Agility and for some, a complete pivot has been a common occurrence for many British SMEs throughout the pandemic. Businesses have realised it is near impossible to communicate with the consumer without the omni-channels of technology. Olga Andrienko, Head of Global Marketing at Semrush talks through how organisations have shifted their business and skill-set to digital and the advances of voice technology. According to a recent survey by Starling Bank, the UK’s SMEs are starting to feel more optimistic about their business outlooks for the year ahead. Smaller organisations around the UK that have been disproportionately impacted by the pressures of the pandemic, having to pivot where possible to very distanced interactions with their customers and boosting their digital skills. This is an area where many smaller businesses have had to rapidly shift their focus to stay afloat, and yet also acknowledge a skills gap in their organisations when it comes to digital transformation. And further need for transformation is coming. Adding to the digital demands on small businesses around the UK is the growing influence of voice tech, particularly voice search. At-home virtual assistants have become incredibly widespread in recent years. Well over a quarter of UK households have virtual assistants within their walls, and studies have also shown that their use increased by 40% during 2020’s lockdowns. But their influence goes well beyond the confines of people’s homes. It is also shaping how people search, shop, and exist online – and how search results are fed and ranked. And if this is one area where SMEs have had to dramatically raise their game throughout 2020 to remain in front of customers, this will only increase in 2021. Our own research has found that 20% of users, globally, are already using voice search instead of ‘traditional’ search engine access. Some 58% of voice users ask their assistants about local businesses. If that stat alone isn’t enough to make small business owners want to learn more about how to work with voice assistants, then this fact should be. Not all voice assistants are equal when it comes to returning the same results or assistance. However, there are some underlying tips which can be shared for business owners who want to understand how voice will impact their customers and their business. Understanding how each assistant then aggregates their search results can then also be considered. Firstly, the three most commonly used assistants on the market are the Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa – and understanding how these differ from each other and optimise for the areas where they overlap is paramount. For example – the average answer length for all virtual assistants in our study was 23 words, while Google’s Assistant tends to return longer answers at an average of 41 words. Business owners need to carefully consider the realisation that this may be all they have to work with when it comes to future search returns for their companies. The good news is that for Google-run devices, the best course of action to standout with voice is for SMEs to focus on their ‘regular’ local SEO approaches. By maintaining the Local Pack – the map-led feature which appears in 1/3 of all searches for local businesses – companies should be kept in good stead. The business then should focus on making sure that its content is kept to a human tone of voice – matching and adapting to how people actually ask questions instead of looking for common search terms. In contrast, Apple’s Siri prioritises good Yelp ratings and positive customer reviews. If a business can rate highly with both, it should boost the popularity in that location with Siri. It is also powered by Apple Maps, meaning that the distance from the searcher’s location to a business is also a primary factor – and often something which a SME has no control over. When it comes to Alexa, it appears that it is primarily used as a home device rather than a search portal – it returns the shortest answers of any device, and also the highest percentage of unanswered questions. This is as Alexa was designed first and foremost to help people to shop directly, rather than to find out new information. Our study likened asking Alexa common search questions to searching on Amazon.com for who the first king of Prussia was – it just wasn’t initially designed for that purpose. When it comes to recommending local businesses, Alexa takes recommendation from the Microsoft Bing search engine, which also prioritises customer reviews and Yelp ratings. Due to these differences in producing the results, our study found that there is only a 10% crossover in recommended businesses at present, across the different virtual assistants on the market. To a small business owner who has just navigated the demands of the pandemic, adjusting a strategy to Voice may seem a lower priority issue right now. However, the effects of Voice will soon start to impact the unwary. Over half of all searches conducted now involve voice. It is predicted that voice commerce will be worth up to £5billion by 2022. Moreover, tips for optimising for voice will also have benefits for ‘normal’ search too. One business we work with (Lionbridge) saw a 127% traffic volume increase year on year, through the tactics it deployed to be fit for the rise of voice. Simply put, optimising your business for voice searches also means optimising its general search presence too. It is truly a win/win – and businesses who do not factor it into their plans could easily find themselves falling far behind without a little light maintenance on their rankings. Sadly, small enterprises who have survived possibly their toughest ever trading period are not out of the woods yet, and need to focus on further innovation, and boosting digital savvy even more than they inevitably had to in 2020 to stay ahead of the changes coming. It looks like Voice will continue to play a greater role as it integrates further into people’s lives and personal tech. Even those previously resistant to its use may find themselves won over as the mechanics of search realign and improve thanks to its growing use and integration with daily life. It will come to have a dramatic influence on the ‘findability’ of local and small businesses – and that could mean holding the key to future success or failure when it comes to serving local customers, and keeping your SME thriving long into the future.