Hear Us Out How Brands Can Prepare for the Impact of Voice Search

If you were to pick up your iPhone and ask, “Siri, what is the future of voice-activated search?” — what will Apple’s personal digital assistant find for you?

The point of this experiment is not to assess whether a 2014 US News and World Report article on Google’s efforts to develop voice command interfaces for consumer products is more relevant than a Wired think piece from earlier this year. The point of this experiment is to remind us that interacting with technology by simply talking to it has become commonplace. In fact, according to Google, 41 percent of all adults have used voice-activated search on their mobile devices at least once (most frequently, to get directions), and more than 55 percent of mobile phone users between the ages of 13 and 18 use voice-activated at least once per day (most frequently, to initiate a phone call).

The implications of this shift away from text to speech may not be readily apparent to CMOs and marketing managers, but the growing popularity of apps and devices that respond to natural language is opening up an entirely new marketing channel. How can your business begin preparing for the new user expectations that will shape this actively listening Internet?

The more customers use voice-activated search, the more powerful the technology becomes. Ever since her introduction with iOS 5 in 2011, Siri’s ability to interpret voice commands has been a source of customer frustration and even amusement. However, voice-activated search and other artificial intelligence programs need to be viewed in the long-term. Every question asked of Siri and every request submitted to Microsoft’s Cortana — a standard feature of Windows 10 across all platforms (desktop included) — generates data. Aggregated, this data becomes a massive resource not simply for mining, but for artificial intelligence to learn from. As voice-activated search establishes itself more and more as a viable Web interface, NLP (Natural Language Processing) and TTS (Text-to-Speech) algorithms will be complemented by advanced routines that are even more adept at actual listening.

Voice Search and Mobile

Google isn’t the only game in town. The rise of voice-activated search will not necessarily end Google’s dominance in the search engine industry. But voice-activated search is reshaping market share in interesting ways. While Google’s own Google Now API can be run on Apple iOS, Siri’s search engine of choice (her default setting) is Microsoft’s Bing. From 2014 to 2015, Bing’s search traffic surged 2 percent, double Google’s growth. As more and more users rely upon their mobile devices to search, stay connected via social media and access content, search engines optimized for voice search could command more and more attention.

Voice-activated search goes hand in hand with the proliferation of new devices. Earlier this year, Apple released its eagerly anticipated Watch, a device on which, by design, it is virtually impossible to type. And while reviews have not been glowing, best estimates put Apple’s Watch revenues for 2015 at nearly $2 billion. Certainly more wearables are to follow. But Amazon’s Echo, which combines the features of a wireless speaker, real-time information delivery device and “smart home” assistant, is perhaps more characteristic of a new wave of voice-activated hardware. Moreover, Amazon has “unbundled” the Alexa virtual assistant API from the Echo itself, allowing third-party developers to quickly build voice command functionality into a variety of applications and services. Businesses should prepare for a world in which Internet users access the Internet using objects that look nothing like computers or cell phones. In fact, should the promise of the Internet of Things (IoT) come to pass, users may be accessing the Internet via “standard” household appliances.

Voice Search and SEO

SEO will have to think outside the “search box.” Not only does voice search promise to shift SEO emphasis away from keywords and onto key phrases, but voice search will begin to redefine our very notions of relevance. Traditionally, Web searches process two or three words, match them to metadata and other machine-generated criteria and return a range of options that the user then must explore and rank against the need, want or intent encoded in that original search. But voice search is focused on delivering an answer to a question. Question phrases will become more and more vital components of effective SEO as users become more familiar with voice search and accustomed to the single-response, direct-connection model of query handling. Your business’ marketing content should begin reflecting this new orientation and shift in the Internet’s tone. And, if you’re not already analyzing your site’s search logs by input method, now is a good time to start.

How do you see voice-activated search trending in your industry? How impactful has voice search already been, and how are you managing the ways in which voice search is influencing customer behavior?