Voice search is going to be huge – and you need to be prepared

I remember first getting access to the internet. It was extraordinary – the ability to communicate with and learn about people thousands of miles away, with limitless access to information.

My first job was to build Euromoney’s first ever corporate website, so I was lucky to be the first person to get online in my department. I’ll never forget the queues of people waiting to try it for themselves.

Some of this makes me think about voice search. Clearly, we’re unlikely to see a revolution of the same size and scope as the internet again in our lifetimes. But there are other developments happening – more incremental, sure, but with just as much potential to change the way we live.

Voice search, I think, is one of them. We couldn’t contemplate life without the internet now - I’m sure in ten years time we’ll wonder how we coped with life without the efficiency of our virtual assistants.

Isn’t voice search all hype?

There’s a commonly repeated prediction that, by 2020, half of all searches will be made by voice. As Rebecca Sentance of Econsultancy points out, that figure might be over-optimistic – it was originally cited specifically in reference to Chinese search engine Baidu, and while it might well be the case for them, that trend is unlikely to be matched around the world.

But that’s not to say that voice search should be written off. Whether it’s by 2020 or a few years later, voice search is going to become a near-dominant means by which users interact with a whole range of online services.

Today, of course, we’re all used to asking Siri or Google Assistant what the weather will be today, or how to get to our next meeting. Even this small iteration of voice search has changed many consumers’ behaviours dramatically. In the coming years, we’re going to see that model replicated and developed at breakneck speed.

What can voice search actually do?

Part of the scepticism around voice search is driven by the fact that the technology is still very young. Currently, voice search sometimes simply doesn’t work – it mishears us, or it misinterprets more complex strings of words.

In addition, the voice search applications currently on the market are often not that useful or enjoyable to use. Take Alexa, for example. I’m a complete Alexa convert – it powers my lighting, multi-room music, and TV, and I’m sold on the sheer convenience. But many of the existing Alexa skills are not enormously useful, or are mainly interesting for their novelty value.

While working on a hackathon project at Simply Business, I activated one too many Alexa skills. And the only one that I found useful (and still use most days) was the Ocado skill. Today, most Alexa skills are very much in their infancy, and user experience is pretty poor.

However, that’s all going to change. We’re all aware that voice search is going to mature, and it’s not going to be long before it becomes an integral part of our daily lives. This will be facilitated by three major developments:

  • The technology will improve, particularly with regard to accuracy of word recognition, and ability to parse more complex queries
  • The number of voice-activated devices is set to grow exponentially, increasing the impetus for consumer-facing businesses to adapt
  • The world is moving away from screens: according to Gartner, by 2020 around 30 per cent of searches will be made without a screen

What about the ‘business of voice search’?

We know that the technology is improving and uptake is growing. So what about the business landscape for voice search?

Currently, it’s pretty clear that the revenue just isn’t there. It’s claimed that two per cent of users have tried voice search, and repeat use amongst those people is low.

There’s also been a rejection of early monetisation attempts in this field, emblemised by the backlash to Google’s attempts to drive revenue through voice. Indeed, the landscape for advertising generally is looking tough - in traditional online media, it’s estimated that publishers are losing £3 billion a year solely because of adblocking.

So, of course, the biggest tech companies are contemplating new ways to drive revenue from the coming explosion in voice search. Whether it’s search or shopping, there are huge gains to be made from this new technology - but the traditional ad model isn’t going to cut it.

One of the most notable results of this has been the blurring of lines between search and retail. Google’s move into retail, through its Shopping product, is perhaps the most successful project of this sort - according to Search Engine Watch and Adthena, Google Shopping is now responsible for 82 per cent of all retail search ad spend in the UK, and 76 per cent in the US. We can expect to see a further convergence of shop and search as voice technologies reach maturity.

 The market could open up

It will be particularly interesting to see how voice search revenue plays out for Google and Amazon in particular. Their dominance in ad spend is overwhelming in traditional online media, but there’s likely to be a fierce battle for revenue among new entrants too.

In Amazon’s case, that blurring between shop and search looks set to become even more of a priority. Earlier this year it was reported that the company is opening Alexa up to advertising from third parties as part of their efforts to monetise their newfound position as a burgeoning search giant.

But the big players are also going to come under fire from new entrants to the market, and these may come in forms that we haven’t already thought of. I’m sure, for example, that car manufacturers are eyeing additional revenue opportunities - imagine driving home in winter and asking your car to turn on the heating for you at home for when you get in.

Imagination is what’s required by those preparing for voice search. The possibilities for this technology are only just being explored. Soon, you’ll be able to talk to your fridge, asking it to stock up on orange juice when you’re running low. Without thinking, you’ll ask your virtual assistant to make restaurant reservations for you, and then send the details to your dining companions.

So how can I prepare?

The explosion of voice technology isn’t a distant-future prediction - it’s right round the corner. Marketers who aren’t prepared are going to be caught out.

The implications will, of course, vary by business. But by way of illustration, I’d like to share what we’re doing to lay the groundwork for voice search at Simply Business, one of the UK’s largest business insurance providers.

The most concrete action we’re taking is a complete structural reset of our PPC activities and our SEO strategy. It looks certain that the search market is going to become more fragmented, and we’re taking strategic action ahead of this. In fact, while the numbers are low, we can already measure the beginnings of the impact of voice - it’s still a small part of the account, but the number of likely voice queries is already increasing significantly.

We’re also encouraging everyone in the business to familiarise themselves with voice technologies, and to begin playing around with some of the interfaces and applications. Simply Business recently participated in a Google hackathon focusing on voice search.

And in the office, we have built our own Alexa skill and Google action in partnership with our charity partner Whizz-Kidz, where we made use of the Transport for London API to give wheelchair users accessible travel information around the capital. We are incredibly proud of this project - you can read more about it here.

However you choose to do it, I believe it’s absolutely crucial that marketers in every industry begin to lay the foundations for a voice strategy in their business. The voice revolution is coming - and you need to make sure you’re not left behind.

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