Fixing What's Broken With Voice Search

What's next for advertisers, publishers and consumers

The rising consumer demand for voice search, in addition to the explosive growth of voice assistants, has solidified voice search as a new favorite buzzword in the digital advertising ecosystem. Let's take a quick look at the numbers. By 2020, Comscore predicts voice search will make up to 50 percent of all searches, and according to a 2018 Mary Meeker report, Amazon Echo has already exceeded 30 million devices installed. 

Since this growth has been largely fueled by voice assistants like Amazon's Alexa, which connects to Amazon Echo, it has caused a fundamental change in the way search data is used. When consumers use voice search, they speak directly to, and get the response directly from, the voice assistant. In a typical search environment, where a consumer inputs text into a search bar and receives relevant content and information based on that entry, publishers digest data inquiries and control the outputs that consumers engage with. With voice search, for the first time in search, devices are in control of this process.

The opportunity to be first in line to the consumer instead of the content owner led to the influx of voice products on the market. This shift has been dangerous for publishers, the traditional owners of the data, as they lose that first touchpoint and become further separated from audiences. 

However, we are still in the early days of the voice revolution, and have many challenges to overcome before voice can enter its next phase of growth. If voice is going to be successful for all key stakeholders—advertisers, publishers and consumers—publishers will need to regain the control, otherwise it will risk stagnation. 

Is the Lack of Choice Holding Back Voice?

Voice search has gained this level of popularity because it offers an enjoyable user experience. There are multiple benefits, including a low-friction experience that is seamless for users and the ability to enter multiple data points in one search stream. 

But the web is unprepared for what voice search is offering. Right now, there are a lot of industry pain points preventing voice from evolving into a core function within the ecommerce market. For example, devices are disparate and restricted in terms of what the consumer gets back from a search. With audio response, consumers get only one answer, but what they're seeking when they enter a search is multiple options. 

Due to this limited experience, voice search has evolved into quick commands, rather than detailed information about a product or solution.

The current state of voice indicates that the likes of Google and Amazon are still trying to find a way to monetize spoken search via advertising in a way that consumers will feel comfortable with. Only 2 percent of people with Amazon's Alexa use it to shop, and of that number, 90 percent don't rely on the device for shopping again because they had a poor experience. Given the low percentage of consumers purchasing merchandise using Alexa, how can Amazon identify patterns in consumer behavior that will enhance the consumer experience, and increase the amount of purchases made using the device?

According to a recent study, voice shopping sales could reach $40 billion by 2022, presenting an enormous opportunity for retailers in particular.

As consumer shopping behavior continues to shift online, and voice becomes the preferred mode of engagement, content owners that are not set up with successful voice search tech will lose out on this potential revenue. Thus far, voice assistants have proven an inadequate vessel for this revenue, leaving it up to publishers and personal devices to realize the full potential that voice search has to offer. 

From Voice Assistants Back to Personal Devices

So, with voice at this crossroads, where do we go from here? Consumers enjoy the latest devices with voice functionality, but the search results usually don't meet expectations. On the other end of the spectrum, publishers don't have built-in voice capabilities sophisticated enough to deliver the quality customer experience that search promises. What if we could merge the best of both into one superior user experience? 

When consumers are able to use voice to engage with their favorite publishers and advertisers on the devices they use every day—mobile, tablet, desktop—that is when voice will break out of its current confinements. This combination enables publishers to funnel data points into customized responses to the questions consumers seek out using voice search. In addition, publishers or preferred suppliers will be able to provide consumers with detailed text, and visuals if they're using voice search on a device with a screen, for a more personalized experience.

Bringing voice functionalities to personal devices will swing the pendulum of data control back to publishers and content owners. With Amazon and Google's lack of data, they won't be able to optimize the voice experience, but the publishers that integrate voice functionality will stay ahead of the curve and cater to consumers' expressed preferences.

More than that, search data owners will be able to learn from the data and apply insights to better understand audiences, enhance product selection for users, customize experiences for individuals, and ultimately fuel growth in the voice sector.  

When done right, the user experience is superior and will only keep improving as publisher adoption increases and technology improves. For publishers, voice search will be the status quo in the near future, but the early adopters will benefit from increased consumer engagement and from the unique data and insights that will emerge.

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