With voice assistants, it may be all talk, but it ain’t all search

Voice-enabled devices may be dividing search as we know it into service- and informational-based queries. / Holidayextras/Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/holiday-extras/6841549085

Or the rise of so-called "concierge search."

As we move into an era dominated by voice search and digital assistants, consumers are seeking information and performing tasks in profoundly different ways, which will eventually change the game entirely for search marketers and search engines.

That was according to the closing keynote panel at C3 in New York last week.

This is a market shaped by Amazon Alexa and Echo, which came out in November 2014, and more recently by Google Home, which debuted in November 2016.

Reports say 5.1m Echos in particular had been sold as of November 2016 and a survey from voice analytics firm VoiceLabs estimates 24.5m voice-first devices will ship in 2017 for a total of 33m in circulation.

(According to an Amazon rep, “There are tens of millions of devices with Alexa out there today.” A Google rep added, “We don't comment or release sales figures but I would say we're thrilled to see the excitement for Google Home.”)

But this shift in behavior hasn’t come without growing pains for consumers and platforms alike.

Crispin Sheridan, vice president of digital and social optimization at enterprise software giant SAP, said he has an Echo and a Dot in his home and thinks one of those “early branding things” is that consumers can’t give the devices other names. I.e., confusion can arise with voice commands to Alexa on multiple devices within the same home.

In addition, Sheridan noted he has to make multiple requests to Alexa in order to complete his nightly routine – to turn off lights, set alarms, etc. – and it would be much more convenient to make one all-inclusive request.

What’s more, Angie Benamati, principal of search marketing at tools, storage, electronic security and fastening systems provider Stanley Black and Decker, said from her base in Atlanta, she has seen consumers with Southern accents and noted voice variations still don’t always work well with these devices.

Mike Grehan, CMO of intent-based marketing firm Acronym Media, also pointed to a limited capacity to remember things and asked what happens when consumers make voice queries while driving and the answer is long and they can’t look at screens. Benamati hypothesized additional results could be sent via text to read later, but that remains to be seen.

How to be the best answer to a voice query

As voice search inevitably grows – allegedly hitting the 50% mark in search by 2020, per Benamati’s figures – Grehan asked how agencies and brands will accommodate.

For his part, Sheridan said SAP’s short-term solution is Google’s Answer Box.

“People are asking simple questions by voice, like, ‘What is CRM?’, ‘What is cloud computing?’” Sheridan said. “As long as we have the answer to that and it ranks well and in the Answer Box, it will be read out.”

Benamati said it also comes down to microdata.

“A fail for us would be someone asking about the best tape measure and that not be marked up correctly,” she added.

Patrick Reinhart, senior director of digital strategies at SEO platform and content marketing firm Conductor, which planned the event, added that, generally speaking, brands should really hone in on the “How do I…”- questions and figure out where they are the best answer match so they can craft high-quality content accordingly.

But it still isn’t clear what else brands and agencies will have to do as voice assistants evolve and provide more services – and Google, search marketers’ primary target to date, could theoretically not be as big of a player anymore.

“A lot may come down to branding,” Grehan said.

Benamati added it also goes back to authenticity – knowing a brand’s voice and thinking less about tactics and search engines and more about users’ needs.

‘Concierge search’

It also isn’t clear how search engines will make money in this brave new world.

“I think Alexa will become Amazon’s biggest source of revenue,” Sheridan said. “I think the thing I use the most is the shopping list. I open the fridge and say, ‘Add eggs to the shopping list,’ and can say, ‘Alexa, reorder garbage bags.’”

In addition, Sheridan called Alexa “the worst thing for an impulse buyer” as this technology will only get more human and learn more about us, making it even easier to buy the stuff we want on a whim.

Indeed, from both commercial and ecommerce perspectives, Grehan said Amazon is a big threat to Google. At the same time, Sheridan said early Google Home adopters may stick with it at least in part out of a sense of loyalty.

Further, Reinhart said Google’s challenge in particular will be connecting with children who are growing up with Siri and Alexa and who have quickly grown comfortable with these assistants – even at very young ages.

“That’s how Amazon will creep in,” Reinhart added.

However, per Grehan, Google has built its business around the idea that consumers would see ads on their computers and click on them. But, he asked, if consumers are not using their monitors anymore and there are no ads to click, how will Google make money?

Reinhart hypothesized Google may become an affiliate – i.e., Siri will book flights and then Google will take a piece of each transaction.

And while Grehan said he didn’t intend to be the prophet of doom, he nevertheless said he expects to see less of search engines in the future, by which he meant less of all information coming solely from the Web.

“In the future I see something that is, essentially, an information provider [with] multi-modal sources of data, not just Web search results,” he said.

Grehan also made a distinction between the Internet and the Web, which are not interchangeable terms/entities.

The Internet has been around since the 1960s – and yes, former US Vice President Al Gore really was involved, he said. The World Wide Web, on the other hand, was developed in the late 1980s/early 1990s and borrows some protocol from the Internet, but actually sits on top, kind of like a World Wide app.

“You can spend all day on the Internet using apps on your mobile device/tablet and not go anywhere near the World Wide Web [by] never having to open a browser,” Grehan said. “Google is king of the Web – not king of the Internet.”

Further, Grehan said he uses the term “concierge search” to explain the difference between a digital assistant providing a service like booking a table at a restaurant with, say, the OpenTable app and using a digital assistant to discover something using a search engine.

“If I check into a hotel I know, and also know the area, I might ask the concierge, ‘Book me a table at Brown’s Restaurant,’ [which is] a service,” Grehan said. “Whereas if I check into a hotel I’ve never been to before, I might ask the concierge, ‘Could you recommend/find a good steakhouse’ and then be offered a choice, [which is] search results. My guess is talking to devices with a number of apps installed, it’s likely that about 60% of what you receive will be service, not search.”

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Lisa Lacy

Lisa Lacy is a senior reporter for The Drum, covering digital and search marketing. Based in New York, she writes about how brands use technology to connect with consumers, particularly as innovations like voice search, digital assistants and the Internet of Things change consumers’ lives forever – not to mention the data these platforms increasingly collect and the security and privacy issues therein. She is a graduate of Columbia's School of Journalism. Her bucket list includes riding in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

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