Voice search is on its way towards disrupting the search engine industry and how we discover content online. It’s posing challenges for search engine marketers as the nature of search changes from text-based to voice.


What is voice search?

Voice search uses voice recognition technology to enable users to search for content online.

For example, instead of navigating to the default search engine installed on your mobile, and typing in something you want to know, you might say “OK Google. Where is the nearest coffee shop to me with free wifi?” Hopefully, your mobile (or personal assistant) will tell you the answer.

At the moment, voice search is most popular with teenagers. ComScore confidently estimates that, by 2020, 50% of all searches will be made using voice. We are now interacting with machines in a much more human-like way, talking to them as you would a friend, and relying on this technology to accomplish goals.

Voice search appears to herald moving away from screens. Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30% of web browsing will be screenless. This medium is non-visual and poses challenges for businesses that rely heavily on design to communicate their brand, or have a name that is hard to pronounce.


Benefits of search

Voice search integrates more naturally with the demands of the physical world.

Using voice search is much easier than typing when a user’s hands or vision is occupied. For example, when driving, or walking down the street, and it’s important to be looking ahead.

It’s more accessible for users who have a physical disability, and typing on a screen would be too difficult for them, or even impossible.

Using natural speech is easier than trying to search in the language of search engines. In many situations, voice search also generates faster results.


How businesses can adapt to voice search

With no visual cues due to the absence of a screen, businesses have to optimise separately for voice search to stay ahead of the curve and ensure they can be successfully found. Natural language, and a question and answer format, is the key to optimising for voice search.

A company’s website navigation and structure has to make sense with users jumping around using voice commands, perhaps disrupting the typical task flow expected when designing a site.

Viewing users as action-oriented rather than search-oriented will transform the nature of connective technologies. This means developing a greater sensitivity to the context in which technology is being used. Instead of imagining a user sat at a desk typing queries into the search box, imagine them walking down the street or driving a car.

It requires knowing the needs and mindset of customers inside out, understanding how they are moving through their environment, and the kind of tasks they might use voice search for. For example, finding their nearest vegan restaurant, or ordering a taxi.

Voice search is also disrupting current advertising opportunities and organic search results. Instead of being able to serve an advert in the search results, businesses will have to find alternative ways to reach their customers.


The future of search

Accuracy is key to the future of voice search. In order to increase the rate of adoption, it has to be easier and more successful than the traditional way of searching online by typing keywords.

Voice search technologies are fuelled behind the scenes by ‘skills’ (like apps) that provide the relevant information or data to answer user queries. The number of these available skills is growing to accommodate more diverse and complex queries.

The online world is going to become increasingly defined by what delivery agents like Google or Amazon define as legitimate or expected activity. There is a huge question mark over the potential that this technology has to shape the way we interact with the world.

If we already had privacy concerns about our identities and data online, then the potential for one of these companies to be recording our speech or even whole conversations has serious implications.


Relationship to Smart Homes

It’s less about killing traditional search and more about mobile technologies permeating even more areas of our lives. Instead of there being a hard line between the virtual and the physical world, personal assistant products help us control our environment digitally.

The personal assistant market is one way of capitalising on voice search technology, and currently includes products like Amazon Echo and Google Home devices. Users can talk to their devices and use them in the same way they would a traditional browser.

As more products become ‘smart’, including televisions, thermostats and fridges, they can be linked to your personal assistant, and the possibilities for using voice to manage the home are increasing rapidly.

By developing a smart home ecosystem, businesses are increasing their revenue potential in a new market.


Final remarks

Voice search underlines how digital technologies are evolving towards being increasingly user-focused. Understanding your customer is truly key to succeeding in the future of search.

Recordings of natural speech are becoming a more common data format that platforms will need to make sense of. At the moment, Google Analytics does not make voice search queries available, but Google has hinted that this functionality is coming soon.

As with any new technological development, the industry may panic about “the death existing technology”. The reality is, change is much slower than that, and voice search will grow to complement existing search technologies.

Businesses should embrace the change that is coming, and anticipate that, while creating content is still important, the ultimate consumer of that content might eventually be a virtual assistant mining for data.