Are retailers prepared for the power of voice-activated tech?

The wider retail industry is only just getting to grips with the fact online retailing is a major part of their business operations today, but as technological capability continues to advance there is a new issue on the horizon: voice-activated technology and what it means in terms of engaging with shoppers.

Surveys in the US suggest young people are increasingly using this form of communication to access the internet. A study in 2014 conducted by Northstar Research with Google found that more than half of teenagers in the US use voice search daily, while 41% of adults are also talking to their phones every day.

And at a recent industry event in Munich, Marks & Spencer (M&S) CTO Matt Horwood said that one of his personal areas of focus revolves around this growing trend. It's not necessarily a strategy that takes centre stage in the M&S boardroom, but it is intriguing to hear it's on the mind of senior tech staff at a major UK retailer.

"That will generate some interesting things, and gives some interesting challenges for retailers around how their content is organised for voice search being the primary mechanism for finding it," he told delegates at the Fujitsu Forum, in November.

"SEO for voice will use a different strategy to the one used in other areas – we're looking at what that means."

Ben Sams, lecturer in electrical & electronic engineering at the University of Derby, believes it is an area that retailers and the wider business community need to pay attention to.

He says that voice recognition has been on the cusp of general use for as long as he can remember, but when thought about in conjunction with recent technology developments such as the launch of smartwatches, where the physical interface is limited, there is a real possibility that voice commands in online interaction will become ever more important.    

"Natural language processing will play a key role in SEO within the next three years," he told Essential Retail.

"Major mobile phone makers are already optimising their voice search system to recognise naturally asked questions. If your online platform is not optimised for natural language search you simply won’t sell your products, metadata and keywords are not enough anymore."

The use of voice-activated features, such as Siri on iOS, are seen by many – including the editor of this publication – as something of a novelty. But the fact of the matter is that the younger generation are seeing such tools as a fundamental part of the way they interact with technology and brands themselves. The Google-Northstar survey suggests that nearly one-third of teenagers in the US talk to their phones to get help with homework, with kids asking questions such as "OK Google, who was the sixth president of the US?". 

"Common search requests for how to make a chicken dinner will be asked more frequently by voice," said Sams.

"Particularly as services like Android TV brings the phrase 'OK Google' to an even wider audience and enable anyone in the lounge to ask your TV a question."

The university lecturer advises retailers to make sure they understand how the latest smartphones, watches and TVs work, to ensure they keep up with how consumer behaviour may impact their technology strategies.

"Major players have been buying up natural language processing companies for a number of years; work with these services to decide which of your services or products will be in demand for voice searching," he remarked.

"News outlets have started producing 'stories' with the title 'what times does Strictly Come Dancing start' to catch the voice searches."

It may be some time yet before voice search becomes an essential consideration for the wider retail world, but the signs are that it is coming. And, it has become abundantly clear in recent years that tech innovation is moving at pace.

As M&S's Horwood says, it is an area of technology to keep an eye on.

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The University of Derby