As we get further into 2019, we keep hearing about how voice search represents a burgeoning threat to traditional search methods.  While we haven’t arrived at that inflection point yet, it is evident that voice search is gaining steam and will need to be on every marketer’s mind going forward.  With estimates already as high as 30% of all web searches being done without a screen by 2020, vocal search is well on its way to becoming an integral part of how we search, interact, and shop in the future.

Origins and Meaning of Vocal Search

Vocal search differs from traditional search in that it occurs when a user speaks to a device instead of typing keywords into a search engine.  Speech recognition technology then interprets the spoken word in order to conduct a search, the results of which are conveyed back to the user.   Although voice recognition technology is thought of as a relatively recent phenomenon, the technology itself has existed in one form or another for decades.

As early as the 1950s, we had speech recognition machines which could recognize spoken numbers.  It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, when we started to develop machines that led to the technology we have today.  In 1997, Dragon Systems released their groundbreaking NaturallySpeaking software, a derivative of which is still in use today.  With a bit of help from machine learning, Google improved on that technology with the launch of the Voice Search app for the iPhone in 2008.  Three years later, Apple gave birth to the era of the voice-enabled digital assistant with Siri.  Shortly thereafter, Amazon’s Echo smart speaker with the personal assistant, Alexa,  entered the market and vocal search took on a whole new dimension.

New Search Medium

Vocal search is game-changing because it represents a newer and more accessible search medium.   Since people can speak much faster than they can type, voice search saves both the time and the hassle of having to type a word.  In other words, people can now search without having to sift through sites on their mobile device or their desktop.  While this may not seem like a hardship, anything that saves time and frees up your hands to perform another task e.g. driving, represents a real advantage.

Human-Level Accuracy

Another reason for the growing popularity of voice search is its high degree of accuracy. While early efforts didn’t always turn out so well for the user, upgrades to vocal search algorithms have vastly improved their accuracy.  Indeed, in 2017 Google’s voice recognition software achieved 95% accuracy, which is basically the same as a human being.  What’s scary is that their software is only going to get better over time.  Moreover, as voice technology is incorporated into more home products, we will soon be able to run a household with a spoken word instead of the touch of a button.

How is Vocal Search Used?

One of the main reasons why vocal search is quickly achieving mainstream adoption is that consumers can use it in so many different ways.  Generally, vocal search breaks down into four main categories

  • Local Search: for directions, nearby restaurants, pizza delivery, local contractors
  • General Information: traditional web search, news, weather, kitchen recipes
  • Personal Assistant: to do lists, appointments, dictating texts, shopping lists
  • Entertainment: listening to music, checking TV listings

Due to its variety of uses, nearly three quarters of people using voice search report that voice-activated devices have become an integral part of their daily lives.  In other words, once you get used to Alexa finding the best Thai restaurant in your neighborhood, it’s very difficult to return to your laptop to search for it.

With so many different applications, it is clear that businesses and SEO professionals will have to adapt their strategies to the type of conversational words and terms used in voice search as opposed to words typed into a keyboard.

A $600 Million Industry

With the market for voice-activated devices expected to reach $600 million in 2019, smart speakers such as Google’s Home and Amazon’s Echo are the clear front runners for the foreseeable future.  Purchasing a smart speaker, however, is only the beginning. Voice commerce sales amounted to $1.8 billion in the U.S. in 2017 and are projected to reach $40 billion by 2022.  In the way that online shopping now threatens traditional retail outlets, recent statistics point out that voice search could soon dominate e-commerce sales.

Alexa, Where Do We Go From Here?

While there are still only a relatively small number of speech recognition products on the market, their recent growth along with the mainstream adoption of voice search is a juggernaut that is only picking up speed.  The challenge for marketers is to figure out how to optimize the technology for a brand’s benefit.  Essentially, they need to adapt traditional search methods in order to add value to the ease and convenience of vocal search.  Since there is no established SEO strategy for Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home, the field is ripe for development.  Similar to optimizing for mobile, they need to start optimizing for voice search.

While smartphones were the original repository for digital voice assistants, smart speakers inflated the market the past two years.  Essentially, they opened the door to a host of voice-activated devices that will start to populate our homes in 2019 and beyond as the Internet of Things crosses over our doorsteps and into our living rooms.