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Trend Analysis: What’s Up With Voice Search?

When we last discussed voice search, it wasn’t the revolutionary channel many expected it to be. Optimizing your store for voice search meant focusing on creating conversational content, rather than doing anything to your product pages that might help users make a purchase using Alexa.

Eighteen months later, and it doesn’t look like much has changed. Voice search is still being touted as something that will transform the online shopping industry. But reality tells a different story.

There’s a Growing Sense that Voice Search is Overrated

If there’s one thing that has changed about voice search, it’s that more and more people seem to be coming round to the idea that it isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be. 

In February 2020, for instance, eMarketer lowered its forecast for smart speaker buyers. The company initially had forecast 23.6 million people would make a purchase using smart speakers by the end of 2020. They now estimate 21.6 million people will do so, due to security concerns and smartphone competition. 

It’s not just smart speakers that aren’t living up to the hype. What’s really suspect is the lack of voice search case studies, writes eConsultancy’s Rebecca Sentance. If the benefits of optimizing your store for voice search are so significant and so obvious, brands should be shouting about their success from the rooftops. They are more than happy to do so when it comes to optimizing for mobile users or improving page speed. Yet with voice search, they remain conspicuously quiet.   

What’s more, big tech is equally silent about the merits of voice search. According to Sentance, that begs the question: “So where did the notion of voice as a thriving, up-and-coming channel actually come from – and what is the reality?”

Part of the problem might be voice assistants themselves. Research from Forrester Research found their shopping prowess to be woeful. The market research company asked voice assistants from Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft 180 commerce-related questions and then graded their response on a pass-fail basis. They failed 65% of the time. 

Forrester Vice President and Principal Analyst Sucharita Kodali was quick to point out the flaws. “Voice commerce is completely overrated. It doesn’t make sense for most purchases except for a quick replenishment purchase of something you recently purchased from Amazon and your payment and shipping information is stored.”

voice search device being wrapped as a present;; voice search trend concept

No Wonder Most People Aren’t Using Voice Search to Make Purchases

Evidence is growing that people just aren’t using smart speakers to make purchases, regardless of how many they buy and which brand they favor.

In fact, only 2% of people with Alexa-powered devices made purchases by voice command, reported Priya Anand at The Information in 2018. While Amazon has disputed this figure, other studies fail to paint a rosier picture.

Take a 2019 report from Microsoft, for instance, that ranked digital assistant use cases. “Searching for a quick fact” and “asking for directions” were the most common forms of usage at 68% and 65%, respectively. While 52% of respondents report using digital assistants to search for a product or service, only 25% use them to make a purchase. 

Greg Sterling at Search Engine Land points to a 2019 Adobe survey of 1,000 people that showed just 16% of respondents used voice assistants for shopping activities. Bear in mind, that figure includes people who only used voice search for browsing and research, and didn’t use it to make the purchase ultimately. 

As Conductor’s Patrick Reinhart pointed out in a talk at Brighton SEO in 2019, most people aren’t actually searching for something when they interact with Siri or Alexa. They are issuing commands. 

Even when people are using smart speakers to buy things, there’s a high chance those items are digital products, write Rain’s Matt Lang and Will Hall. “These include music, movies and other media or goods that don’t require a tactile evaluation, as opposed to everyday items consumers are already familiar with and are comfortable reordering.”

Voice Search Isn’t Conducive to a Good Buying Experience

The truth is that voice search rarely improves the consumer buying experience, and it often detracts from it. 

Unless you’re reordering commodities, voice search alone makes for a poor shopping experience, says James Vlahos, author of “Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think.” He explains it this way: “It’s a classic problem where shopping is an information-dense experience…and voice doesn’t do that well.” 

The lack of a screen is a big impediment to the customer journey, says eMarketer Principal Analyst Victoria Petrock. People want to see what they are ordering. It’s why most people are only buying things they’ve already bought before or items that don’t need to be assessed carefully. 

The lack of visuals is a particular problem in the fashion world, writes Ed Ball at Prestige Recruitment. Current voice solutions, like Google’s integration with Walmart Voice Order and Whole Foods’ Alexa compatibility, work for grocery shopping but don’t transition well into the “visual world of fashion.” 

Even customer-experience-obsessed Amazon has done little to improve the buying experience for voice customers, notes reporter Sarah Perez at TechCrunch. “There are a number of ways Amazon could make voice shopping a habit or turn one-time purchases into subscriptions, just by way of simple prompts,” she writes. Yet the company hasn’t innovated.

voice search module on a kitchen shelf; voice search trend concept

Security and Privacy Concerns Remain

If their frequent inability to answer questions correctly wasn’t enough, it appears voice assistants are far from secure too. 

Chris Martinez at fraud protection solution provider Signifyd describes voice technology as “ripe for fraud and other security vulnerabilities.” This impedes both retailers and consumers. Brands need to mitigate fraud issues they’ve never come across before. Consumers need to be able to look past headline-making privacy breaches when making a purchase using voice, rather than more trusted and established routes. 

What should be really worrying for brands investing in voice shopping is that the biggest concerns around privacy come from the youngest users. According to research by Path Interactive, voice searchers aged between 13 and 21 were 515% more likely to be “very concerned about privacy issues” than the oldest age group (65+), writes the company’s Director of SEO Lily Ray.

For consultant Steve Dennis, the trust issues with voice extend way beyond eCommerce to adoption in general. “Stories like the one about a woman’s conversation being recorded by Alexa and then being sent to a random contact don’t exactly inspire confidence,” he writes. “Whether these concerns are all that profound and whether a significant number of customers remain cautious about using such devices remains to be seen.” 

Either way, big tech will have to take steps to assure us of our privacy if voice shopping is to go mainstream.

What Should Brands Do?

If voice-activated shopping really isn’t going to be the next big thing in retail, does that mean brands can forget about it completely? Perhaps — but just because voice search is niche right now doesn’t mean it will stay that way. 

Ron Dod is certainly confident about the future of voice shopping. The Cofounder and CMO of search marketing agency Visiture says retailers should be “laser-focused” in their preparations. Optimizing their websites to appear in voice search results is a must.

Louder.Online Co-Founder and Managing Director Aaron Agius says we are close to the time when consumers will use their voice to do more than reorder groceries, like buying jeans. “In these types of queries, brand recognition becomes more important to the conversion,” says Agius. “That’s something that forward-looking eCommerce sellers should be thinking about now.”

That doesn’t mean you should make voice search a central part of your brand’s marketing strategy, writes SEO consultant George Papatheodorou. It’s never going to replace text-based search, in his opinion, which is why optimizing for voice search should be a secondary issue. “It might one day be possible to say exactly what you want to order in one long string and have the order parsed and placed immediately,” he says. “But it isn’t something to worry about. Focus on providing a great UX and covering your technical SEO bases — that should be enough.”

Images by: Andrea Piacquadio, Jason Rosewell, Jonas Leupe