Voice search is getting a lot of attention right now and it’s no big surprise. The big tech firms are pushing their voice platforms hard and marketers are hyping them up to disrupt the entire industry. Needless to say, voice search is one of the hottest topics in digital technologies right now and this isn’t going to change anytime soon.
Despite all this, the rise of voice search isn’t going to have the impact on web design and marketing most are predicting right now. The thing is, voice technology comes with some fundamental limitations that mean its role in the consumer journey (where designer, marketers and the rest of us make our money) will be relatively small.
Voice search sucks at selling
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos featured in a recent article here debunking the clickbait notion that homepage design is dead (another BS trend). He’s a smart guy, there’s no question about that. All the way back in 1998, he called for a more personalized approach to web design, saying: “If we have 4.5 million customers, we shouldn’t have one store. We should have 4.5 million stores.”
Fast-forward to 2017 and we have website personalization tools like Optimizely and VWO hitting the mainstream market. Well done, Jeff.
At the same time, we’ve got devices like Google Home and Amazon Echo bringing voice search to living rooms across the nation. Voice search is very much here but it’s got company, in the shape of expert opinions telling us how we better prepare for the voice revolution.
Except there’s a problem: voice technology is crap at selling products. And Jeff Bezos, the CEO of the biggest online retailer and voice tech pioneer, Amazon, is well aware of this.
“Voice interface is only going to take you so far on shopping. It’s good for reordering consumables, where you don’t have to make a lot of choices, but most online shopping is going to be facilitated by having a display.” – Jeff Bezos, Billboard.
The thing is, most of our buying decisions are based on visual interactions. How is someone going to compare six different dresses using voice search or drool over their next car purchase?
Amazon Echo isn’t selling a lot of products
Or consider the consumer process someone can take using Google Maps. They search for hotels in their area, get a bunch of nearby results and a lot of visual information:
- How many hotels are near them
- Where these hotels are in relation to each other
- How to get to each of them
- Access to one-touch calls, their websites, address, etc.
- Google Reviews from people who have stayed at each hotel
- Images of each hotel’s rooms, facilities, etc.
- Room prices
- The ability to check availability for dates
- Filters to narrow their search by price, available dates, star rating, etc.
All of this is information and functionality is communicated to users in a matter of seconds – something voice search will never be able to replicate. As Bezos says, repeat purchases are well within voice technology’s capabilities but most of these can be automated anyway.
Voice technology will change the way people search – of course it will – but it’s not going disrupt eCommerce or business purchase habits all that much. The marketing geniuses claiming it will are the same bunch who come up with words like Mobilegeddon and claim everything in the industry is dying.
If you’re designing for commercial businesses – the ones that actually pay decent money – then voice search is the least of your worries.
Voice technology isn’t very ad-friendly
Let’s not pretend the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook only have the best interests of their users at heart. When they want to do something, they pretty much go ahead and do it. After all, what else are you going to do: stop using Facebook?
This doesn’t mean they always get their way, though. Sometimes things just don’t work out (remember Google+?) and voice search simply isn’t compatible with Google’s business structure.
Here’s a shot of your typical Google search with any commercial value:
Good luck squeezing all of that into a voice search. Not that Google – whose entire revenue pretty much comes from ads – hasn’t tried to fit adverts into voice search. Back in March, it decided to test delivering one ad via its Google Home devices and failed miserably.That was one ad. Google web searches contain as many as seven ads and various other Google products on its results pages.
Google isn’t the only one with this problem either. All the tech giants need to find a way to monetize voice search before they’ll be able to push the technology at a commercial level – and it’s not looking too good for ads or product sales at this stage.
Designing voice experiences
Voice search isn’t going to replace the visual web or revolutionize online consumer behaviour, but it could enhance both. Removing the need to type on mobile alone is a major UX improvement – at least once the technology is capable of understanding us on a consistent basis. Once that happens, we might start questioning the way we think about navigating web pages and content. We could be looking at a set of standardized voice commands like “Refresh”, “Forward” and “Back” for example.
Even still, I don’t see keyboards and touchscreen disappearing altogether. In most cases, it’s just as easy to tap a screen as it is shout out a voice command and there are time when typing is simply the better option. Telling mom how you got on at the hospital while you’re riding the train back isn’t something you want to shout out. Likewise, having your phone shout out your bank balance to the entire world isn’t exactly ideal.
Getting back to where the money is for web desingers (ie: consumer and corporate brands), voice search might be able to start the customer journey, but it won’t take shoppers from one end of the buying process to the end – and this is the fundamental reason its impact on the industry will be much smaller than most like to suggest.
The age of voice search is here, but its more of a moderate reform than revolution.