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For the first time, online retail sales surpassed brick-and-mortar general merchandise sales in 2019, demonstrating consumers’ continuing shift towards digital spending.

Mobile devices are responsible for much of the growth in e-commerce. Smartphones have largely supplanted desktops as consumers’ preferred means of accessing the internet, with mobile representing 52% of overall website traffic.

As commerce moves to the web — and especially to the mobile web — search behavior is also undergoing radical shifts. Because it allows for quick, “on the go” searches, voice is gaining traction as a search channel. Forty-eight percent of consumers conduct voice searches today, and analysts expect its share of the search market to continue rising.

It’s not just phones and computers that support voice. Chances are, your next car, refrigerator and maybe even toaster will offer voice control. It is likely to be the primary means of managing smart devices moving forward—helping to support a positive feedback loop of greater and greater consumer comfort with the technology.

Voice offers opportunities to engage consumers in a new way, and given the distribution and diversity of smart hardware, it will continue to grow.

So how can financial-services brands begin preparing for a voice-first future? To develop a winning voice strategy, financial institutions should build a plan around the kinds of activities that a voice user is likely to undertake. The following sections cover the three primary categories.

In general, voice optimization is very similar to traditional search engine optimization (SEO). Voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and Cortana will typically return results that would appear at the top of the search engine results page (SERP), so your voice-search strategy should look similar to your overall SEO strategy — with a few caveats.

Branded Search Queries Differ in Voice Channel

For these, the searcher uses a specific brand name. Examples might be “What is the phone number for the Bank X in La Jolla?” or “What is the nearest Bank X branch to me?”

In conventional “typed” searches, branded queries are likely to be purchase-oriented. That is, a search user will typically use branded search terms when they are already low in the funnel and close to converting.

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Branded voice searches, by contrast, tend to be more loyalty-oriented. Voice users will employ branded terms when they want to re-engage with brands for which they are already a customer.

To optimize for branded voice terms, therefore, you must understand what kinds of information consumers will be seeking from your site and surface this on the site. Getting the details right is critical: Because voice is still new as a search channel, incorrect information may turn users away from interacting with your site via voice.

In addition to following SEO best practices, like the proper use of on-page tags and a clearly structured URL naming convention, banks and credit unions should apply schema markup to key information like addresses, phone numbers and prices. (Schema is a semantic vocabulary of tags, or “microdata,” that brands can add to their HTML to improve the way search engines read and represent their pages in SERPs.)

Schema tags are how web pages communicate key pieces of data to search crawlers. You can see it in search snippets, which provide essential information from the page on the SERP (and often provide the content for voice results).

To further optimize your outcomes in branded voice searches, determine if the SERP experience for a given term matches that query. Does the right address come up? Does the voice experience match the desktop results for the same term? Search engines reward consistency and quality with better rankings.

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Nonbranded Search Queries: Going for the ‘Answer Box’

Nonbranded queries are often more educational and upper-funnel in nature. Examples include “What’s the difference between checking and savings accounts?” or “What’s the best no-fee checking account for me?”

The goal for nonbranded terms should be to win the Answer Box result at the very top of the SERP. Voice bots typically pull their answers from what’s in the Answer Box — so for the terms you’re targeting, see what content is in that spot and aim to improve upon it.

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As with branded terms, getting SEO right is important to winning an Answer Box result. Your on-page content must also be very strong.

What search engines are looking for, specifically, are answer elements: words in your content like “what” and “how.” Google’s algorithm loves lists, either bulleted or numbered, that break down an answer into its constituent parts.

Seek to address the query in as many ways as possible to boost your chances of landing in the Answer Box. In addition to steps in list format, do you provide the information in a chart, or in a video? The more comprehensively you can answer a question, the better your odds of moving to the top of the SERP and getting more voice “traffic.”

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Branded Skills Set Voice Search Apart

Skills are something new that voice-search tools bring to the table. For example, McDonald’s recently introduced an Alexa skill focused on job applications, previewing what is possible for brands in the coming years.

Currently, voice skills are like mobile apps in their early days: demand is low because the technology is nascent, but there is a definite sense that the web is on the cusp of something big and potentially transformative.

More and more devices are gaining voice functionality: refrigerators, cars, sound bars, phones et al. As consumers grow more comfortable using voice, brands can deepen their customer relationships and drive loyalty by facilitating skill-based voice interactions.

Developing a skill is like creating an app, as evidenced by the fact that many major voice platforms offer developer guidelines to provide standardization and operate a “skill store” from which users download individual skills.

Yet, skills today remain relatively simplistic, with a popular one being a “joke of the day” skill for Alexa. Still, there is an opportunity for other brands — especially in financial services — to build their own branded skills.

“Alexa what is my Bank X checking account balance?” “Alexa, when is my Bank X credit card payment due?” With a skill that ties into your customer data, these kinds of interactions are feasible: driving more consumer satisfaction and greater engagement on a totally new channel.

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