Voice search has been a buzzy topic in digital marketing for the past few years, and it’s likely to continue dominating conversations in the marketing arena for years to come. By now we all have heard this famous prediction by ComScore that - “By 2020, half of all searches will be conducted via voice.” It only makes sense that so many of us are interested in the future of voice search -- voice-activated technology is gaining traction with consumers and is expected to continue to grow by leaps and bounds. Voice is the new frontier, even if no one knows exactly what that frontier will look like just yet.
Below we break down the reasons consumers are turning to voice search, as well as the limitations that still prevent it from dominating over text-based search and browsing.
The big players in voice search
The two biggest players in voice search currently are Amazon’s Alexa (built-in to Amazon Echo speakers) and Google Home. Both Google and Amazon are investing heavily in improving the accuracy of their respective voice recognition technologies, as well as in getting their devices into the homes of consumers. Amazon is also investing in getting their Echo speakers into cars, a natural place for voice technology to take root.
Apple’s Siri has been around longer than Google and Amazon’s voice technologies, but the company’s connected speaker, HomePod, lagged in getting to market. Still, Apple has the built-in advantage of a loyal following eager for a seamless integration between devices.
The consumer appeal of voice search
In an ideal world, voice search is designed to deliver a frictionless experience of searching the web. It allows consumers to engage with the web when they don’t have a screen in front of them and/or when their hands aren’t free for typing. Because connected speakers are activated via voice command, the user doesn’t need anything other than speech to interact with them.
The nature of voice search as untethered to either visual or text-based input/output makes it available to consumers in settings where the web was previously either inaccessible, or very difficult to access. This means consumers can harness the power of the web in new scenarios, like while driving a car, or cooking a meal.
For now, there is also a novelty factor to the appeal of connected devices and voice search. These devices simply feel futuristic to many of us, and this fact has no doubt influenced adoption, particularly of devices at lower price points.
However, the idea of voice search as frictionless and fun must be taken with a grain of salt because, as we’ll outline below, there are limitations inherent to existing voice search technology.
The limitations of voice search
It’s important to understand that voice search is not without limitations. These limitations are what have prevented it from completely obliterating the text-based search market so far.
Despite recent improvements in accuracy in voice recognition technology (Google, in particular, is making a concerted push in this area), machines still regularly fail to understand human speech and intent. Anyone who owns a connected speaker inevitably has tales of times it has failed to correctly comprehend their meaning and delivered incorrect or downright bizarre responses. These experiences are frustrating for users and have a limiting effect on the perceived usefulness of connected devices.
Limited to no browsing functionality
When it comes to voice search, there really is no such thing as browsing. There isn’t currently a use case where a user could turn to voice search to, for example, discover and peruse a new content site. Voice search can resolve an immediate and specific query, but it’s far less useful for broad discovery, something that text-based search excels at.
Furthermore, by default voice search only provides a single answer to a query. In order to unearth more answers, the user is forced to further prompt the machine. This is arguably not a better user experience than text-based searching, which by default usually produces a minimum of ten results.
Voice search is currently only shoppable in a very limited sense. It’s easy to imagine a world where you would order cosmetics or pantry items via your Amazon Echo. In those cases, you likely already have a shampoo brand preference that makes it simple to tell Alexa to order that specific item, or you may not care very much about the brand, you just need to replenish the cinnamon on your spice rack with whatever Alexa chooses to recommend.
The same cannot be said of any item that requires more consideration on behalf of the consumer. You probably wouldn’t buy something expensive without seeing it first, and you would be unlikely to purchase clothing without having a picture of the fabric, the color, the cut, etc.
It’s possible that voice search will evolve in such a way that allows it to overcome these limitations, but it’s important to recognize the current state of the technology’s usefulness to consumers.
Voice search as it relates to brand marketing
Voice search presents intriguing opportunities for brands to expand their marketing efforts and capture new audiences. The full extent of the marketing use cases of voice technology remain to be seen, but there are some avenues brands can begin exploring now.
Voice search optimization
As we’ve established earlier in this article, the way voice search operates is distinct from the way text-based search operates. The queries consumers input are different. Voice searches are often longer and more specific, with less of an exploratory component. The output of a single query response means that users know to be make more specific queries and commands (ie; longtail) in order to get to the desired result.
What this means for brands is that it’s important to begin to outline the framework of a voice search strategy. Ask yourself what questions your brand is positioned to answer. Where and when do your products or services fill a need? Optimize for voice-based queries that could conceivably surround these ideas and user contexts.
Advertising opportunities are sure to come, but they aren’t here yet. When they do arrive brands will have to find a balance between favoring early adoption and the performance pitfalls that can come along with being first on the bandwagon. In the meantime, there are existing opportunities to create organic reach opportunities by creating content for Google actions or Amazon Skills
The evolution of voice search technology and the growing market share of such searches are something brands and marketers should be watching closely over the next few years. Brands should capitalize on opportunities where they exist without putting too much emphasis on voice search at the expense of other channels.