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Online Shops and Voice Search – Music of the Future or an Urgent Need for Action?

Steve Jobs is always good for a quote – from ‘‘Stay hungry, stay foolish‘‘ to ‘‘Think different‘‘, the broad scale of his business wisdom is no less inspiring.

Regarding the significance of Voice Search for online shops, one of his lesser known quotes conveys exactly the right message. A recommendation from the legendary tech-founder from Palo Alto is: "When behind leapfrog". If you lie back, you should jump forwards, so the development goes. This recommendation demonstrates the potential that voice search can have for many online shops.

Voice search – It’s all About the User

Voice search has been around for a while – since the 2000s, voice search functions have been available online. Voice search was for a while simply a side issue of online channels, but search for voice is now increasing significantly: in 2014, Google disclosed that 41% of adults and 55% of teenagers use voice search on their smart phones on a daily basis – even more than once daily. All big platform operators – Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple – are therefore now investing in further developing their voice search technologies.

The GAFAs and other platforms are concerned above all with (artificial) intelligence, and thus the quality of the interpretation of the search queries made with speech.

Despite the clear relevance of the voice search function for general online use, it is obviously not (yet) a big subject in e-commerce in Germany. According to a survey conducted by Statista in 2016, only 14% of the German citizens surveyed saw product orders as a current and future example of Voice Search applications. In contrast, the respondents saw the following examples as useful services of language assistants and voice search functions:

  • Writing messages

  • Search for information

  • Operation of navigation devices

Alexa – Door Opener for Voice Search in E-Commerce?

The use of voice search in online shopping should soon change, at least this is what Amazon thinks. With Amazon’s echo and the speech assistant Alexa, the focus of voice use will inevitably be extended to e-commerce. The first figures speak for themselves. In 2016, Alexa settled for a small market share of 800,000 users in Germany, or 2.3 % (source: Statista 2017) in the field of language assistants dominated by Google Now. The increasing sales figures of Amazon Echo will soon increase their share. Moreover, funny Alexa-stories such as “Parrot ordered on Amazon” contribute to the distribution of the “shopping boxes” from Seattle. After all, it is programmed to access a range of good comprising several hundreds of millions of items.

Voice Search and User Behavior – a Question of Acceptance

There is no doubt that in online trade, voice search is the candidate for "the next big thing in e-commerce". However, the decisive question is whether the user acceptance is high enough that a relevant channel can be spoken of. Looking at the 2017 version of the well known "Hype Cycle" from Gartner, virtual assistants or "Conversational User Interfaces" will become competitive in the next 5 to 10 years. Even Mary Meker points this out in her well-known trend report. According to this report, 200 billion search queries and thus half of the total search queries will be voice and image searches in 2020.

1 Voice Search

Figure 1: Increasing significance of Voice Search on the internet

If you take Mary Meker, Steve Jobs and Gartner seriously, you should start to grapple with the consequences of language search for products now. That applies above all to such companies and brands that are particularly innovative and have a young target group. As pioneers of digitalization, these will be the first ones to entrust their virtual assistants with more than just general search questions.

Limitations of Voice Search in E-Commerce

The increasing relevance of voice search can be clearly determined. However, there are still drawbacks. Similar to mobile commerce, a new channel won’t necessarily have the same effect on e-commerce as its predecessor. Both conversion rates and shopping carts perform less well with mobile commerce than from desktop computers (Source: smartinsights.com). This can change, but in this case, the performance limitations of shopping platforms for mobile mean that a transitional phase is inevitable. Against this background, it is to be expected that voice search will not reach the effectiveness of desktop shopping easily. With increasing quality of the API basis of voice search, this has less to do with the language input, but has more to do with speech output in voice search applications.

In t3n, Robert C. Mendez points out the simple sensory reason for this. Whilst our eyes can process lots of information at the same time, the ears process information in a linear way, as we can only hear one word after the other. This is therefore a limitation when browsing through online shops. According to Medez, Jeff Bezos also realized this, and he allocated screens a very important role in online shopping. However, shopping via voice search is likely to play a major role where routine purchases can be made – where there is no need to make a selection.

Further limitations for voice search can be seen in the context of use. In the public sphere, in open-plan offices or even with people at home, public voice search shopping will not be popular. Or would you dictate to Alexa your presents for friends, when they’re in the same room?

Voice Search Matters!

It would, however, be wrong to deny voice search a future role in e-commerce. In combination with use of screens, with searching for particular products and when searching for information regarding products or providers, voice search will definitely play an important role. Even if landing pages, category and checkout pages continue to be the decisive last steps in the customer journey, preliminary searches in the early stages of the sales funnel will be increasingly completed with voice search.

In the evolution of the person-computer-interface, voice search is clearly the next phase of evolution. Voice search is integrated in the general distribution of the internet-of-things applications so that voice search is not only limited to smartphones. Why not speak to the fridge when it’s empty – ordering butter and milk doesn’t require a great amount of research. The better the assistant can interpret questions and phrases, the more natural the conversation. Thus, the trend towards searching for products via the internet will continue with increasingly longer keyword phrases.

With the spread of voice search, a trend that could be observed in the advance of mobile internet use will continue. Mobile use led to an increase in the number of different usage situations (in railways, in sports, etc....) and thus also led to a differentiation in search behavior and in the formulation of search queries. Short, concise, generally relevant keywords became long and specific search phrases.

1500x800-OnlineshopsVoicesearch-1 Voice Search

Next to this slow “death” of keywords, Jason de Mers points out further changes. The search behavior will become more unpredictable, as search queries will become more individual. Operators or shops should occupy themselves with the new way of searching, and should develop suitable characteristics for voice search. The local context also plays an important role here, because voice search could increase the number of spontaneous search queries with a local reference.

On the whole, the content has to be more orientated towards dialogue to establish a good basis for voice search. An excellent preparation for voice search could therefore be to install customer questions or a customer forum on a websites. Ideally, questions related to products should be on a landing page which should contain the answers to these questions.

Furthermore, Rich Answers should be promoted in the search engine on the basis of structured data. If your own shop is always part of Rich Snippets or answers, this hugely improves the visibility of your shop for voice search. On the whole, specialization and brand building, as well as communication, are becoming constantly more important. That should be understood as good news, because it can be expected that voice search users are true to the brand.

Even when it’s about standard and routine transactions such as transfers of money or booking hotels, one should expect voice search. An even bigger unknown are the shopping-bots, which lead can lead users through the shopping process. Applications and solutions from regions such as China or African countries, in which mobile use already accounts for a 100% share of total online usage, are likely to play a decisive role here.

Conclusion: Strategies for the Voice Search World

If you follow Steve Jobs, and, with the help of new technologies, want to reach the top of your branch, there is a lot to do. Above all, it is important to correctly estimate user behavior and user experience in order to develop appropriate use cases for voice search. Euromonitor also makes suggestions regarding how operators of shops can prepare themselves strategically for “The Internet of Voice”.

The development of own voice search applications is tiresome and presumably only financially viable for big companies. Small companies should cooperate with each other regarding the development of appropriate voice search solutions. Companies that already have a desktop-independent focus through native apps, or at least a noteworthy mobile portion of the reach and revenue, have advantages.

Finally, voice search should be connected with customer service. A first and easy application could be the FAQs, which should be in every online shop.

If you would like to learn about the first impressions of shopping bots, you should read this helpful report on Techcrunch. Unsurprisingly, the more often you use the bot, the better it will be.

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Published on Oct 9, 2017 by Dominik Große Holtforth