Virtual Personal Assistants and How They’re Causing a Voice Search Surge
Humans enjoy speaking. They specifically enjoy speaking to people and things that understand them. It comes as no surprise then that people enjoy talking to their phones now that their phones can talk back and provide answers. Due to a combination of advancing technology and increased usability, the number of people using virtual personal assistants has been firmly on the rise among smart device users. Not only do over half of all smartphone users ages 18-43 use digital personal assistants, but over a quarter of smartphone users ages 44 and up also use these personal assistants. This means that every single age group of smartphone users are using digital personal assistants today. Since these figures were released by Thrive Analytics, the numbers have likely grown along with the continued advances in intelligent personal assistant technology.
With numbers growing in all age groups, it’s not surprising that Google announced at their I/O conference this year that 20% of all searches have voice intent, which is an extremely large number considering there are an approximate 100 billion searches performed each day. These booms in the numbers of users using voice activated personal assistants means the Search industry and SEOs have to take notice, or risk being silenced by the likes of Siri.
Meet the Virtual Personal Assistant Players
One of the most well-known digital personal assistants is Siri by Apple. Originally introduced in 2011 as part of iOS5, Siri has arguably become the most well-known voice assistant out there and has since made its way into popular culture. Although we all had a good laugh about Siri’s misunderstandings in the early days, it arguably set the stage for digital personal assistants to come. While previously available only on mobile and tablet devices, it was announced in June that Mac users will soon be able to search the web from their desktop using Siri. The new macOS operating system will allow users to speak and search directly from their laptop— and Google won’t be a default provider. Siri uses Bing and Yelp among other partners, and will only use Google if the user explicitly asks it to “search Google for…”.
Other virtual personal assistants include Alexa and Cortana, both launched in 2014. Alexa is the name of the personal assistant element of the Amazon Echo, which itself is a smart voice-enabled wireless speaker. Alexa has the capabilities to search the web and connect to other devices in a home, creating a “smart house” for its users. Cortana is the personal assistant for Windows 10 from Microsoft, and includes similar capabilities to the others such as setting reminders, opening apps, searching the web, and dictating an email. Like Siri, Cortana and Alexa run on Bing’s search engine and do not default to Google searching.
In May 2016 Google announced its new intelligent personal assistant named Google assistant, which is seen as an evolution of Google Now. Unlike Google Now, Google assistant can engage in two-way dialogue with the user. It aims to foster a two-way conversation that fulfills tasks and questions using content from across the web. Although it appears Google assistant will be a highly advanced helper, one thing that stands out about the assistant is its lack of personality. We probably won’t see users proposing to the disembodied “Google assistant” like they do to Siri and Alexa.
How Virtual Personal Assistants Are Changing the Game
The large increase in use of digital personal assistants is altering the search world in two major ways: how users approach search, and how search algorithms handle queries.
Voice search affects when and how users are searching. Historically the most common time for users to employ voice search is when their hands are full, but with virtual personal assistants it’s not limited to just those moments. Google reports that the most popular times to use voice search are 1) While watching TV, 2) when among friends, 3) while cooking, 4) while in the bathroom, and 5) while exercising.
Whether you’re on the treadmill or ordering a pizza with friends, users are finding it easier to speak their needs rather than type them.
People are not only talking to their phones more, they’re also talking to them differently. Most people don’t type the same way that they speak: when people use their voice to search, they automatically use a query that sounds like conversational speech rather than a short phrase of keywords. For example, when you’re typing you’re more likely to search “weather Boston”, but if you’re speaking to your phone you might ask “What’s the weather like in Boston today?”. Longer, more voice friendly keywords will become increasingly important to target in order to take advantage of these voice-originated queries.
Along with long tail queries, the number of “question phrases” have been growing year over year. When we ask questions to each other, we begin with an interrogative word such as “what” or “who. The same goes when we use voice search. Not only are queries slightly longer, they’re phrased as more informative questions that have specific answers. Informative, timely content continues to be an important factor for search, especially when voice-activated. When a person asks Siri or Cortana a question, they’re looking for a direct source to their answer and they want it served to them instantly.
Voice Search is an Evolving Contest
With the intelligence and capabilities of virtual personal assistants increasing, the intelligence of the search engine algorithm components of these technologies are increasing as well. Google’s algorithm becomes more refined with every update in order to understand exactly what users want from each search. Voice search has the same goal as text-based search, which is to satisfy a need or question, but digital personal assistants are going beyond that to anticipate our needs. Predictive search is the next big step in the Search World. Currently predictive search works best when it’s tied to location or when we put info into our calendars, which is why predictive search has emerged as more of a smartphone feature rather than a search engine feature. Google Now and its successor Google assistant are adept at predictive search and getting better every day. Cortana and Alexa are also proficient in this area, but Siri has been lacking in advanced predictive search qualities up until now. The recently revealed update to macOS from Apple will likely have new elements of predictive search in order to compete.
Digital personal assistants can assess and predict what you’re looking for in many ways. For example, if you’re on your phone in Cleveland and you ask via voice search “How far is the train station from the Convention Center?”, Google assistant will understand that the “convention center” is referring to your current location in Cleveland and will provide directions to Cleveland Lakefront Amtrak Station. Similarly if you search for “Pizza Hut” in the Cortana box, once you’re on the Pizza Hut website in Microsoft Edge, Cortana will assume that you want to buy a pizza and will show you the closest locations to your current spot.
Voice Search technology is advancing so quickly it’s hard to predict what new trends will appear, and how users will evolve their questions for this medium. Like with voice search, the power of virtual personal assistants is also growing exponentially. As new data and research is released around these personal assistants and how users speak to them, SEOs will be able to adopt new strategies around this new field. What remains to be seen is how the major technology companies will adapt to the intelligent tech they’ve created. Although virtual personal assistants and voice search will make life easier for the user, they’re going to cause a major disruption in search revenue for businesses. For companies such as Apple and Amazon, the fact that Siri and Cortana aren’t enabled for ads doesn’t matter. Both companies have primary sources of revenue in technology devices and ecommerce respectively. However, Google is on a different playing field. 90% of Google’s revenue come from advertising on their platform, which currently means desktop, mobile, and tablet. With no known instances or immediate plans to introduce ads into digital personal assistant interfaces, Google’s revenue model is heading into a realm where it may no longer be relevant. Voice search through personal digital assistants may be adaptable for SEO, but we’ll be keeping an eye on how the growing trend affects the paid side of search.