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2018 will NOT be the ‘year of voice search’…not by a long shot

We’ve heard it before about mobile or video…this year will be THE year. The year it matures, comes of age – becomes a key ‘marketing tool’.

I hate to be a party pooper, but 2018 will definitely not be that year for voice search. It won’t be 2019 or 2020 either. I think it’s foolhardy to make predictions further out than 3 years for this sort of tech…so who knows, it could be 2021 😉

What are the challenges voice search faces in the marketing world?

There’s no doubt that usage of voice control and voice search is growing, I’m not questioning that. I’m not going to drop links in here to studies citing that, they’re everywhere.

And that’s part of the problem.

For someone who works in marketing, the calls to adopt or utilise the latest technology trend can be deafening. A buzz of expectation and excitement that takes its lead from news stories and examples from mega brands – sometimes pushing the boundaries, but oft with huge budgets at their disposal.

But we know voice search is growing. You may be asking, “what’s the problem then?” Well…

Most voice searches happening today have little or no real marketing opportunity attached to them

If you use voice search yourself, all you have to do is look at the way you use it. I have two Amazon Echo devices a Google Home and use Siri and the Google app on my phone. Top uses – roughly based on a week in my house – are:

  • Fact finding – “what is the capital of Mexico?”, “how many years are in 1 billion seconds”
  • Playing music – “play Ed Sheeran”, “play 90s rock music”
  • Direction/location finding – “where is Specsavers in Bury”, “give me directions to Buca Di Pizza”
  • Opinion sourcing – “what’s the best bar in Manchester”, “how do I fix a broken toilet”

Spotted any opportunities for your brand or a client’s brand in those? Maybe the ‘best bar’ query, or the ‘broken toilet’ ones? Yes – I’ll give you those. If you’re able to offer an answer to either of those then you’re in with a chance. An extremely slim chance.

A chance so small it’s barely visible.

Voice search is the new “Are you feeling lucky?” button

If you’re not feeling lucky, you might want to wait a bit. But if you’re still chomping at the bit and really feel like going for those ‘best bar’ and ‘broken toilet’ queries – you’re aiming for the top spot only. 2nd place is failure. No one will hear your answer unless you’re being selected as the one answer your voice assistant of choice chooses to provide. Much like the frequently ignored, “Are you feeling lucky?” option Google still gives real estate to on it’s main search page. That option takes you straight to the top organic search result without you having to visit the SERP first and click on it.

For that bar search example, Amazon’s Echo (the most popular voice assistant in the home across the UK so far) doesn’t speak any of the bar recommendations back to me, instead she tells me she’s sent a few to the app on my phone. Alexa uses Yelp for ‘bar recommendation’ type searches and the results are often pretty crappy. This is a list of the best bars in Manchester…apparently.

Diverting me to the Alexa app on my phone to see their ratings or call them just feels clunky. The Google Home fairs slightly better. Asking Google “what are the best bars in manchester?” she replies to tell me she ‘knows some’ then speaks a list of three with their address. No information about which site she got that information from, or how ‘best’ was determined. Yay – marketing opportu…nope.

The future of voice search, or at least from a marketing angle, still needs visuals

That may sound odd. It felt odd to write. But hear me out.

The big benefit of voice search is that you can do it hands free. It’s shortcutting a previously slower task of typing your search. But we still want to search for the same types of thing – you’re looking for new trousers, you need to renew your insurance, etc. You cannot complete those tasks – not even close – using the current home assistant devices. You’re essentially just using the smart speakers or assistants to type for you. I feel like the kids from Back to the Future 2 who discover the ‘Wild Gunman’ video game – “You have to use your hands? That’s like a baby’s toy…”

This is where Google or Samsung could easily steal share back from Amazon…

Google and Samsung have access to screens. Big screens and small screens. Google have Chromecast & Pixel (plus Assistant on other Android phones/tablets), and Samsung have Galaxy and their extensive smart TV range.

Whilst Samsung’s Bixby voice assistant has come under some (deserved) scrutiny since launch, if they could get that right it feels like there’s a great natural fit there. Your phone’s in your pocket or on the counter somewhere, you ask, “Bixby, show me men’s trousers in black”. It either asks where you want to see them, maybe there’s a choice of more than one TV in the house, or still gives you a ‘view on phone’ option. Low and behold, a range of men’s trousers in black appear on the TV for you to look through. Control from then on could carry on via voice (“Bixby, show me the pair from ASOS”) and you can see how that becomes valuable. How would they get the content you ask – they’d need to build a web index ala Google or maybe take direct feeds from businesses who’d pay for inclusion. Sounds like a challenge.

For those of you shouting “but Amazon has Fire Stick/Box for your TV!”, they do – but they’re not about to open that up to searching the wider web using your voice. They want you in the Amazon ecosystem. Bezos wants your cash badly folks.

Which is when we ask, “Do all roads lead to 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway?”…

Google is smart and Google is patient. They know the battleground has always been search, and for the near future it’ll continue to be search. You could have the slickest voice search home device (or voice to visual search tie up) but without the quality of results you’ll never get long term user engagement.

Google Pixel, Assistant on Android, Home and Chromecast (both hardware dongle and ‘built in‘) should give Google the reach it needs to connect your voice to their all conquering search engine. Great results on a variety of screens – all in a heartbeat. Eurgh…I sounds like a goddamn ‘Apple’ advert now, sorry.

Apple, by the way, are well out of the race – their HomePod is crazy expensive and despite the folks over at Mashable rating it highly, they only really want it for the sound quality. Siri is a continuing disappointment and the heart of HomePod. I don’t think Apple can work their ‘magic’ with this one.

So, if you’re in marketing, what can you do now?

People will tell you to ‘prepare for voice search’ by writing lots of question and answer style content. Lists, recommendations, advice. And by doing that you might ‘get lucky’ from time to time. But, your brand or company’s exposure will be limited – Google will sometimes read out your domain before it gives the answer and Alexa will require you head to the app for any such stuff. Retail queries aren’t handled well at all yet unless you’re selling on Amazon so Alexa can find you. Or you could try building Skills for Alexa (like Dominos have) but you need a level of existing awareness for someone to even go and seek that out (like Dominos ;))

Want some reporting on how well you might be doing in voice search? Good luck. Maybe use GSC to look for question phrases or those that start with ‘OK Google’ – but even with some huge brands I see in GSC, there’s little to none right now.

Unless you’re a huge recipe site, a recommendation engine or a tech giant like Google or Amazon – I’d be spending my 2018 marketing budget on something else.

Interested to hear any thoughts though – from either camp…


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1 Comment

  1. I agree with all of this. I ran some tests at the end of last year (http://callismakesfilms.co.uk/blog/seo-marketing/voice-search-opportunity-nail-seo-coffin) and even on Google Home, which to its benefit cites the source, offers little value for marketing. Unless there is functionality to save to bookmarks/email digest/browser tab and read the full article there’s a lot of longtail search that could have eventually converted down the sh1tter!

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