Voice Search in 2019: 101

Oct 31st, 2018

I’m sticking to my guns, we’re still not there yet, and are unlikely to be, with voice search in 2019, but the need to prepare is growing more urgent

To understand the importance of voice search to the future of a variety of industries you only need look at the amount of money that tech giants are throwing at it. Frankly, within search and digital marketing, there is a lot of noise about voice search – whether it’s the experts claiming that it’s the most important thing, or their counterparts declaiming it as an irrelevancy. I have written a few articles on the subject myself this year – though I’ve attempted to remain relatively neutral on the subject.

There is a real battle going on at the moment between several major tech companies for dominance in the digital assistant market (specifically in smart speakers) with everyone from Amazon to Yandex having a speaker on the market. While Alexa rules the roost at the moment, Google has, for the first time, succeeded in outselling Amazon with it’s Google Home since it went to market.

google outsells alexa

I find it odd that people believe that Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and many other brands would compete so intensely for an automated Spotify player – especially as Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai has explicitly stated that we are entering the age of assistance. Yes, the technology isn’t perfect, and the age of assistance may take a little longer to begin impacting brands’ bottom lines, but it is definitely approaching.


The above is among the reasons I have not written a ‘put all your money in to voice search!’ article – something I might have been tempted to do (may have actually done, I have no idea) for mobile a few years ago – is that the technology still isn’t ready. The point at which it will be, however, is quickly approaching. The main issues for voice search are the following, and I hope to address each of them in turn – to the best of my abilities, at least:

  1. It is a technology in its infancy that relies heavily on other technologies in their infancy
  2. Nobody buys using voice search
  3. I don’t, or don’t know anyone else, who uses it
  4. It lacks sufficient comprehension

1. Immature technology

This is the main reason I’ve expressed doubts about the imminence of a voice search revolution – as the tweet above shows, the assistants are fallible (sometimes laughably so), but it’s not the assistants alone that have prevented what is likely to be the inevitable rise of voice. In my opinion, for voice to be the force I think it will be, it will require a number of other technologies to reach maturity too. The nature of the technology at the moment is such that it is predominately suitable for basic query and response – so it should not come as any surprise that this is what it is used for.

However, once augmented reality (AR) technology (which has seen investment in the tens of billions from various companies), once wearables are less cumbersome and awful looking, and once machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) allow for more complex interaction with assistants, voice search is likely to completely replace the mobile handset as our primary interface with the web. All of these technologies are in the process of their own mini-revolutions – and in the technology community, you’ll find similar back-and-forth arguments as to their particular usefulness – led by, often, the same companies that are investing in voice.

While I think a combination of these technologies will spell the end for mobile devices, it does not take all of these technologies to make voice search an incredibly important part of our lives and, therefore, of importance to the survival of brands. While I don’t see this great leap forward coming in 2019, I am much more confident that one or more of these technologies (AR, AI/ML, wearable tech) will combine with digital assistants to increase the prominence of voice in our lives.


2. Nobody buys using voice search

This is, within a reasonable margin of error, true – hardly anyone has used voice to make a purchase, and most research suggests a distinct mistrust of spending anything more than a trivial amount even among those that do. However, this was also the case for desktop computers, as it was for mobiles. It is also the case that more than 80% of smartphone shoppers have conducted a ‘near me’ voice search (Uberall) and 46% of voice search users search for local business daily (Bright Local).

In this regard, I think the cynicism around voice is somewhat unwarranted – while point one may see a revolution in voice purchases, the amount that voice has to offer in terms of value for local businesses, FMCG, catering and other physical locations is being overlooked. While direct voice to purchase may be negligible so far, the current state of the market so far can be seen as comparable to the initial preference for ROPO (research online, purchase offline) that was typical at the dawn of eCommerce.

What is missing, so far, is trust – but this will come through exposure and, again, through advances in the technology. As we become familiar with our digital assistants, we’ll begin to trust them – especially as they begin to handle more complicated tasks on our behalf.

3. No one really uses voice

This is an understandable concern – especially for those of us that were not raised in the presence of Siri or Alexa – but that doesn’t change the fact that of the approaching four billion searches a day, 60% of all searches are now from mobile devices, and 20% of those are now spoken (12% of all searches, therefore, are both mobile and spoken – or almost 500 million). I think a lot of those concerns around use of voice relate to point two – the lack of definitive link to purchase.

What history has taught us, however, is that very little that is useful remains unused. If something can prove itself to be better than the device, service or approach it looks to replace, it will eventually replace it. My children will undoubtedly feel differently to me when they consider voice technology – while I am still deeply embarrassed to the point of apologetic when speaking to a machine, my children have been using the Google Assistant since it was able to recognise their speech.

While the above stats refer specifically to the US, the stats (which I can’t seem to lay my hands on at the moment) for the global market are similar. The use of voice is far more prevalent in the generation that came of age around the time that the various digital assistants were making their presence felt – and the next generation will almost certainly use voice even more. Even the privacy concerns that plague smart speakers are, for better or worse, less prevalent in younger generations, with research showing that many young people are happy to sacrifice some privacy in the service of personalisation and usefulness.

Digital assistants are stupid

The key to the success of voice is its ability to reduce friction in various interactions – whether commercial, social or for work – and one of the barriers to this is that, frankly, digital assistants are idiots with an encyclopedia. They are increasingly capable, but you would likely trust a child more than a digital assistant with many of the jobs that they will inevitably be tasked with. Again, this relates to point one – the technology is not up to the job. However, if you’ve watched the YouTube video embedded above, even if we assume an element of exaggeration (which is likely), the technology is definitely developing.

Google is ploughing money in to artificial intelligence, as are Microsoft – and it’s unlikely that Cortana and the Google Assistant are going to be deprived of any advances that result from that research. While AI is a little way off in its truest sense – artificial general intelligence (AGI), or strong AI – the fully conversational, indistinguishable from sentient machine intelligence; artificial narrow intelligence, or weak AI is already present and capable of increasingly impressive feats. It is the latter kind that defeated the champion Go! player, that already powers Siri and others and is most likely in charge of at least part of Google search and in its campaign to be an Answer Engine.

While digital assistants are pretty stupid – they are particularly narrow AIs – they’re getting better all the time and as they get smarter, we’ll be increasingly trust them to handle certain tasks, make recommendations (as we do with Netflix in a more narrow sense) and they, and voice search, will increasingly become the next technology that we will not be able to do without.

What you can do to prepare

The majority of the groundwork you can do revolves around making your content easier to parse for digital assistants. As Google moves to the Answer Engine model, there will be increasingly less focus on driving traffic to your website from search engine results pages (SERPs) and more on mining your site for content. In this regard, your efforts should be aimed toward ensuring that your site keeps ahead of the competition when it comes to structuring your data – and this is done through schema markup. While schema will be familiar to many in eCommerce, it is increasingly important that it is adopted by all industries – to ensure that you’re not left behind as voice increasingly impacts local and then all searches. You can see an article of mine on speakable markup here, and we have an introduction to schema markup available as a free resource.

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