The rise of voice search: What do businesses really need to know?
Voice & Data Convergence

The rise of voice search: What do businesses really need to know?

Last year seemed to be the time when voice search matured. In fact, a 2016 study released by Google, showed voice search made up 20 percent of mobile queries. It saw multiple iterations of voice search driven intelligent assistants like Alexa on the Amazon Echo and Amazon Echo Dot, Google Assistant on the Google Pixel phone and on Google Home, and Cortana for Windows 10. While these all offer increasingly sophisticated functionality, they are far from perfect and are still inferior to good old fashioned text searching in many ways.

Despite this, we seem set to increasingly embrace voice as a search mechanism in a variety of different contexts. Jamie Hill, CEO of adMarketplace, a search advertising network, believes voice search will not kill text search because it is different, not revolutionary. He says there are several technical and user experience hurdles that voice search has to overcome, in order to be a disruptive technology.

 

How close is the holy grail of voice search?

Automated voice technology has been clunky at best. The ideal voice search scenario, according to Hill, facilitates a hands-free conversation between man and machine, but this holy grail of voice search, from a consumer perspective, is years away. “This type of exchange relies on two technologies that are currently far from perfect, namely natural language search and voice recognition, as well as one branch of technology that’s not even close: Artificial Intelligence.”

He adds that most user searches are private experiences. People will certainly feel comfortable utilising voice search in the comfort of their cars or homes, but voice search will likely not become the norm for public social behaviour. “Even if we perfect voice search, it’s not likely to replace text search in the near future,” he says. From Hill’s perspective this is important in terms of the use of voice search in branding and advertising, since if a new technology doesn’t fundamentally change the way customers shop and interact with brands, it can hardly be considered disruptive.

Marie Louise Dalton, Marketing Director at Hitwise, is more optimistic, saying that voice search may define the next generation of search, likely leading to an era of device-less search. Currently, mobile searches are out-performing desktop searches – the average device split is currently 72 per cent for mobile and 28 per cent for desktop. However, Dalton says, with Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home providing consumers with ways to perform search queries and get information without the use of a screen, we can expect to see these figures evolve. According to Google’s mobile voice study, 55 per cent of teens use voice search at least once a day, compared to just 41 per cent of adults.

“As these technologies become more integrated into our everyday lives and consumers become ever-more comfortable interacting with a browser, searches will soon become even longer and more conversational in tone as a result of this and reflect the way we speak rather than type, leading to a more natural process for searching.”

 

How are user behaviour and algorithms driving change?

Kevin Bobowski, SVP of Marketing at BrightEdge, says that given the recent proliferation of attention on voice search and enhanced mobile capabilities, this percentage will only increase. He says people are becoming more comfortable being conversant with their devices. This continuing rise in popularity is changing how consumers phrase Google queries. Rather than plugging in keywords, consumers ask questions in full sentences. With the addition of voice, searches are no longer queries, which centre on keywords, but are now fully framed questions which turn the focus on intent.

“The Google algorithm itself is evolving to provide searchers with the one best result, eliminating the need for users to click off the search engine results page (SERP) to the brand pages,” Bobowski says. “Voice results are also more likely to be visual because we use voice search when we are busy so picture results are easier to consume. These rich answers help the search engine giant address micro-moments, intent-rich moments when decisions are made and preferences shaped.”

For Bobowski, this also means securing the rich slots on Google, such as local 3-packs and Quick Answers, will likely become even more important for brand recognition and reputation. The ability of brands to optimise and get their sites featured in these answers will dictate their visibility for a growing number of users.

Gartner predicts that by 2020, the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse. Nils Lenke, senior director of corporate research at Nuance Communications, says that, from Amazon Alexa and voice-operated TVs in the home, to the connected car, and dominating customer service interactions on both the phone and online, intelligent solutions will increasingly incorporate voice for user-intuitive services.

This reflects consumer demand, with research conducted by Nuance last year indicating that 89 per cent of consumers want to engage in conversation with virtual assistants to quickly find information instead of searching through web pages or a mobile app on their own. This is the same for the phone channel, where the majority of consumers indicated they prefer to engage with a system that lets them speak naturally when calling in to a business.

Maarten Ectors, VP of IoT at Canonical, says that while there has been a great deal of optimism about the drastic improvements in voice search technology, both within phones and so-called interfaceless home assistants, we are far from a reality where voice is the primary interface for search.

 

Will IoT mean every device is voice activated?

Ectors does see promise in voice search, noting that as the Internet of Things evolves, many connected devices simply will not be able to support a screen-based interface. This may be because it is more expensive to incorporate a screen/UI or because the device is too small or inconveniently positioned to support a display or related physical peripherals. “As a result, voice search and activation is set to become a major consideration for the next generation of connected tech.”

Mass adoption, though, is further off than it may seem. Canonical’s survey of over 350 IoT professionals found that the vast majority of developers and vendors believe that total adoption of voice controls is at least five to 10 years away. One in five even go as far as to say that a future in which every device is voice enabled will simply never happen. While there is high demand from consumers for voice-enabled devices, clearly there is still something holding the development of such technologies back, Ectors says.

One of the biggest challenges currently facing voice-search is the potential confusion posed by having multiple devices responding to voice commands all within the same environment. Rather than enabling all devices with voice functionality, the preferable solution, he says, is to develop a central, voice-activated ‘hub’ that users can communicate with to control all other devices within the environment.

The core issue with a hub approach is that interoperability becomes a problem and the IoT environment would need to be more unified to make this happen. Canonical’s research shows that 70 per cent of IoT professionals think that it will take at least two years before such cross-device interoperability is achieved.

Core to mass adoption is also the value such technologies bring to customers. “If voice is just a different interface then the value might not justify wide adoption,” Ectors says. Added value could take many forms. Ectors cites the example of a talking and listening fridge. Ask it for groceries, order pizzas, have a courier pick up a package and many more. Canonical has already demoed at Mobile World Congress how Alexa changes the world of elevators. “Shortly voice enabling any type of device will be a snap away,” he says.

Lenke cautions that a successful bot will also need to be capable of holding an intelligent, two-way conversation with the user. “Like a human, it must be able to understand the context of the conversation when the user changes the subject, when they use colloquialisms, or conversational words and phrases. Currently, most bots are not sophisticated enough to understand and follow the context of the conversation.”

Mitul Gandhi, CEO and founder of seoClarity, believes that what is often forgotten in the move to voice search is that Siri, Google, Alexa and others all need source data that is friendlier to their needs for a single answer.

 

What must companies do to make voice search a reality?

This means that for voice search to truly be effective, it is not so much on the search engines as it is on companies and other organisations to create single-answer-friendly online content. Gandhi lists four steps companies should take to make voice search a reality sooner rather than later.

Firstly, voice searches are very specific, so companies need to change the focus of their content strategies to provide information with in-depth answers to highly-specific questions your people might ask at different stages of the buying cycle. Secondly, voice searches use plain English, so in the long-term, companies need to create content that uses semantic keywords, and then optimise it for a greater number of queries.

Gandhi says that voice searches often are people looking for information about products they may purchase, so companies should create content that delivers information that targets the awareness and evaluation stages of the buying cycle. Lastly, voice searches are very often local, even if not stated as such in the search, so companies should incorporate new strategies that show that they’re relevant to a search locally. For example, since Amazon Echo uses Yelp for local results, focusing on online local business directories will help you give it the answer it needs.

Darryl Beckford, Head of Digital Acceleration at KCOM, believes that, if used properly, voice controlled tools can drastically improve customer experience and reduce operating costs. Using a tool such as Alexa can help the call centre in many ways – from checking how many agents are online and how many high level customers are in a queue, to using analytics to achieve business benefits.

“Voice automation and speech recognition technology is improving, but its importance as a channel will decline as consumers begin to self-serve through devices such as Alexa in the home. Short frequent activities such as ‘Check my Balance’ are a sweet spot for these AI assistants. The customer benefit is huge – chores become a 10 second activity, rather than an obstructive two minutes via the call centre.”

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Bianca Wright

Bianca Wright is a UK-based freelance business and technology writer, who has written for publications in the UK, the US, Australia and South Africa. She holds an MPhil in science and technology journalism and a DPhil in Media Studies.

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