What does voice really mean for ecommerce? Insights from our expert panel event

According to research by OC&C, 55% of households are expected to own smart speaker devices by 2022. At the same time, PwC reports that 65% of 25-49 year-olds now speak to their voice-enabled devices at least once per day. With such significant growth in device adoption, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the importance of voice search – and its potential impact on ecommerce.

We recently brought together an audience of senior ecommerce professionals and a panel of digital experts for an exclusive breakfast seminar event at London’s Covent Garden Hotel, to discuss how voice technology is likely to evolve in future – and how businesses can adapt their SEO strategies and online stores to prepare for the next big digital revolution: ‘conversational commerce’.

Our panellists – including Captify Co-Founder and CEO Dom Joseph, SEO and content marketing authority Jamie Peach, Econsultancy Deputy Editor Rebecca Sentance and Quill Chief Commercial Officer Wulfric Light-Wilkinson – had some fantastic insights to share. Here’s a summary of the key takeaways. 

What is the real picture in terms of voice search adoption? How much of the hype is justified?

Wulfric Light-Wilkinson: “There are two different ways, broadly, that voice is being used at the moment, which tend to get conflated. Firstly, there are in-home devices like Google Home and Amazon Echo – of which there are predicted to be about 500 million globally, by 2025. Currently these devices seem to be mostly used for basic voice commands rather than search. But there is also mobile voice search – for example via the Google App – which is seeing increased adoption, particularly for users who are on the move. At the moment, though, voice experiences are still quite fragmented – and because of this, we haven’t yet reached the tipping point of mass adoption and really widespread usage.”  

What are the implications of voice search for businesses operating online? 

Jamie Peach: “There are a number of things that businesses need to consider. From an SEO point of view, one of the main considerations is around structured data – that is, marking up content with code in such a way that it can be more easily ‘understood’ by search engines, and more confidently surfaced in voice search responses and results. Google have recently released how-to and FAQ schemas, for example, that businesses can put into action right now, to help increase their visibility in voice search results.” 

How does a search via voice differ from a written search?

Dom Joseph: “Practically speaking, ultimately all voice searches get turned into text on the back-end through semantic engines. The real difference, from a user point of view – at least at the moment – is the experience after you make a voice query. With results from a text-based search, you receive a list of highly relevant results which you can then explore. By contrast, although making a voice query is fairly frictionless, the issue is that currently you can only get an audio response back, unless you have a screen-enabled device. This basically rules out any kind of exploration – you simply have to trust that the provider of the voice response is the ultimate source of truth.”

What is the current picture with voice commerce and how many people are actually using voice to shop?

Wulfric Light-Wilkinson: “At the moment, in terms of shopping via voice, it’s quite tricky. If you have an Amazon voice assistant device and a Prime membership, you can reorder items that you’ve previously purchased – which works really well for basic household goods like washing powder or toiletries, for example. You can also add groceries to your Whole Foods cart through Amazon, with a simple command like ‘add milk to my list’. What’s more challenging is the discovery of new products and the research portion of the buying journey. To make more complex purchases, what’s missing (at least for the majority of users) is the navigational discovery path and the visual display and confirmation of what you’re buying.”

Dom Joseph: “The average person looking to buy a holiday will look at 14 different hotels in detail, before transacting on that holiday. So, as you can imagine, you’re not going to get anyone buying a holiday currently through voice – that is, until the technology evolves to allow for a better path to research and a visual/screen response.” 

Mobile commerce took some time to win over shoppers in part because of concerns around security and using mobile devices to complete a purchase. Do you think voice shopping is facing similar obstacles? 

Dom Joseph: “Definitely. Especially when you can’t see anything. As consumers, we want to see and fully understand what we’re buying. That said, there are clearly lots of future benefits that are going to come from voice – voice recognition will probably replace passwords, for example. It’s also likely that there will be a huge change in the use case: voice needs to become navigational. Once consumers can start to use voice to control content and go through each stage of the transaction path, levels of trust will significantly increase.” 

“Fundamentally, we still like having retailers that we trust and brands that we’ve bought from for many years. Those companies need to up their game a little bit here – rather than waiting for the big technology players to provide solutions, they should be developing their own, proprietary voice experiences to serve their customers on their owned channels. Every device has a microphone. So activate the microphone and enable consumers to use their voice on your own content.” 

How are voice devices likely to evolve in future, and how does this trend tie into wearables? Is this something brands are considering?

Wulfric Light-Wilkinson: “Voice assistants in the car are becoming more prevalent, and lots of auto companies are partnering with the likes of Amazon to develop in-car assistant technology. Of course this has limited applications for commerce or shopping – but there are plenty of use cases for app functions that allow drivers to give hands-free commands like ‘open my garage’ or ‘tell me where the nearest petrol station is’. 40% of adults in the UK currently use voice searches to ask for directions, and evidently there’s plenty of scope for voice control in the car – much like the ‘smart home’, voice commands could be used in the car to turn lights on/off, adjust air con temperatures, switch cameras on, etc.” 

Jamie Peach: “Some of the more traditional fashion brands are also looking into wearable technology, though seemingly more on a novelty basis at the moment. For example, last year, in partnership with Google, Levi’s launched their tech-enabled Commuter Pro cycling jacket, which connects to the user’s mobile device via Bluetooth and allows you to control music, screen calls or get directions using cuff gestures. However, the price point for these types of items remains prohibitive – so we’re still some way away from voice-driven wearable fashion products becoming really accessible and widespread.”

When can we really expect to see ‘conversational commerce’ take off?

Jamie Peach: “Aside from the screen and visual display aspect, plus the ability to navigate the path to purchase, the two key levers are going to be speed and accuracy. Google’s voice recognition, for example, is now at 95% accuracy, which is the same as human speech recognition. However, as humans, we have a much lesser tolerance for errors when talking to machines vs. when talking to humans. Our expectations are much higher. So that 95% number needs to increase before we see mass adoption – that’s the first barrier to get through, before we see voice commerce really start to gain ground.”

Dom Joseph: “The mobile, iPhone-type revolution took around eight years, to get to the point of there being a billion smartphones in usage. So that could also be seen as a benchmark for voice adoption. However, Forbes recently published a prediction that, by 2022, $40 billion of Amazon’s global retail/ecommerce revenue will be voice. That’s a pretty strong number – and apparently they already turned over $2 billion in voice revenue last year. So, arguably, conversational commerce is already very much here – it’s happening now.”

To find out more about how Quill can support with content creation designed specifically for voice, in any language, get in touch.

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