The future of search is voice

Matt Bush, Google

The Evolution of Search

In 1998, eager to demonstrate the effectiveness of their newly developed search software, graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin invited John Hennessy, the dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering, to test their latest creation. John Hennessy chose to search for ‘Gerhard Casper’.

From his experience with other search engines of the time, Hennessy expected to be flooded with results for Casper the Friendly Ghost - the widely recognised fictional character. However to his surprise, the search engine was accurate, and John was met with results linking to the correct Gerhard Casper, the president of Stanford.

Two decades and trillions of searches later, it is remarkable to see how search has woven its way into the fabric of our everyday lives. Unlike when John Hennessy was thrilled to be met with the search terms he had entered, today people expect the correct information to be there instantly, whenever they need it.. Search has revolutionised the way we behave and our relationship with information - voice search is the next evolution of this revolution.

Voice is undoubtedly the next frontier, and businesses need to get ahead or risk being left out of the conversation

A recent study showed that a staggering 75% of consumers said they search even more now they can use Voice Search, with 51% stating that they use voice and text search interchangeably. As search offers us more, we in turn expect more from it. Google research has shown that 83% of consumers agree that voice capabilities will make it easier to search for things, while 89% believe that voice will enable users to find things more quickly. Consumers also expect Google to be smart enough to recognise our voices and respond accordingly. Voice is undoubtedly the next frontier, and businesses need to get ahead or risk being left out of the conversation.

Voice Search and You(sers)

Moving to voice search is a natural progression. After all, humans have been speaking for a while longer than we’ve been typing - we can speak on average 150 words per minute compared to only being able to type around 40 words per minute. But if we change the way we ask questions then consequently the way we provide answers must also evolve.

With the technology to process natural language comes opportunities for voice search to have an impact beyond the results page of a Google search. The emergence of screen free speakers illustrates the potential of voice assistants to be able to engage in conversations in a meaningful, useful and natural way.

Businesses are already experimenting with voice search. Supermarkets in particular have witnessed how voice search is changing consumer behaviour. The conversational capabilities of voice assistants mean that consumers are adding items to their baskets over the course of days, rather than doing their shopping all in one hit. With ComScore predicting 50% all searches will be voice activated by 2020, brands will have to consider how they ensure their product is the one that’s added to the basket.

Voice allows businesses to interact with consumers on a deeper level than ever before

The potential of voice technologies extends beyond practical applications. An illustration of the scope for these technologies to be used in novel and creative ways is the BBC’s “The Inspection Chamber” – where the ‘listener’ takes part in an interactive story and speaks with three different characters, and depending on the users answers, the story can progress in various ways.

These examples highlight the ways in which voice allows businesses to interact with consumers on a deeper level than ever before –  engaging with the user in a way that generates meaningful relationships and allows businesses to put themselves in the right place, at the right time.

Moving forward

This new conversational approach to searching will impact business in multiple ways. Consumers looking for places or products want quick and relevant answers. This is evidenced by the finding that mobile voice searches are three times more likely to be based on their local area than text. With consumers spending ten times as long on their phones in 2016 as they did in 2009, capitalising on mobile voice search will prove crucial for marketers.

Of course, this pivot to mobile will mean that marketers will have to reconsider their marketing strategies and the way that they approach online advertising, as well the psychological impact of search more broadly.

A number of factors are important for businesses to consider, findings have shown. The perceived speed of search is influenced by the state of mind of the user. When sitting down, 25% of respondents felt search was too slow, in comparison to when on the move, when almost double (48%) felt this way.

Voice search app

The importance of this statistic is more prominent when you consider that one in three of all online purchases now happen on mobile and 53% of visits to websites on mobile are abandoned if the site takes more than three seconds to load. Speed and simplicity have always formed the basis for success on mobile – so an easy win for businesses is to ensure website loads a quickly as possible.

A technology that will prove an essential link in capitalising on the changing consumer search behaviour is machine learning. Mobile gives us a huge array of data and information and machine learning can help advertisers make sense of this data and complex user behaviours, ultimately helping brands achieve personalisation at scale and enabling them to move from being a result to the result.

The winners in this new world are businesses that are ready to embrace the technology available to them and be truly assistive

Voice search, mobile and machine learning present huge opportunities for businesses and brands. Technology advancements will mean that businesses have to pivot their strategies to incorporate a stronger technology focus; an inevitable factor impacting organisations operating in the modern and constantly transforming world.

These technologies will ultimately give businesses the chance to be constantly available to engage and assist consumers. The winners in this new world are businesses that are ready to embrace the technology available to them and be truly assistive; providing relevant information to customers quickly and easily.

If companies don’t think about voice, they’ll soon be shouting at the backs of their customers.

Author | Matt Bush, director of agencies, Google.