Voice search has been on the rise for a number of years now. Though, it is still in the early stages of experimentation for marketing. 32% of marketers surveyed by Salesforce were using voice-activated personal assistants to support the customer experience. There are huge opportunities for voice technology in the future, but when is the right time to get on-board? Let’s take a look at how it has evolved and what this means for your marketing strategy moving forward.
The progression of voice technology
In 1952, the first speech recognition system was created by Bell Laboratories but could only understand numbers. Without going into the entire history of voice recognition technology, it’s worth noting that, historically, it has been available but not widely adopted. If you owned a computer from 2006 with Windows Vista or Mac OS X operating systems, the technology was there to use. Alas, no one used those features.
Voice search popularity only started to gain traction as smartphones developed. In 2008, Google released a voice recognition app for the iPhone, allowing users to make basic enquiries. Apple later released Siri in 2011, which vastly impacted the popularity of personal voice assistants.
Fast forward…We now have access to voice search everywhere. It’s in our watches, phones, cars, and even connected to integrated ‘smart’ systems around our houses. Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, alone has sold over 100 million devices since its general release mid-2015. Within the last decade, voice has developed from lifeless, basic enquiries to personality-driven AI using machine learning to better understand your voice over time – unless you’re Scottish. Seriously, some accents are a legitimate barrier. Here’s a Scotsman talking to smart speakers. Siri can use pop culture references to answer your questions and even attempts philosophical ones, although, we weren’t quite convinced by ALL of the responses.
Voice technology can now do everything from ordering products and playing music to booking reservations and turning your living room light off. Thus, it has safely established its role as a modern-day essential for many. But how many? Well, according to a 2018 Bright Local survey, 58% of consumers used voice search to find local business information during the last year. Uberall’s 2019 voice search report found that 21% of respondents were using voice search every week but 57% of respondents have never used it. While growth predictions for 2020 have been grossly overestimated, voice search queries may still account for around 12% of all Google searches. This is good for you as an early adopter because optimising for it will give you a head-start in its early stages of growth. So how are marketers currently using it?
How voice search is being used by marketers
Marketers using Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) have been pondering the extent to which voice affects Google rankings all year. Generally, it seems experts are optimising for it anyway but don’t consider it to be a significant ranking factor right now. It’s supplementary within SEO strategy but not the main priority.
Most ‘Google voice assistant’ users search using natural, conversational language as opposed to typical keywords such as ‘marketing advice online’. Some content is therefore optimised to suit conversational expressions. Voice assistants often answer questions using featured snippets, which is the information Google provides you without having to click through to a website. Focusing on snippets are helping marketers kill two BERTs with one stone (bad marketing joke). To summarise, SEO experts are optimising for conversational search.
Current challenges for Voice technology
Voice search has merits but certainly isn’t without its flaws. Despite explosive popularity and turning heads in the business world, there are some nagging concerns that may harm substantial future growth. For example, UK consumers are still reluctant to use voice in public settings. Their main use is at home or in the car. Unless attitudes shift more towards embracing public conversations with voice assistants, this is a big limiting factor.
The next problem is a practical one. A Search Engine Land study shows that 24% of respondents found voice responses to be somewhat reliable or not reliable at all. Voice search can not only provide the wrong information, but there is no screen to fall back on when it comes to ‘smart speakers’ like Alexa. This can make them horribly inefficient for some searches. More so, strong accents and local dialect can be challenging for voice assistants, and annoying to the user having to repeat a query several times.
Amazon’s Alexa is a huge hit with 65+ year-old users. After all, having auditory help comes in handy for those physically less able. However, as the audience gets younger, they tend to become more concerned with privacy. 79% of respondents in the previous Search Engine Land study were at least somewhat concerned with the privacy implications of voice search devices. Understandable, considering they are being recorded in private settings and then sent to a cloud data centre. That requires a high level of trust.
The future of voice search
We know that voice search hasn’t yet been widely adopted and normalised publicly, but it’s supplementary in an increasing number of digital marketing strategies. The majority of consumers aren’t using it; however, in the previous Uberall survey, while 57% of respondents had never adopted voice assistants, only 30% expressed no intention of using them in the future. Even then, many of the naysayers are still susceptible to changes as new technology and usage grows.
It seems voice search technology isn’t quite at the stage for it to be universally adopted. Although, as more businesses begin to optimise for natural dialogue, improve online user experience, and include accurate business information, we will likely see the huge untapped market of consumers who are open to voice search continue to boost the industry’s value. We can already see big players in this market like Amazon pushing to squash existing negative perceptions in their advertising. Watch them use music legend Robbie Williams to help mass adoption and present Alexa as human-like with wit and humour.
Companies like Apple, Google and Amazon will also need to address the pressing issue of privacy, which is of increasing concern to the next generation of British consumers. Privacy has been a recent area of focus from Apple and Facebook in particular. If successful, it’s likely other companies will follow and break down, perhaps, the largest hurdle voice search needs to overcome.