If you aren’t best friends with Siri, and if the idea of asking your phone to find the nearest petrol station doesn’t enter your train of thought, you might soon be in the minority of smartphone users.
It’s said that in 2015 the use of voice search rose from a “statistical zero” to account for 10% of all queries globally. That’s 50 billion searches a month.
For Google in the US, that’s one in every five searches conducted on mobile (20%), as reported by the company’s CEO Sundar Pichai. For Bing in the same stakes, it’s one in four. As developers and search engines respond to this trend, the numbers are rising.
Conversely, voice search is still a novelty. According to a study by MindMeld, 60% of smartphone owners that use voice recognition to lodge everyday queries only started doing so in the last year, with 41% of them having adopted it in the past six months.
Nevertheless, Bing predicts that half of searches will be made through voice by 2020. It makes you wonder why there has been such a sudden move towards this practice, and whether the trend of opting for chords over keys marks the direction in which the Googles and Bings are heading.
It’s safe to say that speedy developments in voice recognition technology have planted the seed here, and big players from Google to Microsoft and Apple are tapping into the opportunities this might bring.
Search Engine Journal reports that two years ago, the speech recognition word error rate was over 20%. This number has narrowed down to 8%, enabling search engines to interpret and respond to nuances such as spelling corrections, previous searches and the individual user’s context, much like in regular search mode.
In a natural evolution for the technology, it’s no longer simply about matching the keywords in a query, but understanding the meaning and intent behind it.
The game-changing number is 99%, according to Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu. China’s leading search engine currently boasts an accuracy at 95%. He believes improving the rate by 4% will cause a tidal shift from people barely knowing the feature is there to using it all the time.
Kaizen’s Pete Campbell believes that growth has also been driven by voice assistants, particularly as some of them start to integrate with apps.
“They are becoming increasingly smarter at serving personalised, contextual answers to questions and carrying out personal assistant requests,” he explains, going on to highlight the presence of “voice search at home” through solutions such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google's new smart home suite of products.
Another force driving these developments is the consumer’s demand for quick and accurate answers, coupled with the changing ways that people interact with technology.
“We now talk instead of type, because it’s a more natural way for us to interact with technology. We’re voicing our curiosity in new ways,” states Bing Ads’ Ravleen Beeston.
Bing is well-placed to benefit from voice search’s explosion as part of Microsoft, whose investment in voice-based tech has seen the launch of personal assistant Cortana.
The latter’s researchers announced in October that its computers had reached “human parity” in transcribing voice to text using computers. As users’ complaints about voice recognition not understanding their commands are addressed and fixed, the feature could become increasingly popular.
The evidence suggests voice search will keep growing and advertisers can ill afford to ignore it. Action may come in the form of investment in new technologies; adapting the feature to make it, if not commonplace, more commonly used. Such a move, however, will not come without its challenges.
The endorsement will need to be an integrated part of a brand's marketing strategy, but it will also require the services or product to be optimised for voice. According to Beeston, as users choose voice search more frequently, brands will need to integrate it quickly and efficiently, acknowledging cultural differences and linguistic nuances, but also finding “natural ways” in which users can interact with the product. Users will need to get a superior experience by speaking rather than typing. Otherwise, what’s the point?
DealerOn’s Greg Gifford believes one of the biggest feats will be to encourage further change among users.
“The more ways we can interact with our phones with vocal commands and have a seamless, or even more efficient experience, the more likely people will be to switch over to using voice search.”
Many businesses have also presented concerns regarding what voice search might mean for advertising. Switching to voice command instead of using a screen and keyboard, users will be able to avoid ads. Although a solution for the potential shrinking of the ad real estate is yet to be found, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai is confident that voice recognition will actually expand the search giant’s business.
Next big thing?
Voice search is clearly gaining momentum, but will it take over?
Many are skeptical. At Brighton SEO, Gifford described voice search as one of the ‘next big things’, however, he believes that although it might become mainstream on mobile, it won’t overtake traditional search on desktop. In his opinion, the industry’s “little foray into voice search” will lead to an increase in augmented reality interfaces.
Gifford isn’t alone in believing traditional search won’t be overpowered by voice. Campbell predicts voice search will grow in popularity but won’t replace typing for most people.
“Here we are at a conference and I would look like an idiot right now if I went: ‘Hey, Siri, what’s for dinner tonight?’,” he joked in our interview at PMI: London.
He is, however, expecting many new developments and is excited to see what might happen next with Viv: Samsung’s intelligent personal assistant software, which he calls the “most innovative solution” of the past few years.
“Having an experience where a user can buy a product as a result of just using voice search queries - that's a spectacular experience in comparison to spending hours browsing an online store,” he commented.
At the other end of the scale, those immersed in the development of the solution, like Beeston, are optimistic voice search will become the norm in our everyday lives.
“Ultimately the proliferation of voice search will result in a harmonious partnership between people and online services through a natural a voice interface that will serve the brand experience in a more human way,” she explains.
If there’s one thing that has proven true over the years, it’s that web users are extremely adaptable and nothing reflects this as well as the mobile space.
From T9 typing to out-and-out swiping at the screen, mobile phones owners embrace innovation as it appears within the reach of their hands. With voice search becoming smarter, easier to use and more effective, it could just be the next thing they adopt.
In the meantime, however, it doesn’t look like typing will go out of fashion just yet.