How Voice Search Will Change Consumer Behaviour

With the business world only just coming to terms with mobile as the future of the internet, there’s an emerging, and slightly misunderstood, revolution sitting on the periphery of even the most attentive marketers and businesses: voice search. Wajid Ali, head of paid search, Forward3D, explains why.

It would be naïve to consider ‘voice search’ in the same way it once was initially showcased in 2011, as a novel way of inputting your specific search into Google. Looking back, what’s surprising is to see how basic the technology was, the enunciation required by the user to get it to work, and the basic nature of the queries being demoed. Little over six years on, a lot has changed, huge strides have been made in natural language processing and machine learning, both fields combining to create a value proposition for consumers (in the form of virtual assistants) that has accelerated adoption of what most people consider ‘voice search’.

Recent stats and forecasts show a surprising rate of growth and search share coming from voice, with Google reporting that 20% of its mobile queries use voice search and both Chinese competitor Baidu and comScore predicting that 50% of all searches will use voice search by 2020. The first instinct, as a marketer, is to ask the question of monetisation opportunities; but brands, and the platform owners (apart from Amazon’s Alexa, for obvious reasons), need to understand how and why it is being used by consumers and the challenges that surrounds the technology in general.

Being predominantly a screen-free interface, the opportunities to provide promoted content to users is extremely limited right now (remember, a picture paints a thousand words… and an SERP paints four text ads, sitelinks, descriptions, product imagery, pricing, business information, maps, phone numbers, opening hours, seller ratings…). The idea of appending or prepending information around products and services the user hasn’t directly asked about seems to be a delicate topic, as Google found out earlier this year. Then there is the conflict between whether a smart assistant is to prioritise being helpful, or compromise the usefulness of a suggestion by factoring in promoted content.

For businesses to take advantage of ‘voice’ (or screen-free computing), they need to understand that, right now, it’s a niche and complex opportunity; but that this will change quicker than most businesses will be able to react to, as and when appropriate monetisation models are deployed. Naturally there are always great PR wins by ‘being the first’ to try new things, from Domino’s building a ‘skill’ for Alexa to order pizza, to Burger King’s cheeky hijacking of the Google Home speakers via a TV ad they aired in the US.

The advice to the average business right now, and to a lesser degree the opportunity, is to tighten-up your online presence by updating and adhering to standardised structured data formats (local business information data, product catalogues, etc.) as well as to build content that is more conversational in tone, i.e. building out FAQs. Google is already leveraging the plethora of data points it has, including the use of local inventory ad data to give users directions to the local store stocking products they want.

Even with the prospect of things like Google Analytics for voice search queries that should shed some light on the types of things users are asking, the extent to which we will be able to act on insights may diminish over time. As virtual assistants, through machine learning, begin to understand emotion and state of mind through tone of voice and user behaviour patterns, suggestions, recommendations, and references will be less grounded to explicit intent by the user. A transition that will elevate the extent to which we will be marketing to machines rather than humans in the future.

This isn’t to say that consumers will abandon the research process when making certain choices, or that virtual assistants won’t be able to visualise suggestions in response to voice commands , but consumer behaviour will change. What’s most important is to appreciate the disruption voice search will have; and that, as virtual assistants get smarter, the exponential growth in usage will continue, even if most of the tech giants at present don’t have a fitting business plan for them.