The year of voice

Tue, 20/02/2018 - 09:27

Voice is in vogue — and it’s set to change the lives of consumers while creating huge complexities for marketers.

Techcrunch reports that 16% of Americans now own a smart speaker. That’s in addition to the virtual assistants we all have on our phones — more than 400m of which make use of Google Assistant… not counting the myriad of devices using Siri and Cortana.

Unsurprisingly, given all the hype around Alexa and OK Google, voice dominated the most-recent edition of CES held in Vegas early January 2018. Many exhibitors at the annual technology fair took the opportunity to showcase how they had built voice control into their platforms and gadgets. These ranged from the practical to the downright absurd.

Talking crap
Bosch demonstrated a series of wifi-connected devices that may be controlled by Alexa, while Kohler unveiled a rather perplexing (and, at US$6000, expensive) toilet which can be asked to create the perfect mood lighting for your morning ablutions, warm its seat and blow a jet of water you know where. If nothing else, Kohler’s bizarre offering has brought new meaning to the phrase ‘talking crap’.

While speech integration may give some product manufacturers a point of differentiation in the short term, where voice will really rock marketers’ boats in the coming years is in the search space.

It’s about the conversation
Gartner thinks that 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020 (and that from a report published back in 2016, which could be considered the stone age in a voice context). ComScore, meanwhile, believes that 50% of all searches will be conducted by voice within the next two years.

Driving the growing use of voice search are major advancements in the underlying technology used to understand what we’re asking for. According to Mary Meeker’s annual internet trends report, Google’s speech recognition error rate is only 5% — that’s down from 25% just a couple of years ago and corresponds with the threshold for human to human accuracy. And with the investment Google’s continuing to make in recognition, error rates will continue to improve, particularly in noisy environments.

Advertisers’ conundrum
Adoption of voice search will have huge implications for advertising. Without a screen to look at, the search-engine results pages we’re all accustomed to seeing when we type a query into our browsers will disappear. That means there’s no place for pay-per-click ads. And, if we call up a search for the latest news, we won’t have an opportunity to see the banner ads that dominate most publishers’ sites.

How companies like Google and Amazon will respond to this erosion of their revenue remains to be seen but it’s inevitable that they will find a way of baking advertising into voice search — probably presenting opportunities for it to be seen (or, should I say, heard) as additional content instead of the disruptive popup ads we’re currently served. And they’re unlikely to be as clunky as Google’s attempt last year to promote Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

While we wait for the answers, pragmatic brands should look to step up their SEO efforts to improve the chances of their sites make it into the organic listings. That means better content, a focus on optimising for long-tail queries, the adoption of schema markup and improving the mobile experience. All of which will be covered in a future column.

*This article originally appeared on

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