Talking to Tech: Why voice search is changing our online behaviour


There’s a line in the third series of Black Mirror where Kelly McDonald’s character says with a hint of exasperation, “I didn’t expect to find myself living in the future but here I bloody well am”. The same thought runs through my head the more I hear about how artificial intelligence is changing the game when it comes to our tech, especially the way we seem to be so comfortable with talking to it.

Voice search has been rapidly gaining traction in recent years, and although we may not be at the stage where we’re going to need Will Smith to save us from cognoscente AI, the tech behind it has paved the way for ‘personal assistants’ such as Amazon Alexa. The pure fact that these ‘robots’, if you will, can understand the way we talk and interpret that into sourcing information is a massive step, and one I don’t think we give enough credit to.

For starters, it’s a complete game changer for the world of digital marketing. SEO in the past was focused on how to cater to the algorithms, which saw companies do things like stuff keywords into content, cross their fingers and hope for the best. Now, it’s starting to work the other way around, and the machines are the ones catering to us. Whereas before we’d change our language to match the machines, long-form questions and chatty language are dictating the way we write content and code our websites. If you pick up your iPhone and summon Siri, the likelihood of you saying just one word to get what you want is slim. Asking a fully worded question is normal, and Siri will respond in tune. If you’re lucky enough to have an Alexa in your home you’ll know that it has the tendency to help you out even when you’re not directly commanding help.

This is widely important when it comes to online behaviour. About 50% of searches come from mobile, and 1 in 5 searches on an Android device are made via voice, a figure set to increase by 50% by 2020.

We’re starting to treat our tech like it knows us, and maybe it could. Constant new developments in machine learning, which is when the machine itself can detect data patterns to adjust its future behaviour, could completely change the way we do things online.

Google has been anticipating our wishes for years (mostly calling out poor spelling with a subtle ‘did you mean..?’) but now it’s smart enough to detect the nature of your language to decide what kind of result you want. For instance, Google’s algorithms need to decipher what the most important part of your query is. In the future would it be able to detect for emphasis in your voice or even emotion, becoming able to understand what you want or feel?

But right now, one of the biggest reasons people are turning to voice search is for locality. 22% of voice searches are for local information, which, when you think about it, positions trusty Alexa as a kind of personal assistant. Google considers the distance something is, and your relationship to it, for example, if you’ve been there before when searching via voice. It’s not an entirely new phenomenon, it’s just getting more and more accurate with every turn.

Location data, of course, means that Google can learn your movements — knowing where, what you like to eat and when, which feeds right back into the conversation of machine learning. Do we really want Google to be able to literally predict our next move?

So where does that leave us? As much as the technology around voice search is growing rapidly, we’re not at sci-fi, Black Mirror levels, or at least not right now. But the technology is growing fast and it’s already starting to change the way we do things. What makes for good SEO is different today than it was a couple of years ago, and voice search is the one leading the charge.

Does it all sound a bit confusing? We’ve got plenty of thoughts on how voice search could affect digital strategy, get in touch if you fancy a chat about it.

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