as text search, voice search also prioritises websites that perform well. Work with your web developer to keep your page loading time to a minimum, optimise your images, and generally ensure your website is performing tip top.
  7. Add good image tags: Also known as ‘alt-tags’, images should be uploaded to your files with keywords in the title e.g. ‘Places to Stay in Cheshire’ or ‘Where to Stay in Cheshire’ and then images should also have an ‘alt-tag’ added in the coding. This doesn’t strictly help with voice search as the user can’t see the image, but it does support with overall ranking and don’t forget the prediction about search also highlighted the importance of image optimisation, so you can improve this while you are at it.

This is by no means a complete list and there are lots and lots of nuances you can take advantage of, but in my experience unless you have big budgets for SEO and ads, you get diminishing returns from optimisation. Focus on getting the basics right and the bookings should follow.

Angie Petkovic is managing director of APT Marketing, a specialist tourism, hospitality and leisure agency that supports hotels to gain direct bookings. She is an ex-hotelier herself, running an independent hotel for over 16 years, and has been heavily involved in government consultancy and training initiatives that have helped to develop the industry as a whole.

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