Beyond the hype of voice search

Over the past couple of years, we’ve talked to Essential Retail readers about the rapid rise in adoption of voice devices. And as it stands today, 29% of UK homes now have a voice assistant – up from 25% in July 2018. All the evidence suggests that voice will gain further traction over the next few years.

While the range of uses of voice devices remains fairly limited – largely restricted to listening to music, asking questions and checking the weather – appeal of potential features is very high. Our latest research indicates that 82% of shoppers who own a voice assistant now find the idea of being able to look up food recipe recommendations appealing, while the same proportion like the idea of getting recipe recommendations based on the contents of their fridge. Three quarters of shoppers would like to be able to get product reviews and 77% say the ability to control their heating by voice is appealing.

From a marketing perspective the technology has considerable commercial potential since it is a highly convenient touchpoint – accessible from almost anywhere including, crucially, inside shoppers’ homes. This makes it suitable not only for inspiring and educating consumers, but as a means to transact with them conveniently at a key point of consumption. The reality however, is there is a lot of hype out there and for many it is not clear precisely what the opportunity is or where it lies. It is important to understand some of the limitations of voice as a marketing tool in order to take advantage of its potential effectively.

The immediate limitation most people associate with voice is the accuracy in recognition of speech. Most of us can share frustrating (and sometimes amusing) examples of times when Alexa has misinterpreted a command. There is no question, it’s not perfect, but it’s improving all the time. Google currently claims accuracy of 95% which, given regional dialects and often noisy environments, is impressive. We would suggest that, at the current pace of development, recognition accuracy is unlikely to be a major obstacle for long.

Perhaps the most fundamental limitation of voice assistants is based on the very nature of voice communication – verbally, information can only be communicated in a linear manner, word by word. Unlike traditional web search where a user is presented with many responses on-screen by a search engine, voice only works at its best when a query or search has a single and precise response. Where more complex responses are needed or where there is a need for the user to make a final decision, voice might not be the answer. Of course, artificial intelligence and machine learning have a role to play here, as they have the potential to select the most appropriate response from a number of search results, based on factors such as the user’s profile and previous behaviour.

Another major consideration for brands is working out the best way to implement a voice strategy. This is not always straightforward as voice SEO optimisation, like standard SEO, is tricky. While brands and retailers with deeper pockets can develop and distribute Alexa Skills and Google Actions, for smaller brands this is often not a viable option. Developing skills and actions is not particularly expensive or difficult, however like with smartphone apps the difficulty is to encourage shoppers to download them. We suggest that often the best solution to get voice capability to market is to partner with existing skills and actions which are already widely distributed.


Whether claims, such as that voice will account for half of searches by 2022, will turn out to be correct is yet to be seen. However, we have no doubt that the role of voice in day-to-day life will increase substantially. Given falling device prices, improving speech recognition and a growing list of tasks voice assistants can complete, we expect that household penetration of standalone devices will reach 35% by the end of 2019. And this is only the tip of the iceberg as the technology is integrated into more devices, apps and vehicles.

Perhaps more important than the spread of the technology to voice’s success will be the growing willingness of people to use it. But this is changing.

To sum up, 2019 will be a critical year for voice where the hype and forecasts start to be replaced with facts, case studies and best practice. What is important now is that brands, big and small, understand the technology, what’s possible and have a strategy to include voice in their channel mix.