Why voice search will become a vital channel to engage consumers
A view from Matt Bush

Why voice search will become a vital channel to engage consumers

Brands must think about how their user experience will convert into voice search, writes Google UK's director of agencies.

What was once unusual or a rare occurrence gradually becomes habitual until you don’t realise you are doing it – anything from going for a 5K run before work to reaching out to check your phone before you do anything else in the morning.

We are beginning to see voice search make this gradual shift to regular and accepted behaviour. What started off as an occasional experiment for amusement or just to test a voice assistant feature is beginning to become habitual with more recent adopters.

Google’s latest consumer research shows that people who started using voice in the last six months are the most frequent voice adopters, with 42% using it daily, in comparison to those who started using it over four years ago, where it is frequently used by just 25%.

These numbers will only rise as machine learning and natural language processing improves voice recognition technology, so that it can better interpret and understand requests and commands. Voice can already put requests into context – for example, if you ask "how long does it take to drive to Bristol?" you can then ask "what sites of tourist interest are there on the way?" without having to refer back to the destination.

The rising adoption of voice is getting to a point where brands and agencies need to start taking voice seriously and to begin considering where it might fit into their customer experience strategies. Consumers now expect faster, more relevant, personalised and frictionless experiences and voice search powered by machine learning will play an integral part in how brands set about meeting these expectations.

Some brands are already on the front foot. Domino's launched an app in Australia earlier this year that allows consumers to order pizza via voice, removing the need to go through a menu and click to order the right choice. Essentially, the company is increasing the number of channels by which consumers can get what they want – it has a dozen ways to order without needing any human contact.

The first step to developing strategies around voice is to begin to explore some of the consumer perceptions around search and how it is being used currently. The research shows that state of mind has an impact on the perceived speed of search – a quarter of respondents felt search was too slow when sitting down and this figure almost doubled when they were on the move. Voice has been proven to be faster than text search in surfacing solutions, so brands working with voice already have a competitive advantage in delivering a positive customer experience.

From a practical point of view, we know that voice is often used in the kitchen when people are preparing and cooking. In fact, the research found that 75% of those surveyed thought voice search was the best fit in this situation. They might call out to their mobiles devices to read out the ingredients for a chicken and chorizo rice dish and then ask that the device brings up a relevant ‘how to’ cooking video. This has relevance for brands supplying kitchen utensils, ingredients or even white goods.

Equally, and thankfully, 63% of those surveyed said that they would prefer voice search whilst driving and as people become more used to this, brands from supermarkets to local tourist boards will need to make sure that they are optimised for the questions people will ask whilst driving, from "where is open to buy milk" to "how do I get to Corfe Castle?".

There are of course still challenges to be met – the way we verbalise questions is different from the way we type in requests. We tend to couch our voice requests in longer sentences but I have no doubt that as people become more accustomed to asking questions of their voice assistants, they will subtly adapt how they construct their requests– while at the same time the machine learning technology will become better at processing and understanding the intent behind a question.

Some 45% of those quizzed for the research say they perceive voice as the future search tool and 75% are now searching more often now that they can use mobile voice search. Voice is set to become a key channel for forging personal and engaging connections with consumers.

The brands which will succeed in this assistive future are those which start thinking about how their user experience will convert into this new channel.

Matt Bush is director of agencies at Google UK