Voice and the Future of Search

May 24, 2016

voice search

Last week at the Google I/O conference, CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled Google assistant, a conversational, virtual assistant more sophisticated than Google Now and similar to Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and the recently released Hound. While some might consider this late to the game, Google’s position as a key player means Google assistant could have significant implications for the future of digital marketing.

As artificial intelligence and the internet of things continues to evolve, companies are focused on streamlining the user experience with voice-based interaction. Despite a slow start, voice usage has been rising rapidly. Pichai shared in his keynote that 20% of queries on Google’s mobile app and on Android devices are voice searches.

In October 2015, a study of 1,800 adult smartphone users commissioned by MindMeld found that 60% of users had started using voice search and commands within the last 12 months. Plus, teens are adopting voice search more readily than adults, with more than half of teens using voice search daily; 85% of adults (89% of teens) felt that voice search is the future, as revealed in a 2014 study commissioned by Google.

So what does this mean for businesses? Today’s online marketing strategies focus on websites as the central hub of a business’s online presence. Ads, social media posts, emails, and blog posts all drive traffic to the website, where customers can engage and convert. As voice-based interaction continues to develop, there is an endless stream of unanswered questions.

Here are the three key areas where we’ll see the most impact.

1. Reduced Site Traffic

Conversational virtual assistants can serve content directly to users without leaving the interface, meaning that users may consume content or even convert without ever seeing a business’s website. For businesses that rely on advertising, the reduction in traffic could impact that revenue.

2. Limited Control Over Branding

In addition to customers bypassing their websites, businesses do not have control over how their brand and content is represented in voice search results. Joe Youngblood at Search Engine Land shared one example where Google pronounced “ESPN” as “Esss-Pen.”

3. Selection Between Competing Businesses

Perhaps the biggest question in all this: How will virtual assistants handle competing businesses? As virtual assistants get better at performing real-world tasks (for example, purchasing tickets, renting a car, or booking a hotel), how will they choose between competitors? For example, if a user wants to hail a car, will they have a choice between Uber and Lyft, or will the virtual assistant automatically choose?

While voice search may still feel like something out of a sci-fi, it is rapidly becoming a part of our everyday and is poised to change the way we engage with technology and the shape of digital marketing. Although we don’t know exactly what it will look like, there are actions we can take today to prepare our brands for the future.

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is a strategist, speaker, educator, and author of Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World and Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. He is the Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, an educator at the University of Iowa, and host of the On Brand podcast. More about Nick.