The interactions are extremely simple. You use a trigger word such as “Okay, Google” or “Alexa”, and ask a question to elicit a response. However, there’s nothing simple about the technology going on behind the scenes, or for that matter, the impact voice-operated devices are already having on the way we search, shop and interact with companies.
According to a report from the market research firm Mintel, 62 percent of Brits are already using or would be happy to use voice-operated commands to control devices. In fact, Google claims that 20 percent of search queries are already conducted using voice, and that is predicted to rise to 50 percent by 2020.
Clearly then, the voice revolution is already here. But how will the use of voice-operated devices change the way we communicate with companies in the years ahead?
We have become accustomed to submitting an online search and being greeted with a full page of results on screen. But in a screen-less voice-enabled world, we’re only presented with a single answer. For the businesses that have poured many thousands of pounds into their online marketing strategies to ensure first-page search engine rankings, that could present a real problem. Businesses that want to stay relevant in a voice-enabled world will now have to invest in a new type of search engine optimisation or risk losing relevance.
This could also pose a problem for consumers. We are used to being presented with a long list of results and choosing which is the most relevant to our query. It’s often the case that the first result is not necessarily the best. While Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant still deliver multiple results on screen so consumers can pick the most the relevant themselves, Amazon Echo and Google Home only provide a single spoken result. That will inevitably have a detrimental impact on the quality of the results provided.
Voice assistants undoubtedly have the potential to save consumers time and effort when making purchases, but they also present a number of opportunities for retailers too. A level of ambiguity exists in spoken language that is not necessarily present in the written word. For example, while a consumer searching for an online weather forecast might simply type ‘London weather’ into the search engine, in a spoken search, they could ask “Will I need an umbrella today?” This more open-ended approach could create opportunities for smaller brands to create relevant content that allows them to compete with more established firms.
However, while there are certainly opportunities, there will also need to be a high level of scrutiny over the products voice assistants recommend. If customers want to buy a certain product using a voice assistant, algorithms are used to determine the right product based on best price and previous preferences. The question is how do we know those products are necessarily the best ones for the consumer?
Over the years, there have been a number of legal cases brought against Google for favouring its own online shopping service in the search engine results, even when there are more relevant results to a search query. At least in typed search, consumers can see the other results for themselves and determine which is the most relevant. In screen-less spoken search, consumers rely on the product choice made by the assistant.
Retailers have already started asking questions about the impartiality of Amazon’s Alexa. A study conducted by the American research company L2, found that if brands wanted to be recommended by Alexa, the products had to be available to members of Amazon Prime. It also favoured products that sold wholesale to Amazon. So, while voice assistants may make shopping easier, they might not improve the quality of consumers’ decisions.
Voice assistants allow consumers and brands to interact on a deeper level. Just as social media eliminated some of the barriers that exist between brands and consumers, voice assistants could allow brands to get closer to their target audiences than ever before.
Voice search is all about convenience. It takes a conscious and deliberate decision to type a search query or pick up the phone. Voice provides a much more casual and instinctive alternative. Brands have to be ready to sustain a relationship on that level and determine which search queries are likely to be spoken and how they differ from the terms and queries they compete for in written search.
One of the keys to sustaining a relationship via voice search is to be useful. Utility provides a big opportunity for brands. Having a customer service function that is on hand to provide advice in a customer’s home 24/7 can be of significant value to users. That could take the form of the delivery of daily recipes or tips for removing stains around the home.
The shifting voice assistant landscape
From the smart home to the smartphone, voice technology is already all around us. Voice assistants are changing the way we search, shop and interact. However, as well as opportunities, they also present a number of challenges that consumers and businesses would be wise to keep in mind in 2019.