Voice Search

Voice search allows users to speak their search query to their phone or computer without the need to type on a keyboard or touchscreen. Voice search technology, e.g. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Now and Microsoft’s Cortana, has been around a while, and 63% of people use it at least weekly. According to Comscore, by 2020 50% of search will come from voice.

Voice related search queries have increased 35-fold since 2008, and the majority of these searches are reportedly carried out while users are on the move, engaged in another task or don’t have their hands free for typing. It’s commonly used to find directions when driving, look up local weather conditions, add events to personal calendars, look up recipes while cooking and search for info while watching TV or exercising. Voice search is also popular with people who speak character-based languages, such as Korean, or those with multiple diacritics, such as Greek, which can make them more time consuming to type manually.

In response to this growing trend, Google has adapted to understand search queries containing superlatives, i.e. ‘who is the tallest Manchester United player?’, and now provides ‘quick answers’, showing users a single, ideal result as opposed to a page of relevant links.

Digital Assistants

In November 2014, Amazon launched Echo, its smart speaker system which is set up in the home and designed to ‘listen’ to requests and questions from its user. It can be used to play music, set alarms, stream podcasts or audiobooks, make lists, and provide real time information on weather and traffic conditions. Google soon followed Amazon’s lead, launching its Home product two years later. These products are growing in popularity; Amazon Echo was the most sold product last holiday season with over 1.6m bases being installed in UK homes, and over 500m people currently use a digital assistant of some kind.

Voice search is clearly here to stay, and is predicted to continue growing in popularity with all age groups and demographics. But the evolution of these technologies is creating changes in customer behaviour, which will inevitably impact on retailers. Over recent decades, methods by which retailers can deliver marketing messages have grown and diversified, incorporating different devices and ad formats. As voice search becomes more prevalent, this could be set to narrow significantly; some experts are even predicting that the search engine results page (SERP) could become entirely obsolete. Search queries could be spoken directly to digital assistants or other devices, with a single response fed back to the user based on what the device selects as the most relevant information.

If this prediction is realised, online ads will be entirely reimagined, and there are a number of considerations retailers will have to keep in mind.

Considerations for retailers

  • Personalisation

Digital assistants ultimately control what is shared with their users, and don’t allow them to scroll through several options before selecting an answer to their query. It may be that Google will create an equivalent to quality score, taking into account individual relevancy. This will require retailers to understand their audiences and tailor content to their specific needs.

  • Keywords

Search queries are likely to be of a more conversational tone, and very intent-based. In text search, two-word search queries are most common; whereas with voice search the queries tend to be longer and begin with who, what, when, where, how or why. For this reason, longtail keywords and question phrasing will be more effective.

  • Accents and languages

The voice data that feeds into Siri, Google Now and Cortana is mainly from those who speak U.S. English. Those who speak English as an additional language will, according to Google, experience an error rate of 20%, meaning that their device will miss 1 in every 5 words. While this will inevitably improve over time, it will be important to consider commonly misinterpreted words and phrases similarly to how typos and misspellings are considered with text search.

  • Brand loyalty

Customer loyalty is likely to become more important than ever, as users who have experience with or preference for a particular brand won’t be exposed to alternative search results or competitor ads on the SERP. To find out more about customer loyalty see our recent article.

  • Location

The nature of voice search makes it appealing to users who are on the go, meaning location-based marketing will be key. Relevance will be imperative, and users will expect to receive information tailored to their needs. Retailers who have high street stores will benefit from serving ads that show store locations and stock levels within the vicinity of the user. You can read more about location-based marketing in our recent article.

  • Speed and performance

Voice search is invariably carried out when users are engaged in other activities such as driving, cooking or exercising. They are looking for quick answers in real time, and for this reason websites must perform accurately and swiftly, despite increased usage. Slow website speeds have been shown to significantly reduce conversion rates, and voice searchers are likely to be even less patient than those using keyboards or touchscreens.

  • Videos and imagery

Visual content will be largely irrelevant to those using digital assistants while engaged in other tasks, so appealing to this audience will require text-based content. Similarly, lengthy and complex content will not suit the needs of users looking for a short answer to resolve their query.

  • Page titles/meta descriptions

Meta data has traditionally been limited by screen size, with marketers following best practice guidelines about character length. The nature of voice search puts less of a burden on this, as meta data won’t necessarily be viewed by the user.

  • Tracking

People increasingly use their electronic devices to organise their personal and professional lives, including travel arrangements, business and personal appointments, grocery shopping and home heating systems. The sheer amount of digital interactions that users engage in each day gives retailers the opportunity to truly understand their customers, but in order to do so it is necessary to track users across each of their multiple devices.

  • User experience

Google Home users recently reported hearing an advert for the new Beauty and the Beast film when receiving their usual summary of the day ahead (including weather, traffic and news information and schedule reminders). Many users took to social media to complain about the ad, which Google claimed was merely ‘timely content’, and wasn’t intended to be an advertisement. Nevertheless, when considering how to share content with voice searchers, it will be imperative to ensure it remains useful and nonintrusive.

An inclusive approach

Some of the suggestions above are a huge leap from accepted best practice guidelines currently employed by digital marketers. Many of the elements of online marketing that are irrelevant to voice searchers (such as visual content and meta data) will remain of great importance to users who view search results visually rather than audibly. Retailers will need to ensure they adapt to incorporate the needs of voice searchers into their wider marketing strategies without unnecessarily sacrificing the needs of text searchers. An inclusive and dynamic approach will be key in order to remain relevant and user friendly for all customers.