James Murray


Are We Ready for Voice Search?

The year that voice search finally breaks through?

We’re several weeks into 2015 and some New Year’s resolutions have already failed spectacularly, the optimism of just a few weeks ago replaced with the grim reality of getting back to our normal routines. However, despite our collective lack of willpower to see through our promises of self-improvement, there is still plenty of enthusiasm for what the year ahead can bring and what this means for tech predictions. Of all the big trends that are coming to fruition in 2015, the one that excites me most is the growth of voice search.

I firmly believe that we are going to see a big change in the way that we search, and that voice is at the heart of that change. We’ve been typing queries into search engines for almost two decades, but when you think about, typing keywords into a box is a pretty unnatural way of discovering information. We’ve only learned to search using keywords because of how search engines were originally designed, but our natural curiosity springs from language.

The benefits of natural language queries

Usually when we want to find information we articulate it as a question. We do this every day, probably without even realising it. I was watching Snow White & the Huntsman over the holidays and I was surprised to see what looked like Nick Frost playing one of the dwarves. My first inclination was to lean over to my wife and ask: “Is that Nick Frost?” and because we couldn’t decide for sure, inevitably we turned to Search to solve the mystery.

A quick search on Bing for “nick frost imdb filmography” gave me the answer I was looking for – he was indeed in Snow White & the Huntsman as the dwarf Nion. But look at how my query was shaped by my previous search experience. Instead of asking the question “Was Nick Frost in Snow White and the Huntsman?” I cut out everything extraneous to the essential keywords where I knew I would get the answer I needed. Because I was using a search engine, the query that I typed was nothing like the original question that I formulated when I asked my wife. We think more quickly and naturally in language, and our search engines should be able to adapt to us, not us to them.

Wonderfully, now we actually have the technology to ask natural language questions and for the search algorithms to interpret what we mean. As a test I asked Cortana on my phone: “Is that Nick Frost in Snow White and the Huntsman?” and she provided me with the answer, without me having to click on any result.

In this case, not only was it easier to ask the search engine through voice than typing, the response was quicker too, as I didn’t have to click on any results to get the answer I needed. The problem is, we have become conditioned to feed search engines using a typing mechanism, which raises an interesting question – are we ready for voice search?

The rise of the digital assistant

Data from recent studies from Thrive Analytics and Northstar Research certainly seems to suggest that we are ready to embrace voice search, thanks to the rise of digital assistants. Whilst the first iterations of voice-enabled assistants were somewhat limited, we’ve come a long way in five years. The development of technology and improved functionality enabled in Siri, Cortana and Google Now has seen a dramatic increase in people using digital assistants on their smartphones.  

A June 2014 study by Thrive Analytics found that over half of US adult smartphone users (56%) had used a digital assistant with seven out of ten 18-29 year old smartphone users (71%) making use  of Siri, Cortana or Google Now.


Thrive Analytics “Is the Personal Assistant the Successor to Search?” 9 Oct 2014

These interactions are not just one-offs; the research found that usage of digital assistants had doubled between June 2013 and 2014 and that 24% of users were using voice search on a daily basis.

What’s interesting is that although 35% of digital assistant users did so primarily in the comfort of their own home, almost a third (31%) talked to their phone on the go, overcoming perhaps the biggest obstacle with voice search which is the embarrassment of talking to your phone in public.

Thrive Analytics “Is the Personal Assistant the Successor to Search?” 9 Oct 2014

A further study conducted by Northstar Research on behalf of Google showed even greater adoption, with 55% of teens between the ages of 13 to 18 using Google voice search more than once per day.

The numbers point to an increasing willingness to use voice search. And why not? Voice is very easy to use and more intuitive than keyword search with the added bonus of being hands free which opens up lots of scenarios for searching on the move. 

What does this mean for marketers?

So if search is changing and 2015 is the breakthrough year for voice search what does this mean for marketers and how are these changes going to affect search advertising? I think the first thing to make clear is that these are still relatively early days for voice search. Even though usage is growing, it’s not going to overtake typed queries anytime soon. From a paid search perspective, we are not expecting drastic changes in 2015.

However, for organic search it is definitely worth thinking about how voice search will impact the type of queries that are being made and therefore what needs to be optimised. One thing is for sure: people speak and type very differently when trying to access information. As we saw before with my Nick Frost example, we have conditioned ourselves to search in certain way which revolves around concise use of keywords. Voice search is much more natural so we could well see the return of long query searches such as “nice reasonably priced Italian restaurants in London” rather than “London Italian restaurants”.

Voice also means that semantic search is going to become a lot more powerful. Try typing “I’m hungry” into a search engine right now and the results you will get will be dreadful because they’re driven by keyword rather than semantic search. Voice gives us the opportunity to get to the heart of semantic search and suddenly natural language queries like “I’m hungry” could be best converting query for any restaurant or takeaway service, because the intent behind that search couldn’t be clearer – I need food, show me somewhere to satisfy my hunger.

Personal assistants have the greatest potential to leverage the strengths of both voice and semantic search, as they can understand the context of the query and match that with the information they know about the user, such as their likes, location, habits etc. This combination of voice and semantic search is hugely exciting, and ultimately what could drive search to the next level of utility – understanding semantics and context to provide more personalised, relevant results.

Are we ready for voice search? You’d better believe it.


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5 Digital Themes All Search Marketers Should Be Thinking About

Recently, I had the pleasure of presenting at the IAB Search Conference which, as always, was a fascinating deep-dive into the hot topics that the search industry is grappling with at the moment. This year there were presentations from Google (understanding consumer behaviour), Marin Software (PPC market trends), iProspect (making PPC hyper local), 7thingsmedia (repositioning affiliates in search), IgnitionOne (attribution) and DoubleClick (audience planning) along with two panel debates on the value of paid search and paying for branded search terms.

There were some great insights shared at the conference but what struck me is the recurrence of several themes which ran through the threads of the presentations. Search is definitely becoming more user-centric and as an industry we are becoming more invested in understanding audiences across multiple channels and devices. Many of these themes will be familiar to you and so rather than write a post on big data or the internet of things, both of which are covered off in much more detail elsewhere, I thought I would share a few of the nuggets that I learned from the IAB Search Conference and how they tie into these wider themes.

Campaigns need to be integrated to get best results

Integrated campaigns seems to be one of the key themes of 2014 with the message coming through loud and clear that working in silos simply won’t cut it anymore in the modern marketing world.

One of the highlights from Jon Myers’ presentation from Marin Software was the case study that showed a 2x higher click rate for campaigns where search and social were integrated. This research shows the benefit of search and social teams collaborating to target customers more effectively. The evidence of the Marin study suggests that there is a significant gain to be made by bringing these two digital channels together, the synergy of which is much greater than the sum of the parts.

clip_image002Source: Marin Software’s Combining the Power of Search and Social for Exponential ROI report

Marin recently conducted a study across 200 search and social advertisers and found that customers who were exposed to both search and social ads and were nearly twice as likely to convert than customers exposed to just the search ad. Audiences touched by both ads had an 89% higher conversion rate and 367% higher revenue per click than people who just saw the search ad which means if someone sees both search and social ads not only are they more likely to buy, they are also going to spend more when they do buy.

Of course, bringing together different parts of the business, even parts which should align quite naturally, can be quite a challenge but the data is compelling for why we should be moving towards more integrated marketing teams.

Understanding intent has never been more important

Search data gives us a unique insight into the mood of the nation. It reveals so much about who we are, what we are interested in and where the gaps in our knowledge exist. If you want to know what the UK is really interested in, look at what they’re searching for and particularly what questions they’re asking. It’s a true barometer of intent.

As an example I’ve created a word cloud below of the most searched for “why” questions in the UK in May. You can quickly start to see that there are some fascinating insights here into what the nation is thinking about. Everything from their health “why am I always tired” to their relationships “why did I get married?” But behind each of these searches is an intent, either for knowledge or for advice that could prompt an action.


The real value of intentions though is being able to understand them in the context of a particular situation. This was highlighted brilliantly in Sandra McDill’s talk about hyper local PPC. You see, it doesn’t matter how clever search gets at being able to target people in a very specific location, the intent behind that search is still crucial to the context of the kind of ad they need to be served.

Sandra summed it up with a beautiful analogy of buying flowers at a hospital. We have the technology now to locate a customer in a hospital, probably down to a specific hospital wing in some cases. However, despite our ability to be able to serve a highly localised ad when someone is in hospital searching for flowers, we still need to know the intent behind that search. The same customer in the hospital could be searching for flowers to celebrate a birth, commiserate a death or to say “Thank you” to a nurse. As each situation needs a very different approach, hyper local alone is not enough to guarantee success with advertising. The human touch is still very important to digital marketing.

Seamlessly connected experiences across devices

We’ve been talking about a generation of second screeners for a while now and research from Microsoft shows that the average UK household now has six internet-connected devices and that 75% of UK families are second screening. What we haven’t talked about so much is how these devices are all starting to connect and talk to each other to provide seamless user experiences regardless of the device being used.


As more of our digital lives migrate to the cloud, we are starting to see this trend take off where you can access any of your documents or data from any of your devices. We’re also seeing technology enable journeys to start on one device and be picked up on another. So for example if you start a browser session on your mobile and have multiple tabs open, you can switch to another device like a laptop and continue the journey seamlessly with all the same tabs open.

For the always on generation it makes sense to be able to switch seamlessly between devices to continue our journeys as effortlessly as possible. I think this has particular implications for the retail industry, as many purchase journeys can start on a phone but could then be continued on another device. The ability to start browsing on your phone whilst window shopping on the high street and then pick up seamlessly where you left off later at home to purchase could have big implications for digital marketers in the near future.

Online and offline can complement each other

Every year we hear about how online is killing the high street and for every high street brand that folds, inevitably its demise is partly blamed on the rise of competition from online. However, it’s long been a contention of mine and others that digital can help save the high street and that properly employed, online can help boost offline conversions rather than stealing market share away.

This falls into the wider theme of integration – with online and offline working in harmony to the mutual benefit of the customer. Fiona Gandy of 7thingsmedia highlighted a great case study from The Body Shop and Vouchercloud which ably demonstrates how online can add to offline sales. In this case, the affiliate’s effective use of ad copy in a promotion helped drive a 208% increase in in-store revenue resulting in 17,000 new offline orders. The campaign also had increased interaction through social with an 8% redemption rate through Twitter and 16% click through on Facebook advertising.

During Google’s presentation, Harry Davies mentioned American Apparel for using physical stores to push online sales. Given the sensitive nature of their items, American Apparel could see that customers weren’t necessarily comfortable buying underwear in store. To offer an alternative solution, the company localised PPC ads to be displayed in the immediate vicinity of their stores. The result was that customers who were embarrassed to go in store were able to buy products online and PPC sales went through the roof.

I think we are going to see more of this crossover between the online and offline worlds, with a greater emphasis on making shoppers feel comfortable doing their shopping when and where they want regardless of time, place or device.

Bidding on your own brand terms is a necessary search tactic

Much has been made of the eBay paper which questioned the effectiveness of bidding on brand terms and this made for some healthy debate in the panel group discussions. Of the assembled expertise in the conference there was almost unanimous agreement that not only was paid search delivering value but it was also essential to bid on your own brand terms.

The argument against bidding on your own brand terms is that without a PPC ad most people would just click on the natural search link. However, page one search space is a coveted spot and bidding on brand terms ensures companies get two bites of the same cherry for a given keyword. Particularly in an age where, despite being clearly labelled, 40% of people don’t realise that the top search results are ads the danger of not bidding on your own brand terms are that the organic listings are squeezed below the fold and your website receives lower levels of traffic.

Having a paid and natural search link also reduces the amount of space competitors can get on the SERPs, pushing other brands further down the page and reducing their chance of getting clicked on. Ultimately, maximising exposure in both paid and natural links for any keyword is a valuable commodity in this market. If that means having to bid on your own brand terms, so be it.

So there it is folks. Another great IAB conference with some really interesting insights, data and debates. I feel like I’ve learned something, and that’s always a sign of a good conference. Looking forward to next year.

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Optimising UK Paid Travel Campaigns to Search Seasonality

Changing seasons, changing mind-set

After months of dreary British weather there is definitely evidence that summer is coming. Evenings are getting lighter, the sun is shining more often and heavy coats are gradually being stowed away for another year. With the change of the seasons also comes a change in the consumer mind-set as people start looking ahead to their summer holidays. The peak summer travel season is about to kick off, and with that in mind, we wanted to share some thoughts and insights into how to optimise your search campaigns to make the most of the latest online trends.

The next quarter could either make or break a year for travel companies and so it is essential to make sure that each search campaign is targeted towards the needs of consumers you are trying to reach. Whether that’s in luxury cruises or bargain bucket holidays – your marketing needs to reflect what your customers desire.

Where, When and How are consumers searching for travel?

In the UK, there is a major peak of travel search activity that occurs during July and August each year. However, you can see from the chart below that there is a significant jump in click volume in May which is the perfect time to start optimising campaigns and capitalising on increased online interest from your customers.


Looking at last year’s data, you can see that there was particular growth in May for searches for holidays and travel agents, whereas growth of other travel categories starts to accelerate in June. May represents the initial research phase of the purchase cycle where consumers are deciding where they want to travel rather than necessarily searching for specific flights and accommodation. Later in June, when consumers are getting closer to a purchase, their search behaviour changes towards more specific areas of travel such as flights, cruises and lodging. May is a great time to start marketing to customers to ensure your brand is front of mind when they come to book a holiday.

As the UK increases to embrace technology, mobile clicks in the travel sector grow rapidly. Smartphones have enabled people to search, compare and book travel on the move whether that’s waiting for a coffee in Starbucks or sitting on a train to go to work – technology has enabled consumers to shop whenever and however they like.

According to a Weve study last November, 28% of people now book their flights on their mobile, whilst 33% book a hotel on their phone. Data from the Yahoo Bing Network shows that almost 3 in every 10 travel searches (28%) are now done on a mobile device. For the modern always-on consumer, mobile is quickly become the method of choice for travel research and bookings.

Particularly for search advertising, you can see from the chart below that the click through rate (CTR) for smartphones and tablets outperforms that of desktop computers.


Tablets are notably ahead across all categories in some cases receiving twice as many clicks as smartphone and desktop searches. The CTR for smartphones is on par with desktops across all travel sectors but when you take into account that the cost-per-click (CPC) for smartphones are 15% lower than for desktops, this creates a compelling reason to be focusing your efforts on mobile advertising.

What do customers want?

Understanding when consumers are online and what devices to target them on is one thing, but what do they actually want? The latest search trends give us some fascinating insight into what people are currently interested in which can act as a guide for your ad copy and content.

Looking at the search volume for the top 50 flight queries in the Yahoo Bing Network, we can get a strong indication of intent for where customers want to go on their holiday. For the purposes of this data, only queries which included a specified destination were counted whilst mainland UK destinations were excluded from the list.


New York emerged as the number one destination that people wanted to visit, up two places from last year’s search rankings. Australia remained popular at number two in the list whilst five of the top 10 spots were occupied by Spanish destinations including Tenerife, Malaga, Alicante, Barcelona and Lanzarote.

Barcelona was one of three new entries into the top 10 and one of a growing list of city break destinations that are becoming increasingly popular in the UK. As the economy continues to recover, Mintel has forecast that holidaymakers will spend more on their trips – upgrading current holidays, spending more per vacation and making more trips than in previous years. City breaks are on the rise as people have more funds available for short weekend breaks abroad which would account for increased search activity in flight searches for Amsterdam, Dublin and Barcelona.

What can you do as an advertiser?

So, what can you do as a search advertiser to take advantage of these trends? There are three simple actions you could take today to capitalise on the trends discussed in this post, namely:

1. Optimise campaigns for key destinations

2. Use ad extensions

3. Ensure your landing pages are optimised for mobile

Matching your campaigns to what consumers are searching for increases the relevance of your ads and makes it more likely that your ads are going to be clicked on. Optimising your campaigns to the key destinations we’ve highlighted above is a good starting point, but further analysis can be done using the Bing Ads Intelligence tool to see what the fast-moving destinations are or which destinations appeal to your core demographic.

Using ad extensions is also a great way of increasing clicks on your ads as well as shortening the conversion funnel for customers looking to get hold of information as quickly and efficiently as possible.


Sitelinks not only double the size of your adverts, creating less space on the page for your competitors, they also attract much a higher CTR than normal ads. Travel advertisers using Sitelinks received a 22% higher CTR than normal travel ads in September 2013.

Finally, your website content and landing pages need to be properly optimised for mobile users. It doesn’t matter how good your search marketing is, if the content you are driving traffic to is poor, your conversion rate is going to be terrible. With 3 in 10 travel searches coming from a mobile device, the volume of mobile traffic cannot be ignored. A recent study by xAd/Telmetrics revealed that an optimised mobile site was the one feature that travel customers prioritised over any other.

Your customers are starting to think about their summer holidays. Armed with the right search insights and tools, you should be able to optimise your travel campaigns to the needs and desires of those customers and make your marketing spend go further with more intelligent, targeted advertising.

Here’s to a great summer.

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