Voice Search and eCommerce: Everything You Need to Know

Voice search has been around for a little while now, and it is arguably the most mature of the 3 eCommerce trends that are revolutionising the industry.

In essence, voice search is about returning the right results to a spoken query, whether it’s spoken to a phone, home assistance device or connected car.

And by results, this may not be a purely academic answer (e.g. Q. “How many litres in a gallon,” A. “4.54609”) but also to queries with purchase intent (e.g. “Where can I buy the cheapest xBox for Christmas?”) to action-oriented requests (e.g. “Please buy 2 tickets to the Take That gig at the 02.”)

Clearly, this is a big deal for anyone selling goods online. But let’s quantify just how big.

The opportunity for eCommerce voice search

According to a Park Associates, over half of iPhone owners now use Siri, while under a third of Android owners use OK Google. Usage is particularly high amongst those aged 18-24, with 48% using voice recognition software.

Given the smartphone market is roughly 2.5 billion strong, this is an installed based of 1 to 1.5 billion potential customers, on the conservative end of things.

Add in the ‘millions’ of Echo and Dot units shipped by Amazon over the Christmas period (probably amounting to tens of millions over the last couple of years), and the launch of Google Home, and you’re looking at a very active, increasingly large user base who are utilising voice search at home, on the move, and across devices.

Voice search for the home has also likely hit its ‘Cambrian’ moment in 2017, with CES awash with Alexa-connected devices.

And that’s before you even get to connected cars. Amazon has now released ‘Alexa Voice Services’ in the UK, which allows any device to utilise its system (include in-car infosystems), while Google is teaming up with car manufacturers to ensure its Google Assist isn’t left behind.

According to the Government, “84% of people in England travelled by private car (as a driver or passenger) at least once or twice a week” in 2016. That’s a massive reach for voice-enabled search.

And of course if you look to the US, there’s an even bigger market, “a study done by the Harvard Health Watch, [reveals] an average American spends 101 minutes per day driving. That means that in a lifetime, an average Joe spends a whopping 37,935 hours driving a car.” (Tempo)

In short, voice search is a huge – huge – potential market that lets you reach your customers, and potential new customers, at home, at work and when they’re out and about.

The immediacy of voice enabled search also means it’s more likely to service a customer’s needs when they’re ‘in the moment,’ rather than them having to wait until they can search from the comfort of their desktop, or sit and use their mobile.

Some potential use cases for voice search by eCommerce players.

Fashion: Travis is out and about when he sees another dapper looking fellow wearing a coat he likes, but he’s on a mission to get to a meeting. Rather than stop and take a picture (weird), or search on his phone (too difficult while walking), he asks his phone’s personal assistant – while on the move – which shops in town sell dark blue macs, and to plot a course to the nearest one from where his meeting will take place. He drops in on the way back and buys the coat.

Electronics: Liz is sat at home when she sees an advert for headphones on TV, so she asks her connected home device what the best headphones are under £100. She listens to the pros and cons of the top 3, and says she’d like to buy the second option, which is then ordered and shipped to her for next day delivery.

FMCG: Let’s say Bob is at home and realises he’s out of dishwasher tablets. He’s not brand loyal, so he won’t automatically rebuy with a dot. Instead he’ll ask, “what are the best value dishwasher tablets I can buy today?” And whoever comes up first will get his business.

Entertainment: Sue is driving through town in her connected car, and sees that a new play is opening up next week. No longer does she have to try and remember the details as she flashes past it, and then buy the tickets online later that evening when she’s at home. Instead she can just ask for 2 tickets to the Friday showing in the best available seats. Job done.

Travel: Frank and his family are going away to Cornwall for a week’s holiday. They have a 6 hour drive ahead of them, so between asking Alexa to tell them jokes and play music, they pepper it with questions on what’s on, what’s open, where to go, which restaurants to book etc. and, when something really appeals, they ask Alexa to make the reservation or buy the tickets.

Who are the major players shaping this market?

Arguably Amazon and Google have the lead with their home devices, and between the two, Amazon has the first-mover advantage and scale right now, particularly when it comes to voice search as an enabler of eCommerce.

However first-mover advantage doesn’t always lead to long-term dominance.

Given the vast amount of data Google has on the world, and on your preferences and behaviours, it should be in a strong position to offer an all-round voice search experience for your everyman. The vast amount of additional contextual data should give it an edge too, and will most likely allow it to take the lead in the next few years.

So if you’re going to try and win on one platform, as with traditional search, it would probably pay off long-term to focus most of your efforts on winning with Google.

That said, Samsung and Apple also both have strong and evolving positions in voice search. The report from Park Associates suggests that Apple is way ahead of Google in terms of mobile voice activations, and smartphone owners still represent the largest user base for voice enabled eCommerce.

Meanwhile Samsung have purchased Viv to give them their own mobile assistant software, and if coupled with their purchase of Harman, the massive manufacturer of audio equipment for connected cars, they could take a lead in owning the commuter market, which is absolutely massive.

The one major player that seems to be a bit adrift in this market is Microsoft, although at a research level they’re making strides in speech recognition, which may give them a competitive advantage in the future.

And they have now belatedly announced an Echo competitor too.

Niche competitors are also numerous, with a quick scan of AngelList showing 81 ‘speech recognition’ startups listed and 1,887 investors in the space. There’s even a voice-focused startup accelerator now, launched by Betaworks.

Hurdles still to overcome

Voice is rapidly maturing, and its reach and potential is clearly massive, but in many respects this is still a very nascent market.

There are a number of hurdles that need to be overcome for seamless voice-enabled eCommerce, and this article from eConsultancy does a great job of explaining them.

However in brief they are:

  • Visual descriptions – how rich versus succinct will customers need these to be, before making a purchase? Likely this will change depending on the category of goods or service being purchased.
  • Choice – just how many search results should a voice-enabled device output? 1, 2, 3 or more? Again, this will vary on the category, but also the individual customer and their preference, and is something the team behind Alexa are actively working on and talking about.
  • The apps ecosystem – according to a new report from VoiceLabs, “When a voice application acquires a user, there is only a 3% chance that user will be active in the second week.” And while Amazon touts it’s massive increase in skills for Alex (now over 6000), most are a graveyard, with “69 % of the 7,000-plus Alexa “Skills” — voice apps, if you will — have[ing] zero or one customer review, signalling low usage.” (Recode)
  • Multiple users – these are family devices, but they don’t work well for multiple users yet, a significant issue still to be worked out.
  • Privacy – for many, the concern that these connected, voice-activated devices are recording all of personal interactions, whether the trigger word has been used or not, will remain a drag on huge mainstream adoption.
  • Sophistication – while their capabilities are pretty impressive right now, they’ve still got a long way to go, and plenty of very hard technical challenges to overcome, in order to become like real personal assistants in the cloud, as documented by ZDNet in an interview with Dave Limp, Amazon’s SVP of device and services business.

I’m a retailer, what should I do?

Firstly, recognise this is a significant opportunity and not a flash-in-the-pad fad.

Let’s quantify it further.

Search traffic is absolutely essential to the health of online retail sales. Just look at the % of traffic coming to these major brands via organic search

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As you can see, search traffic to these large online retailers generally ranges from around a third to over half of all their traffic.

And so the logical question is, how significant will voice search be as a proportion of total search volume? While nobody knows, here are some interesting forecasts (a big hat tip to Branded3 who have collated all of these – and more – stats on voice search).

“We estimate that 325.8 million people used voice control in the past month” according to Global Web Index (that’s almost 10% of the online population according to Internet Stats).

“Google voice search queries in 2016 are up 35x over 2008” according to Google trends via Search Engine Watch

“40% of adults now use voice search once per day” according to comscore

“In May 2016, 1 in 5 searches on an Android app in the USA were through speech” according to KPCB

And one more for good measure, not currently in the Branded3 roundup:

“Voice search will be more than 25% of all US Google searches within 12 months.” – Rand Fishkin, based on Google’s own data and cross references with other sources.

Let’s assume Rand Fishkin is somewhere on the money here. That means by the end of 2017, voice search could account for between 7.5%-12.5% of your total ‘traffic’ (or search queries, to be more accurate), which is a huge chunk if you’re not ready to start optimising for them.

Which means whether you’re a startup hoping to gain a foothold in the eCommerce world by differentiating yourself from the incumbents by specialising in voice search; a traditional retailer hoping to leapfrog the first wave a digitally savvy etailers, and finally get an edge on them; or a large, well established online retailer…there’s everything to play for.

So sure, while the exact size of the opportunity today may pale in comparison to your current acquisition channels like desktop and mobile SEO / PPC, don’t fall into the innovator’s dilemma, and let a ton of voice-focused upstarts steal your customers by addressing a new market better than you can.

It could be like missing out on the Internet and transition to digital all over again (a battle many traditional retailers have never won).

Which begs the question, what can you do to win voice search?

First off, to win voice search will be even tougher than winning in traditional SEO, as it’s likely that the top 1-3 SERPs will grab 98% of actions (with an even great index towards first place compared to second, and second compared to third), versus the (roughly) 60% that the top 3 SERPs results do.

That means you need to place on the podium or go home empty handed.

How do you rank first?

I’m not a specialist voice SEO practitioner (mind you, I’m not sure anyone is right now), so I’ll defer to 3 in-depth articles from well-regarded sources as your best starting points, but in summary, here’s their advice:

  • Learn how to win at snippets. If you can win the featured snippet spot on desktop (or mobile) then you’ll very likely win it on voice too.
  • Write conversationally, answer questions (accurately and succinctly), and redouble your efforts on longtail keywords, because they’re probably going to be even more important for voice queries.
  • Double down on your microdata, because “This increases the chances the search engine will pull up your content to answer voice search questions.” (SEJ)
  • Think local. Many transactional queries will be local in nature (e.g. I want to order a take-away), so you’ll need to boost your local SEO efforts.
  • Be even more mobile friendly.

How to Rank on Google Home

Are You Optimized for Voice Search? Here’s How to Do It

How To Optimize For Voice Search And Siri

In conclusion

The market of voice-search for eCommerce (and just about everything else) is still nascent and developing rapidly, but the size of the opportunity is apparent, so the stakes for brands and agencies are high.

Time to get a game plan and take it seriously, if you don’t already.

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