Is voice-first technology a must-have feature for marketplace platforms?

How will people buy things online in the near future?  Facts are stubborn: by 2022, the electronic shopping industry will rely heavily upon voice search. At least, in the US which is the largest consumer market on earth.

In our recent article, we wrote about the power of voice user interfaces (VUIs) for startups. Now, let's focus on voice search in ecommerce or, to be more precise, on how to adapt your online store or marketplace to the next major disruption in the retail industry.

The past and present of voice assistants

Speech is the fastest and most natural way of human communication. In many cases, people would rather talk than type or write. However, until quite recently, we could only dream about chatting with computers via voice. Technologies were not smart enough to understand spoken language, nor were they smart enough to generate and articulate an adequate reply.

A major breakthrough happened in 2008 when Google launched a voice search app for iPhone. Since then, events have been moving at breakneck speed. 2011 was the year Apple's Siri was introduced, which began the era of virtual assistants. Three years later, Microsoft released Cortana, Amazon responded with Alexa, and in 2016 Google Assistant joined the game.

voice assistants history

Image credit: Smartsheet

We can't ignore Facebook, which appeared in the smart speaker market in November 2018. Its Portal and Portal Plus displays are supposed to be a step forward from simple voice to an AI-driven video interface and interactive smart camera.

In spite of its late entry, Facebook still has a good chance to succeed as the demand for voice-activated apps and smart devices is steadily growing. The key reasons for this growth are:

  • Availability: The cost of voice-first devices is constantly decreasing, with more discounts offered by retailers. In addition, popular smart speakers have smaller and cheaper versions (like Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot).  As a part of modern smartphones, voice search capabilities come for free.
  • Improved accuracy: In 2017, Google hit human parity in speech recognition accuracy (95%) for the English language. The tech giant improved its 2013 results by 20%. Google's competitors, IBM and Microsoft, are also very close to the 95% level.

Statistics that will define the future

Most marketing experts agree that the impact of voice search on ecommerce will continue to grow. Here in 2019, traditional search still prevails, with mobile browsers ruling the day. However, the 2018 Stone Temple survey reveals that almost 25% of people already prefer to conduct their first search by voice. 

voice first search

Image credit: Stone Temple

The same study contains some fresh voice search statistics which are worth considering by businesses.

  • Men interact with devices via voice 1.54 times more frequently than women.
  • 25- to 34-year-olds are the biggest fans of voice search.
  • More often than not, people use voice commands when they are home alone. Being at home with friends or in the office alone are the second and third most popular scenarios when people talk to gadgets.
  • Voice usage scales with education level. People with a postgraduate degree are far more likely to search by voice than high school or college grads.
  • The most wanted feature for the next generation of digital assistants is a customized voice. The list of other desirable improvements includes more direct answers, better sequencing, and more app integration.
  • The number one use case of voice commands is making a phone call. This is followed by texting, getting directions and playing music. Buying things accounts for no more than 15% of use cases and is in the tenth position on the list.

voice first use cases

Image credit: Stone Temple

What do all these figures really mean for online stores and marketplaces? The good news is that there is no reason to panic. You still have enough time to prepare your ecommerce business for the change. However, in order to be one step ahead of the trend (and your competitors), it's better not to delay optimizing. Especially, if you want to attract more well-educated young professionals.

A closer look at the major voice commerce players

First of all, it's important to understand who is who in the voice commerce market and what opportunities the major players can offer to your online business. Working for the same customers and having many overlapping features,  each of tech giants - Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple - focuses on a specific niche and benefits from its particular strengths.

Amazon: the leader in smart speakers and customer reach

Amazon is now the ultimate leader among smart speaker manufacturers with Alexa capturing 64.6% of market share in the US. It also dominates international reach among marketplaces, reaching 1.2 billion people in 58 countries.

smart speakers marker share

Image credit: Voicebot

As the largest company by market value, Amazon invests heavily in AI projects and NLP (natural language processing) in particular.  The tech giant provides third-party developers with Amazon Transcribe, a speech-to-text API for creating voice-enabled apps. Device makers, in turn, can use Alexa Connect Kit to connect their gadgets to Alexa and gain access to all its skills. As for retailers, they have Amazon Seller Central and dozens of seller tools to run their business online without creating a website or app.

Google:  number one in answer quality and language quantity

Google Assistant allows people to communicate via voice with Google Home, Android-based smartphones, and more. It is now available on the App Store as well, so iPhone and iPad owners can download it to use alongside Siri. Compared across other platforms, Google Assistant provides the largest number of correct answers on a smartphone, with an accuracy exceeding 95%.

smart speaker accuracy

Image credit: Stone Temple

Another killer feature of Google's voice engine is its multilingualism: currently, it speaks 19 languages, with more coming soon. These vast speech capabilities are available for third-party developers via Google Cloud's text-to-speech API.

Currently, Google is concentrating on further improving search accuracy and developing Duplex, an AI system that will enable natural conversations. Similar to Amazon, it spends a large share of its budget on NLP technologies.

Microsoft: offers breakthrough in whispered speech recognition

The second largest company by market value is now collaborating with Amazon, the world's number one company. Windows 10 users can say 'Hey. Cortana, open Alexa' to order products or control their smart home. In turn, Alexa devotees can ask Cortana to help them with office-related tasks such as reading new emails or adding a new task to a to-do list.

Besides a beneficial partnership, Microsoft is working on a solution that will enable communication with devices by whispering, without disturbing the people around you. The tech giant has already patented the so-called Silent Voice Input to be used in smartphones, smartwatches, and even rings. However, nobody knows for sure when exactly the patent will become a real feature.

Silent Voice Input

Silent Voice Input

Image credit: Microsoft

Third-party developers can incorporate Microsoft's speech recognition technologies into their apps by using the Speech SDK. It includes speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and translation functionality.

Apple: security as the first priority

The pioneer in the domain of smart speakers, Apple's Siri has lost ground to Amazon and Google with regard to market share. The recent studies by Statista and Stone Temple also reveals that Apple's HomePod is not as smart and accurate as its competitors.

smart speakers correct answers

Image credit: Statista

Yet, there is one field where Apple outperforms its rivals. The strong point of the iPhone maker is its focus on privacy and security, which are becoming more and more important for users. While Google and Amazon store interactions in the cloud, Siri strives to perform most tasks on the device. Though Apple can't do without cloud servers when it comes to processing voice queries, all data is encrypted and isn't tied to a particular ID. However, this security-first approach has its downside: Siri's voice interface is limited to Apple's ecosystem.

Voice search tips

Now, that you are well-informed on the current state of voice search, let's consider how to harness its power for your online marketplace. Even if your online platform isn't voice-based, you still can adjust it to the new trend and thus create a new channel to reach customers.

You already know that Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple decide what exactly online shoppers will discover when searching for something via natural speech. They derive replies from search engines, with Google products and Siri using Google search, while Alexa and Cortana partner with Bing. Below, we share some SEO tactics that will increase your chances to show up in voice results, and get heard by customers.

Adopt a new keyword strategy

Voice queries differ from traditional text queries. As a rule, they tend to be longer and more conversational. According to Think with Google, 41% of smart speaker owners talk to their device as if it were their friend. That's why your content should include natural phrases people use to describe your products. Moreover, these new long tail keywords should contain six to seven words instead of three to four, which is common for text queries.

For example, when people want to buy t-shirts they may input a phrase like 'plain black t shirt' into the search bar. But if they using their voice, they will most probably ask a simple question: 'Where can I buy plain black t-shirts?'  By adding longer conversational phrases to your content, you will help your products or services rank higher in voice search results.

Opt for simply written long reads

Your content should be clear, consistent, and easy to read aloud. Keep it simple, avoid long introductions and sophisticated phrases. By meeting these requirements you will help Google add your page to its voice search results. At the same time, SEO experts argue that a page hitting voice search results contains on average 2,312 words. This indicates that Google tends to seek relevant answers among long reads.

Focus on your FAQ page

To benefit from voice search growth you should reconsider your FAQ page. Since people tend to ask direct questions, you should be ready to respond effectively. To achieve this purpose, write down all of the possible who, what, when, where, why, and how queries your customer might use. Then, format them with H2 tags and add the answers as body text. This will enable Google to match your questions with voice queries and display your answers as featured snippets.

Google's featured snippet

google featured snippet


One more thing - keep your replies short. The length of the snippets voice assistants read back to users doesn't exceed 30 words. If you need more words for a detailed answer, separate the short summary with a paragraph or formatting (e.g. bold text).

Boost your local search presence

BrightLocal's 2018 Study states that 58% of consumers opt for voice commands on their smartphones to find local businesses. They usually do this while walking or driving somewhere and, naturally, use the phrase 'near me'. As for the most popular industries for voice search, the top five list includes restaurants and cafés, grocery stores, food delivery, clothing stores, and hotels.

voice search for local business

Image credit: BrightLocal

To appear in search results for local voice queries, you should make sure that your NAP data (name, address, phone number) and open hours are present on Google My Business and Bing Places for Business.

Enhance your app performance

Speed matters. People who search by voice on mobile expect immediate results. And it's not only users who care about page performance;  Google does as well. In July 2018 the most popular search engine introduced Speed Update, a new algorithm for mobile search, which considers page speed as a ranking factor. If your mobile website or application is too slow, all your optimization efforts may come to naught. 

Ok Google, what's next?

The voice search impact on ecommerce is significant and will only increase over time. It offers many advantages to customers as speech communication is hands-free, natural, and faster than typing. People definitely like to speak to their smart devices and phones, which makes voice-first technology a desirable feature for most online businesses, including marketplaces and retail stores.  

Don't hesitate to contact us if you're considering building a voice-enabled platform, adding speech recognition to the existing app or optimizing your website so that your business will become more visible (or rather audible) in the world of voice commerce.

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