The use of chatbots and digital assistants is not a new phenomenon, but 2019 could be the game-changing year for voice search. Terms like “answer engine optimization” are now becoming part of the business vernacular and marketers are eyeing up Alexa Skills and Google Home Actions as ways to be present on these devices. And it’s not hard to see why.
According to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report in 2016, voice searches increased more than 35-fold between 2008 and 2016. As of January 2018, there were an estimated one billion voice searches per month according to Alpine.AI, while ComScore estimates that more than 50 percent of searches will be voice-based by 2020.
This trend is driven in part by the increased sophistication of voice-recognition systems — Google’s AI read over 2,865 romance novels in order to improve its conversational search abilities, while Microsoft’s voice recognition software now has an error rate of just 5.1 percent, equal to that of its human counterparts. And of course, the early lead taken by Amazon in the connected speakers market reflects its huge investment in voice-driven user experience — an investment that is also paying dividends through its use of speech capability to guide calls in contact center environments.
But while technology is the enabler, the biggest driver of this shift toward voice user interfaces is ever-changing user demands. As the number of people who are not only using voice search, but who are finding it a seamless and reliable way to communicate with brands grows, it is likely that nearly every application will integrate voice technology in some way in the next five years.
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Why businesses must adapt now
Consumers are demanding by nature and the expectation of instant solutions is one that businesses have the opportunity to monetize. The reluctance to shift platforms, for example, is where digital assistants and chatbots come into their own. Voice search offers opportunities for marketers, particularly in terms of what the technology could reveal about customer wants and needs.
Local companies with bricks-and-mortar stores, in particular, have to start focusing on this area — many of the most common voice searches are local businesses. This is putting local SEO at a premium. Part of this is due to the parallel trend of an increased number of mobile searches — Data for Google claims that 20 percent of mobile queries are voice searches. This is a huge source of potential traffic that many businesses are unaware of.
In essence, the brands that are best able to integrate most effectively with this exciting new interface, and deliver relevant results, are also most likely to unlock significant business advantage. But as messaging apps and voice assistants increasingly become the way consumers communicate with businesses, companies need to start thinking seriously about how they will connect to consumers on these conversational interfaces.
Brands and marketers need to respond to the rise of voice commerce and bots by making sure their data, and tagging, is high-quality. This is a basic requirement when introducing new commerce channels — and very frustrating for customers when retailers get it wrong.
The voice of the customer
To maximize the potential of voice-activated search, brands need to stand firm in the shoes of the end-user and ensure they create experiences powered by software that is not only genuinely useful, but also easy to adopt and integrate into the user journey. For retailers, for example, this means using voice search not as a direct sales tool but instead to help customers with a problem, or offer quality interactive, personalized advice.
Voice search could soon become the go-to customer service tool. As well as an opportunity to transform end-user experience and service, it also enables businesses to track and collect data on user behaviors, frequently asked questions and dwell time — a valuable asset in any organization’s digital strategy.
Thus far, major players like Amazon and Google have held back from introducing any kind of paid search advertising for voice. One of the reasons for this caution is that voice advertising has the potential to be more intrusive and irritating than visual or text-based ads — there’s no option to skim or scroll past a voice ad. In early 2017, a number of Google Home devices surprised their owners by delivering what appeared to be an advertisement for the movie Beauty and the Beast — though Google stridently denied that the short plug was intended as an ad — giving rise to instant backlash.
The voice of the future
Voice search has come a long way from its humble, arguably awkward beginnings, and it has a bright future ahead of it. We’ll start by seeing gradual, iterative advancements in natural language understanding, possibly so gradual we don’t even notice them, and eventually, we’ll get used to augmented reality and personalization features that completely revolutionize the world of search.
Brands that are able to maintain the human connection by delivering relevant, personalized and direct results through voice search are those most likely to unlock the game-changing opportunity it presents. A further challenge for businesses in enabling voice search technology is, of course, ensuring they have a fast and reliable network in place that can cope with the anticipated increase in demand. Connected technology will only ever operate as efficiently as the network foundation it is sitting on.