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Hey Siri, is voice search really that big of a deal?


Searching the web for “is voice search really that big of a deal?”

Tech pundits and marketing gurus are already lauding voice search as the most disruptive advertising technology since the advent of the smartphone. The incorporation of voice search in our daily lives will undoubtedly increase in the coming years, and this proliferation of voice-activated technology will likely make our lives easier, but it is not yet certain that voice search will be an effective vehicle for advertising. In fact, in the rush to name voice search as the next great hope in digital advertising, we may have collectively overlooked a host of challenges that will likely temper its rise.

Technical challenges

We are currently exiting the nascent phase of voice search. As a society, we’ve been interacting with automated voice command programs for a little over a decade. Traditionally, automated voice has been clunky at best, but current technology has evolved enough to make true voice search a viable possibility, and now advertisers are scrambling to keep up.

Most early voice search implementation types will function in a way that is similar to existing text search. In these instances, advertiser strategy remains the same, and budgets must be adjusted to accommodate voice search query volume, in whatever forms they might take. However, the forms of voice search that are most desirable from a consumer perspective are the most challenging from an advertiser perspective.

Consider the following examples:


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1. Hey Siri, how far can the new Tesla go?
Looking… Here’s what I found on the web for “how far can the new Tesla go?”

2. Alexa, please play “The Jungle Book” movie in the kitchen.

3. Cortana, I need a flight to Los Angeles.

4. Siri, can you get me an Uber home?

Examples 1 and 3 are standard web searches with an extra step: voice recognition. The search engine result page remains the same, and the user needs to interact with a screen to use the search feature. In Example 3, consumers are used to seeing every available option when shopping for a flight, and it is highly unlikely that a voice response or one-off action would be helpful in this scenario. From an advertising perspective, this type of voice search is only a slightly different form of search query that must be matched and priced accordingly. It’s an implementation type, not a game changer.

Examples 2 and 4 are fundamentally different from existing search, but these instances only apply to brands with pre-existing customers, such as a subscription video service or a car service app. This type of concierge search will be a boon to a handful of specific business models, but will not make a huge difference in terms of conquesting or awareness campaigns.

Granted, if the user in Example 4 did not have a subscription to Uber, this would create an advertising opportunity for Uber, Lyft, and any other competitors, but absent a completely new audio implementation strategy, the UX of those ads will not be very different from existing web search and app install search.

The ideal voice search scenario facilitates a hands-free conversation between man and machine, but this holy grail of voice search, from a consumer perspective, is years away. This type of exchange relies on two technologies that are currently far from perfect — natural language search and voice recognition — as well as one branch of technology that’s not even close — artificial intelligence.

In the near future, even with hypothetically advanced AI, most ads will still need a screen. Hands-free visual advertising requires widespread adoption of wearable augmented reality, and judging by Google Glass’ recent failure, this is unlikely in the immediate future. Likewise, we can’t expect voice-activated audio advertising to have a performance profile that’s significantly different than existing audio ads.

The only plausible counterargument would be an automated app install, signup, and payment system. This is what many of the larger tech players are working on right now. If a user could vocally agree to sign up for Uber, then we might see true voice search pose a threat to text search, but I don’t foresee a hard vocal conversion in the near future.

Social limitations

Much of the current excitement about voice search depends on the assumption that people will actually like it. Currently, one third of Americans prefer texting to a voice call, and 75 percent of millennials prefer texting. We’ve become accustomed to expressing thought through our thumbs. Why should a new technology with questionable user experience change this?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the voice search user experience has improved to the point that people actually want to use it: minimal frustrating interactions; minimal mistakes; a seamless natural conversation. Even in this scenario, we have to acknowledge that there will be certain situations where people will not want to search aloud. People will certainly feel comfortable utilizing voice search in the comfort of their cars or homes, but voice search will likely not become the norm for public social behavior. Texting has become preferable to voice calls largely because text allows us to conduct private conversations in very public spaces. Most user searches are private experiences. Even if we perfect voice search, it’s not likely to replace text search in the near future.

The social limitations of voice search are a bit more subjective, and while some may dismiss the above points as conjecture, I think it’s helpful to view any new technical innovation with a healthy dose of skepticism. The fact is, we don’t really know that people will like voice search. From an advertising perspective, this is critical. If a new technology doesn’t fundamentally change the way customers shop and interact with brands, it can hardly be considered disruptive.

In order for voice search to truly revolutionize advertising, we will need to develop some sort of algorithmic native audio advertising, coupled with voice activated conversions. It’s plausible, but there are a lot of technical and user experience hurdles in the interim.

So, is voice search really that big of a deal?

Perhaps, but you shouldn’t plan on changing your search strategy any time in the near future, because it is going to be a very long time before we can ask Siri this question and receive a spoken response of:

Yes, and here’s why…

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