Will voice-activated web searches control the market within three years?

What first seemed like a glorified party trick now threatens to take control of the online search market 

American media metrics giant Comscore raised eyebrows earlier this year with their projection that by 2020, 50% of all internet searches could be voice-controlled.

For those who have tracked the rise of the technology, such figures appeared remarkable.

The rise of voice control

When voice-activated technology first emerged, tech forums of the day revelled in its ability to understand words like “pulchritudinous”, yet failed to mention that these technologies could rarely differentiate between “cat” and “fat”.

Fast-forward a decade and a half, some projections now put this error rate as low as 8% – comparable with the occasional finger slip on your smartphone screen, perhaps.

It’s clear that voice-activated technology is now finally viable for online searches.

The implementation of the personal assistant function Siri (for Apple) and Cortana (for Windows) has helped introduce the idea to a mainstream mobile audience. But while virtually all users have experimented with the functionality, a far smaller percentage currently use it on a day-to-day basis.

Nervous publishers may be quick to panic at this unexpected development. Could voice-activated search further hamper already impoverished mobile engagement statistics – and to what cost?

Unfortunately, because Google does not currently offer reporting on voice-activated search through analytics, there is a little guesswork needed from the publisher in terms of establishing either a strategy for users or if the projections are just hyperbole.

“Alexa, find me content…”

B2B publications may find that this web trend is slower to reach them than others – as has often been the case with certain mobile usage patterns in recent years.

Voice-activated searches are more prevalent at weekends and evenings – a traditional dead zone for your average B2B audience. It’s unusual, for example, to use voice-activated search in a packed office while your laptop sits two feet away.

However, the new tech could still be something for publishers to watch – even if B2B search traffic numbers buck the overall trend.

Specific voice-activated technology is a still burgeoning outlet for publishers looking to capitalise on new markets. However, early indicators are that there may be avenues to target and battle over in the years ahead.

For example, Amazon’s heavily marketed voice-activated home tech hub Echo is starting to encourage publishers to use its platform to reach its ever-growing audience in the form of a two-minute audio news blast – powered by digital assistant Alexa.

The move for content has a similar feel to Google Currents. The aggregated news app from 2011 onboarded numerous publishers free of charge, yet limited their commercial capabilities to occasional non-targeted static subscription ads. Google quietly shelved the app in 2013.

The fact that Amazon has taken some advice from publishers on how best to pull together this new product suggests that they are learning from the holes in the Google Currents model.

His master’s voice

The nature of the format means that in an age of ultra-accountability, proof of engagement and conversion is tricky. But while unit sales rocket, publishers and advertisers will try and co-exist on the platform.

The Echo’s new format is a welcome carrot to publishers dismayed by Google and Facebook’s ever more stringent rules surrounding data surrender and how it can be used to aid commercial activity.

However, as always, a new platform brings fresh problems. Will Amazon buck the trend of not sharing their user data for ad targeting or, once a critical mass of publishers have agreed to utilise the platform, will they rule with an iron fist?

Assuming that Amazon remains committed to monetising the platform, content marketing has the chance to be a major player in the area.

The line between organic publisher output and commercial advertising will be thinner than ever – high-end output from experienced content marketers could well establish an early advantage.

Quality will remain king – whichever way you search for it.

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