Despite the rapid growth of voice and virtual assistant adoption, platforms like Google and Amazon have yet to provide businesses with the ability to segment voice interactions from typed interactions in performance reports. This makes it difficult to fully assess the role of voice search and virtual assistants at present, but there are some signals we can use to examine any changes in user behavior and the directional growth of voice interactions.

Since the early goings of voice search, a common belief has been that it would change the language used to interact with devices as searches would become more conversational. In reality, we’ve seen little change in the queries driving paid and organic impressions in many regards. Further, many recent reports indicate the commercial opportunity of voice interactions is still modest at present.

Queries haven’t changed much by some standards related to voice

In 2016  Microsoft research showed queries inputted by voice were typically longer than those inputted by text in terms of word count. As voice search grows, such research would indicate that the average length of queries would also grow.

However, looking at both the word count and character count of the queries triggering paid and organic Google results (using the paid and organic report) for longstanding Merkle advertisers predominantly in retail, we find little change over the last couple of years. This indicates that if voice interactions are growing in the share of paid and organic results they produce, these queries aren’t different enough in length from typed searches to impact average query length.

In support of this notion, Google data presented to agencies points to only small differences in query length between typed and spoken search.

The same article from Microsoft mentioned that searchers are more likely to include question words when using voice. However, looking at the share of queries triggering Google paid and organic results that include a question word, we’ve seen little change to indicate that voice search is increasing the number of queries framed as a question.

And yet, voice interactions are certainly growing, as myriad sources release data points on increased adoption (even if some of those data points are less than reliable). How can it be that the queries driving paid and organic search impressions aren’t changing in concert?

As mentioned, there may be so little difference in voice search compared to typed search in these regards that even if voice were to grow to account for most queries, we still wouldn’t see much movement in query length and question words. These differences could also change over time, given the early stage of voice interactions we find ourselves in, so that there aren’t consistent query attributes that are more likely to be voice search.

Additionally, the types of “searches” happening may not be very relevant for many types of businesses.

‘Voice’ is growing, ‘voice commerce’ less so

The term voice search is currently wielded very broadly, often used to indicate wide-ranging actions for everything from telling a device to call mom to plug in an address to navigational apps. Many of these actions that might be bundled as part of voice search would be more appropriately categorized as voice commands, in which the user isn’t searching for any information, service or product, but rather telling a device to do something.

As such, many data points on the growth of voice search reflect some interactions that wouldn’t be considered a search if they were completed by manual input using a keyboard or mouse. However, surveys are becoming more pointed in asking what types of queries voice searchers are using to assess better the commercial opportunity, which appears modest at present.

For example, a May 2018 shopper survey from RichRelevance showed that 70% of U.S. consumers have never used a voice assistant to search for a product, let alone purchase a product in this way

The Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison showed that 16% of surveyed adults owned voice-activated smart speakers by the end of 2017, and that of those that did only 22% had purchased a new item using a speaker. This means that only about 4% of all those surveyed had purchased anything at all by smart speaker. This lines up with what internal Amazon sources told The Information in August 2018, pegging the share of Alexa users that have ordered something by voice at 2%.

Even estimates portrayed as bullish, such as OC&C Strategy Consultants prediction that voice shopping would grow to more than $40B by 2022, paint voice search as only a small slice of the total e-commerce pie. With $517B in e-commerce occurring in the U.S. alone in 2018, this prediction indicates that voice shopping is likely to account for less than 5% of e-commerce between the US and UK in 2022 given expected e-commerce growth rates.

Naturally, some product and service categories are more likely to be purchased by voice than others, so the opportunity is likely to be greater for some types of businesses than the estimated overall e-commerce share. However, even in the case of industries which might see a majority of purchases happening by voice shortly, it’s not clear at present that there are strategies specific to voice that brands should adopt to take advantage. Rather, it seems the best practices for voice search mostly overlap with existing best practices for search in general.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose

At this point optimizing for voice search looks a lot like lot optimizing for search in general. Marketers should be aware of what queries are growing in volume and cater to advertising and content strategies around that knowledge.

While the call-and-response nature of voice interactions has made it even more advantageous to be the number one organic result and Quick Answer, the advantage of such positioning extends beyond voice search. Optimizations made to get featured in prime locations for important queries are certainly valuable for voice, but don’t let voice search be the only determining factor in prioritizing such efforts.

That could certainly change quickly as Amazon and Google make potential updates to how results are served for these types of interactions, and certainly Google’s speakable schema markup is a step towards voice-specific optimizations. For now, however, the voice search opportunity appears modest and isn’t altogether unique in terms of how most marketers should approach it from an optimization standpoint.

With no clear reporting available, perhaps the biggest challenge regarding voice at present is quantifying the opportunity, and hyperbolic statistics showing incredible growth do little to show relative size vs. traditional search. In this sense, it’s good that optimization for voice search overlaps with that of traditional search since marketers have little to fly by in isolating for voice.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Andy Taylor is Associate Director of Research at Merkle, responsible for analyzing trends across the digital marketing spectrum for best practices and industry commentary. A primary contributor to the Merkle Blog, Dossier, and quarterly Digital Marketing Report, he speaks frequently at industry conferences and events.

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