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Voice technology: Its effect on online retail (and how it’s evolving)

Image of speech bubbles for voice technology in online retail

Voice technology (and voice search) is still in relative infancy, at least as far as its adoption and application to online retail goes. It can be hard to know whether it’s actually going to make a difference to the way people shop.

Looking at how voice technoogy — and especially voice commerce — is evolving and settling in to shoppers lives and routines, we can see where it’s heading.

This article examines what voice technology means for online retail.

Voice technology in online retail

While voice technology has been around for a while, it has really exploded over the last couple of years since the release of Amazon’s first Echo in 2014. In the last four years, the biggest internet giants have jumped on board, releasing both their own assistants and smart speakers, with Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby as well as Google Home and Homepod to complement Amazon’s Alexa and the Echo series.

These assistants allow users to search and make enquiries without the need for a screen or keyboard. All they need is their voice. And these assistants’ uses are extremely varied, from creating shopping lists, setting timers, and answering questions to turning on your lights, ordering a pizza, and playing trivial pursuit.

Currently, Amazon tops the list with 25,000 available skills - actions that Alexa can perform - including being able to meow, tell jokes or even give dad wisdom. Furthermore, Amazon’s Echos have been so popular that they currently have a 70% share of the smart speaker market, with Google coming in a far second with 23%. The implications for voice technology are far reaching, however.

voice search assistant in the home

Yes, smart speakers are what people think of when they hear the term ‘voice’, however, 81% of users interact with voice assistant via their smartphones. This means that people are not opposed to having voice technology incorporated in devices they already use. The potential for voice then, is immense.

We are already seeing car manufacturers adding Alexa and Google Assistant to their newest models, as well as smart fridges that you can tell to order more milk because you just finished the last pint. This potential shows that voice is here to stay. Indeed Comscore predicts that by 2020, 50% of searches will be done by voice. 

So what does this mean for online retail?

Obviously Amazon Echo has a slight initial edge on Google Home in the retail space, as it has access to Amazon’s vast marketplace. However Google has fought to be competitive, partnering with the likes of Walmart, Target and Ocado to offer its customers the option of Voice Commerce.

And customers are keen to use the technology.

Girl doing voice search on phone

The Capgemini Digital Transformation Institute found that 35% of those surveyed have used a voice assistant to purchase everyday goods. At this point in time, it seems like this is the limit of what can be bought by voice. Shoppers are currently so used to seeing a product online before buying that they are bound to be uncomfortable buying anything they don’t buy on a regular basis with voice.

However, this is set to change. As users get more and more comfortable using their voices, the purchases of big ticket items are sure to go up. Furthermore, while voice commerce currently only makes up 3% of total online spending, this number will go up to 18% within 3 years.

It would seem that many brands are hesitant to get into voice. Firstly, there are still doubts about the technology’s accuracy, as anyone who has ever used a voice assistant knows they are not correct 100% of the time. You could ask Alexa for the time and she sets a timer for 20 minutes.

However, the technology keeps getting better and better thanks to improvements in Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP is a form of artificial intelligence that can learn how humans naturally speak. And these voice assistants need to be able to understand natural human speech if they ever have a chance of being used reflexively by shoppers. This is not a far-off goal either, in fact, Google predicts that we will reach that point this year. 

People use voice technology for online retail search

True, this new channel can be seen as a bit of an undertaking for brands and retailers as it requires rethinking and re-optimising their search strategies. Up till now, optimising one’s SEO revolved around textual references, keywords that appeared frequently and a wide variety of staccato search terms.

When shoppers type search queries into a search engine, they tend to string together a series of keywords instead of using full sentences. However, this is the complete opposite with voice. Queries are made in natural full sentences, so brands will have to incorporate this into their strategies.

This optimisation of search terms proves invaluable with voice assistants as, unlike with traditional search, there can only be one answer, the ‘0th position’. If you search Google on a screen, the 0th position is what comes up in the answer box before the first result.

While having your site in the answer box on Google can prove extremely beneficial, it is not the end all and be all. For voice, it is. There is only one answer read out and that is the answer box’s.

However, all the effort that this requires is sure to pay off. According to Gartner, brands who redesign their websites to support visual- and voice-search will increase digital commerce revenue by 30%. This is good for organic reach, but what about advertising? Well, this has so far not been something that the companies behind voice assistants have been able to figure out.

Because voice assistants tend to only give one answer, giving a sponsored answer is not really an option: it would destroy any trust the shopper has in the voice assistant. However, given the continued forecast of growth in the voice sector, we can be sure that these companies will be working on a solution to this and any brands who get into the voice game now are sure to be at an advantage further down the road.  

Image of voice assistant in the home

It is important for brands to note, though, that voice assistants are not only used for shopping. In fact, making purchases only comes in seventh place in how shoppers use voice assistants during their shopping journey.

Shoppers are using the technology to help at other stages in the journey as well. Indeed, the top 3 uses are checking delivery status, making shopping lists, and searching for products and services. This means that brands and retailers who choose to incorporate voice technology in their strategies can provide a more expansive and catered experience to their customers hence improving relations.

Expanding on this, successful engagement with potential customers on voice platforms does not even have to be product oriented. At the moment most searches on voice are made with the intention of finding something to do or somewhere to go. Therefore, brands can try and capitalise on this aspect.

For example, Sephora partnered with Google Home in France to give customers the option of booking beauty appointments with their voice. Furthermore, services that allow customers to save time are also appreciated. Starbucks recently added a feature to their Alexa skills which allows a user to order their regular coffee before they leave the house. 

Starbucks use voice technology for preordering coffee

So with everything that voice technology can offer, there is no reason for brands and retailers not to get in the game. Start by having your content answer all 5 W’s and 1 H: who, what, when, where, why, and how, so search engines can easily find the information.

Also make sure that your mobile sites are fully optimised as most voice queries come through this channel. And finally, think natural language and conversational interactions when creating content, again making it easier for search engines.

Voice is just in its early stages, it’s bound to keep growing over the coming years, becoming commonplace for most people. Just as the smartphone has revolutionised online retail and commerce as a whole, voice assistants and voice search may be on their way to doing the same. There’s no telling how big it could get, so best to start now. 

 

By Lengow

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