Voice Search: What This Game-Changing Tech Means for Ecommerce

To date, the only thing that voice search has really disrupted is Santa’s 2017 inventory.

But if we need evidence that voice search will be a big deal – like, smartphone big – look no further than the companies joining the voice search party: Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Alibaba have all released smart speakers.

When the four most valuable companies in the world jump on something, and then No. 9 joins as well, you know it’s set to pop.

So we need to take it seriously when we read that by 2020, half of all internet searches will be voice searches. Or that between now and 2022, voice shopping will experience 1,900 percent growth. Or that within a couple years, 30 percent of browsing sessions won’t involve a screen.

“Voice commerce represents the next major disruption in the retail industry,” John Franklin, an associate partner at consulting firm OC&C, said in a release. “And just as e-commerce and mobile commerce changed the retail landscape, shopping through smart speaker promises to do the same.”

Convinced voice search is a big deal? Good. This post will break it all down:

  • What are the different types of voice search devices available today?
  • What do people use smart speakers for?
  • How big of an impact is this having on ecommerce?
  • What can ecommerce stores do now to prepare for the looming voice search explosion?

What is Voice Search?

Voice search takes many forms. Let’s take a quick stroll through the current voice search landscape.

Siri and Google Assistant: Apple’s Siri and its Google counterpart, Google Assistant, offer a type of voice search. Included by default in Apple and Android devices, these tools used to seem futuristic, executing tasks like “Call Robert” or “Open the Scrabble app” without you lifting a finger. It won’t be long before Siri and Google Assistant are to voice search what the Nokia 3310 is to mobile phones. But anyway, they deserve a voice search shoutout.

Google Search voice search: You don’t need an Android device to run voice searches over Google. This nifty little microphone available in Google Chrome lets you bypass the keyboard and tell Google what to search for.

Smart speakers: Alright, Siri and Google Search are warmup acts. Now for the headliner – smart speakers.

The foreseeable future of voice search will revolve around smart speakers, which come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Amazon – which owns a robust 72 percent percent market share – has a whole line of smart speakers. There’s the small, affordable Dot…

… the higher-end Echo…

… and the screen-equipped Echo Show…

Google, the current voice search runner-up, has its own nifty in-house gadgets that will talk back to you. There’s the Google Home…

… and its little brother, the Google Home Mini…

There are other players entering the fray, like the Apple HomePod…

… Alibaba and its Tmall Genie…

… and Microsoft’s Cortana…

For the remainder of the post, this army of devices is what we’re talking about with “voice search.”

If you’re in ecommerce, you can exhale: Voice search isn’t a threat. Not yet, at least. But before long, these little guys will change the way you do business.

What Do People Do With Voice Search?

At the moment, people don’t turn to their voice search devices to shop. Voice shopping is a roughly $2 billion market. (Ecommerce, by comparison, is more like $2 trillion.)

When people did shop via voice last year, groceries accounted for 20 percent of all purchases. Clothes shopping, by comparison, was just 8 percent. So voice shopping definitely doesn’t reflect broader ecommerce patterns just yet.

Here is a breakdown of American smart speaker usage from National Public Radio and Edison Research.

As you can see, the list is dominated by activities that revolve around sound. Traffic, weather, audiobooks, timers, etc. The emphasis on audio isn’t surprising given that these things are, you know, speakers.

Smart speakers are also great for time-saving actives like finding restaurants and recipes, as well as interacting with other devices by sending messages and controlling smart home settings.

But don’t take our word for it. Smart speakers are eager to tell you what they are capable of. For instance, we asked an Amazon Alexa what she could do. Her first wave of answers included,

  • Set an alarm at 6 am
  • Set a 10-minute pasta timer
  • Say what’s on my shopping list
  • Tell me what’s the temperature is
  • Wake me up to music
  • Tell me what time Whole Foods opens

This last one, about Whole Foods, might seem random. But it’s not.

Last year, Amazon acquired Whole Foods for $13.7 billion.

This year, their devices are telling you what time your local Whole Foods opens.

This highlights an aspect of smart speakers that anyone in ecommerce needs to consider: These devices have closed ecosystems.

Voice Search’s Closed Ecosystems

Shopping via voice search is not like traditional online shopping.

When you want to browse t-shirts, for example, you might hop onto Google Search. The top of the page is ads from companies like H&M and Hugo Boss, joined by more ads on the right side from Gucci (€2,980?!), Nike, and so on:

Below that, you’ll find the organic results for t-shirts. In other words, results driven by what Google thinks you want, as opposed to who paid Google to display ads.

Voice search shopping doesn’t work like this. Not at the moment, anyway.

Here’s what happens when you try to coordinate with Alexa to find a t-shirt.

As you can see, with voice search, you get one suggestion and some bare bones information. The price, the color, the quantity. The “shopping” part is conspicuously absent.

It’s Amazon trying to sell you something from Amazon.

Amazon’s not the only whose devices are peddling its own stuff. Google Home lets you shop for products from a roster of select partners that includes Walmart, Costco, and Bed Bath & Beyond. Meanwhile, Alibaba’s smart speaker, the Tmall Genie, is literally named after Alibaba’s Tmall shopping platform.

These devices are not brand agnostic. At all.

With that in mind, let’s wrap this up by looking at what you can do to future-proof your store for the voice search world.

How Should Ecommerce Stores Adapt for Voice Search?

Alright, so if we assume that voice search will be a big deal moving forward – all indications are that it will be – then you might be wondering how you can prepare your ecommerce business for the upcoming shift.

Here are some basic truths that we think will be more important than ever as voice search continues to expand.

→ Voice search makes social marketing and social shopping even more important.

You already know that social media is vital for ecommerce. (And if you don’t, please read this, this, this, and this asap!)

But voice search will make social even more important.

Why? Well, a few reasons. First off, voice search is equipped to replace tons of stuff we do online. Websites that give weather updates, for example, are squarely in the crosshairs of devices that can tell people everything they need to know about the weather in the time it takes to punch in a URL.

Voice search is not, however, equipped to replace social media. There is no voice search answer to Instagram. As people migrate online activities to smart speakers, social media activities will stay planted in the visual realm.

Another reason that social will be huge in the voice search era: It’s a direct line to your customers. Voice search opens up a chasm between your customers and your store. And that chasm is extra big because of the closed ecosystems that these devices seem committed to creating.

Social media is a way to close that gap by getting your offers in front of users without relying on a voice search device to do it for you.

In short, as your store becomes less Googleable, you’ll need to get more social.

→ Customer retention will play a bigger role.

So much of the disruption that voice search will have on ecommerce is driven by the gatekeeper function of smart speakers: If they don’t mention your products, customers might not know about your products.

You can hack this setup by making sure your customers become repeat customers. In other words, make it so your visitors don’t have to (voice) search for anything.

Social media will play a role in that, but that’s just one part of it. Email, for instance, is another great way to retain customers. Optimize the confirmation emails that customers get after a purchase, the emails they get with special offers, the emails they get about your newest products. 

There are of course other tactics besides email. You can launch a customer loyalty program, referral discounts, whatever. Anything that gets you back in front of your customers, and your customers back in your store.

→ Customers who visit your store will be looking for information that they aren’t getting from smart speakers.

One of the shortcomings of voice search is that there is no context for a purchase. If you tell a smart speaker that you want to buy something, the speaker looks in its catalog of available items; reads you the text in the “Product Name” field; then reads you the price; then asks you if you want it.

Unless you’re already familiar with what the device is suggesting, there is no context. About anything.

And that’s if you even get a product suggestion. Here’s what happened when I tried to buy a wallet.

And it’s not like Amazon doesn’t have wallets. They have lots of them – more than 10,000!

Alas, when you try to get one via voice search, it basically doesn’t work.

So if a shopper takes the time to really look for products – and not just utter a command to a smart speaker – make sure you differentiate their experience from what they’d get from a voice search. What your brand stands for, your messaging, the endearing info on your About Us page.

If a shopper wants something without thinking, they have a smart speaker for that. If they land on your website, if means they’re looking for something more. So give it to them.

→ “The opportunities to advertise to people are reducing”

This is something that Cameron Worth, founder of the internet of things-focused agency ShareEnd, said in the podcast embedded above.

Even if there are things that voice search can’t replace, it will leave its mark. And one way that’ll happen is by decreasing the number of eyeballs that you can reach via advertising.

Google is more than happy to sprinkle your AdWords ads into the search results of Google Search. But don’t expect smart speakers to be so kind. However the smart speaker industry evolves, it’s hard to imagine that users will be subjected to voice search advertisements.

That means we need to be thinking about different strategies to earn and retain customers – strategies other than traditional advertising.

Conclusions on Voice Search

At the moment, voice search is not a threat to your online store. And who knows, maybe even thinking in terms of “threat” is all wrong. Voice search might end up being a godsend to ecommerce, giving shoppers new, faster ways to buy your products.

As things shake out over the next few years, staying informed might be the single most important thing you can do. 

You need to be aware of the challenges and opportunities that are emerging before you can act on them. The voice search of 2019 will be different than what exists today, and 2020 will be different than that.

Staying agile requires staying knowledgeable. And you don’t need Alexa or Siri to tell you that.

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