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OK Google, Who’s Using Voice Search Technology?

Voice search on smartphone

In homes, on streets, in trains and cars up and down the country, more and more of us are seemingly giving orders to the ether, asking important questions such as ‘What will the temperature be today?’ ‘Where’s my nearest Indian restaurant?’ or ‘Play Maroon 5 on kitchen’. Yes, we’re talking about the rise of voice search technology, and the plethora of virtual assistants that have been developed to service our every (virtual) need. But who’s using them, where did they come from, and how will they impact the way we search the internet? Are they used more by the younger generation? We’ll look to address these questions here, so read on (or listen on, if this ever becomes a podcast!)

The rise of speech recognition

We may only have noticed it in the mainstream in recent years, but speech recognition software has actually been in development since the 1950’s. The first practical application was released in the 1990’s, with AT&T’s Dragon Dictate. This software could route calls without the use of a human operator and paved the way for global giants Microsoft and Apple to develop and advance the technology. However, it wasn’t until the launch of Apple’s Siri in 2011 that voice search technology hit the mainstream, enabling users to quickly and easily search the internet using a simple to use tool which recognises and responds to the human voice.

Although initially slow to take off, voice search technology has increasingly caught the attention of consumers over the past 18 months, and we’re now seeing the use of voice searches as a growing part of everyday life.

Voice search technology isn’t only conducted through our smartphones, of course, it’s also enabled through a host of voice assistants including Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Echo. Indeed, according to market analyst Canalys global sales of smart speakers were predicted to hit 100 million by the end of 2018. Voice search is also built into an increasing number of Smart TV’s and their plug-in applications and is working its way into everything from fridges to wrist watches.

Given this exponential expansion, it’s perhaps not surprising that Gartner research expects that 30% of searches will be performed without a screen by 2020.

So why are people using voice search?

Well, firstly, this is down to speed – whilst we generally type at 40 words per minute we talk at 150 words per minute.

Secondly, this is down to ease of use – asking a question out loud is far easier than typing it on small mobile phone keyboards and constantly doing battle with the autocorrect!

Thirdly, voice search allows us to search on the go – we don’t need to keep our eyes on the keyboard or our fingers on the keys.

Finally – and probably most importantly – when looking at our brain activity whilst using voice assistants, it’s clear that processing information by listening is much easier than processing information by reading. So once we get used to the new technology we’re likely to take the easiest option.

Elizabeth Cherian, the UK Director of J Walter Thompson’s Innovation Group, believes that voice assistants have effectively become our “digital butlers” which are used to more efficiently manage our daily lives.  Of course, the use of these assistants is further embedded by providing us with the smart home ability to do things like adjust the thermostat, turn on the radio or television and dim the lights…

How many people are using voice technology?

As usual, the youngest generation has taken to this new technology like ducks to water. A survey of 1,000 children by Childnet revealed that 70% of young people are using voice technology and 13% are using it to source information on a daily basis.

Most data concentrates on USA usage and it’s tricky to pin down current UK stats by age group, but we do know that an increasing number of Brits are now happily using voice-operated devices to:

  • research and shop
  • select their music
  • find recipes
  • look for solutions to problems
  • check directions and traffic delays
  • find local businesses
  • pick up the latest news and weather

According to eMarketer 22.4% of UK internet users are using smart speakers at least once a month. This is ahead of Germany at 17.2% and France at 14% but behind the USA where 26% of internet users are taking advantage of such devices. This data is backed up by research conducted this year by Brand Content Inc, which indicates that more than 20% of users are using voice search several times a day, with the biggest users being millennials and those in the 45-54 age group.

These figures are only likely to grow, not just as the technology itself improves but also as the hardware becomes more readily available. Increasing competition between the market leaders of smart speakers has led to significant price drops, encouraging first-time buyers to use voice technology. Lower prices have also encouraged tech enthusiasts to buy more than one unit so that they’re in several rooms within the house – thus making the ability to use voice search technology instantly accessible.

The challenge of language and voice

In order to reach a global market, voice technology has to embrace a large number of languages. This is the focus of ongoing development for all the manufacturers. So too is supporting multilingual pairings in recognition of a large and growing population of multilingual users.

Of course, voice search technology also has to recognise many versions of the same language – for example, American English, Canadian English, Australian English and UK English – as well as local dialects within countries and non-native speakers with foreign accents. It’s quite a challenge.

The technology also struggles with the higher and breathier voices of women which are more difficult to process than the typical pitch of a man’s voice, leading some to consider that voice recognition may be sexist, but that’s a topic for another day.

Which companies are already taking advantage of voice search technology?

A fair number of organisations are already experimenting with voice search. You can order an Uber, a Domino’s pizza, some products on Amazon or your Ocado groceries via Alexa. We’re even seeing marketing campaigns utilise the technology for their campaigns, with drinks giant Diageo piloting a whisky tasting experience on Amazon’s Alexa, back in 2018. It even purported to “provide an enhanced brand experience by putting the consumer, product and brand at the centre of tasting in a completely seamless and non-intrusive way”. It’s clear that in the real world, a virtual tasting couldn’t ever compete with an actual tasting, but it’s an interesting concept nonetheless and we’ll definitely see increased uptake of this technology for marketing campaigns.

However, the applications far exceed domestic and recreational use. The automotive industry, military and healthcare bodies are just a few of the industries adopting the technology, and with AI and deep neural learning improving and ‘humanising’ voice interactions, it’s impossible to see where the potential ends.

What’s the impact of Google Voice Search on SEO?

We’ll talk about how voice search will affect your SEO in a more detailed post later in the year, but here are a couple of quick wins to consider in terms of your SEO.

  1. With 60% of voice searches coming via smartphones, it’s more important than ever to ensure that your website is optimised for mobile use and for download speed or you’ll fall at the first hurdle. The average voice search results page loads in less than 5 seconds, so your website needs to do the same.
  2. Since verbal questions will be more detailed than the typical two or three words in a text search, it would also be a good idea to look over your web copy to see if you can make it both more conversational and as helpful as possible in answering likely queries.

We hope you’ve found this helpful, it’s definitely something we’ll be keeping a close eye (and ear) on in the months and years to come. If you’d like support or advice in this or other areas of search engine optimisation please get in touch. Whether you’re an SME or multinational corporation, we can provide a sustainable SEO strategy for you, and you can rest assured we’ll be keeping an eye on developments to future-proof your search engine rankings.

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