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The machines are taking over. No, the dystopian future imagined by The Terminator hasn’t come to fruition (at least not yet), but it may seem that way if you’ve been watching the meteoric rise of voice search and digital voice assistants.
“Meteoric” may be too mild a term. ComScore predicts that by 2020, half of all searches will be conducted by voice. That’s a rapid shift in the way we seek information online. But when you think about it, it’s easy to recognize the appeal of searching by voice. For one thing, there’s the convenience factor: Voice search is a low-friction activity, and talking to your phone is as natural as breathing to most people.
Voice-activated assistants are also finding their way into the hands of consumers through a variety of avenues. You may be surprised by just how widespread these digital friends have become. Siri boasts over 500 million claimed device installs, while Google Assistant and Cortana each claim more than 400 million. That’s a whole lot of access to voice search!
Dedicated smart speakers are making especially large strides. According to NPR, almost 16% of all U.S. households have purchased one of these devices (i.e. Google Home, Amazon Echo) in the past three years. This outpaces the adoption rate of even smartphones and tablets.
Voice technology is certainly more than a fad. But how exactly are consumers using voice search and interacting with digital assistants? We conducted a Google Consumer Survey to find out, polling over 1,000 respondents in February 2018.
In order to gain a clearer understanding of voice search habits, we targeted active voice search users among the English-speaking U.S. population on websites in the Google Consumer Surveys Publisher Network. Here are some of our most intriguing finds.
20% Actively Use a Voice Assistant
That may seem like a surprisingly small segment considering the lofty install numbers and adoption rates mentioned above. However, when you add the respondents who previously used a voice assistant but no longer do so, you see a robust 38% that have actively used voice search at some point. This number will surely grow as consumers continue to snatch up smart speakers and other voice-capable devices at a frenetic pace.
46% Use Voice Search 1-2 Times/Day
Those who engage with voice search appear to make it part of their regular routines, consulting it at least once daily. This suggests that initial adoption may be the biggest hurdle for voice search. When consumers actually try it, they tend to keep using it.
64% Use their Mobile Phone for Voice Search
Most mainstream smartphones feature some degree of integrated voice functionality. The iPhone has Siri, Google Assistant is on Android devices, and Cortana lives on Windows Phone. Mobile phones are a natural gateway for first-time voice searchers.
28% Use Voice Search for Shopping
A relatively small amount of respondents used voice search to ask for information about a product or make a purchase. Instead, more consumers are using digital assistants to play music, find out about the weather, or set a timer. (See below.)
26.2% Have Used a Voice Assistant to Purchase Household Items
When consumers use voice search to make purchases, they’re buying everyday household products like food and tissues. Entertainment like music, movies, and books were the most popular category at 43% of those polled. Apparel, which typically requires more visual confirmation in the purchase process, lagged behind at 15%.
Businesses can’t afford to ignore the growing impact of voice search, but how exactly will they be affected? What do they need to keep in mind to ensure that voice searchers can find them?
Differences in Consumer Search Behavior
People search differently by voice than they do in a traditional search. We need to consider the natural language changes between searching with and without a screen. 41% of people who own a voice-activated speaker say it’s like talking to a friend or another person, per Google. Retailers should think about what these conversations sound like.
Less Reliance on Visual Aids
Your product may be beautiful enough to sell itself, but that won’t mean as much in a screenless search experience. You should tell a compelling story without the benefit of tantalizing, high-resolution images and be prepared to impress users with your branded content.
Algorithmic Questions Abound
There’s still significant uncertainty concerning how search engines will process queries for voice and traditional searches. Will the same results be prioritized for each? As you can see below, our request for the best humidifier yielded very different results on desktop and voice.
Will Voice Search Favor Brands?
It’s unclear whether branded results will be featured more prominently in voice searches. If you ask Alexa to order more laundry detergent, will you just receive another Tide ad?
Our Founder and CEO, Udayan Bose, believes brands will indeed have an advantage in voice search:
“I predict that brands will be the victors with voice search as consumers are likely referencing specific brands when buying via voice. For example, they’re asking to buy more Colgate toothpaste, rather than toothpaste from a particular retailer. In order to maintain market share, retailers should create voice search opportunities [employing brand names] on their ecommerce stores.”
We may not be living in a voice-first world yet, but it’s approaching faster than you might expect. Brands will need to prepare now by making themselves more voice friendly, or risk falling behind competitors who adapt more quickly. Fortunately, we have six steps you can take right now to get ready for the coming voice revolution.
Step 1: Learn the Technology and SDKs
Even if you’re not very tech-inclined, gaining a more in-depth understanding of how voice technology really works is worth your while. Have your team spend some time with the software development kits, and don’t underestimate the value of experimenting with voice devices themselves.
Step 2: Craft Content as a Conversation
Consumers are having conversations with their voice devices like they would with real, live human beings. Make your content more “human” and tailored to sound like how people actually speak.
According to Moz, voice searches tend to be longer through the tail, containing as many as 5-7 words while text searches remain between 1-3. FAQ pages on your site are great opportunities to capture this long-tail voice search traffic.
Step 3: Take a Page from the Accessibility Playbook
Use a tool like WebAIM to evaluate how accessible your site is to people with disabilities. Following web accessibility best practices will also make it easier for voice assistants to parse your web content.
Step 4: Embrace Structured Data
Implement structured data (schema.org) on your site so search engines can more easily identify relevant information from your content for voice search queries. For instance, someone may ask a voice assistant how many calories are in Texas chili. If you have a Texas chili recipe on your site, structured data will clearly mark the calorie count for search engine crawlers to find.
Step 5: Got an App? Try Actions and Skills
Google and Amazon are already providing ways for brands to build their apps around voice assistants. Actions on Google allows you to make your content more discoverable through Google Assistant, while Alexa Skills offers direct integration possibilities with Alexa. For example, you can ask Alexa to place your usual order at Starbucks or request a ride from Lyft.
Step 6: Coordinate with Your Brick-and-Mortar Stores for Local Searches
If you have a physical location, make sure your address, store hours, and other vital information is accurate and up to date on your Google My Business profile. When someone searches for you by voice, you don’t want them directed to the wrong place or not be able to find you at all.
The growing prominence of voice search may seem intimidating to businesses, and there’s a lot we simply don’t know yet. However, we have a variety of resources to help you stay ahead of the curve.
To view our complete survey results and even more recommendations for retailers, download our new “Search Without Screens” whitepaper. And be sure to check out our library of on-demand webinars to further explore voice search and other big topics in search marketing!
TL;DR: Read our findings from our voice search survey.