In 2017, 55% of teens and 40% of adults used voice search, and Google has stated that 20% of queries on its mobile app and on Android devices follow suit. 25% of 16-24s using voice search on mobile may be indicative of the shift in generational expectancy around the use of search.Despite the technology having been around for quite a while, Google voice search queries have increased 35x between 2008 and 2016 - it appears that we are now entering the age of the online voice, as consumers start to fully embrace voice recognition.

For many it was a surprise to see the smart speaker industry take off the way it did last year, 20 million being sold in 2017 in the US alone. And by 2022, smart speakers are expected to be a staple part of more than 55% of US households.As the general public start to interact with smart speakers as a part of daily life, using voice commands to ask what the weather's doing, what's on TV tonight, it makes sense that this new development is going to directly impact on the world of ecommerce. Therefore ecommerce merchants have to be prepared.

Why are people turning to voice?

Why are consumers choosing voice search over text queries? One of the most obvious reasons is that it mimics natural behaviour. Advances in machine learning have radically improved voice recognition software in recent years. Picking up a smartphone and typing in a question may seem to have become the norm for the average Joe, but the truth is talking is a much more natural state of affairs and it therefore makes sense that given the option, consumers choose what comes easiest.It's also likely that because searches based on voice are easier to complete, that users will end up offering more detail in a shorter space of time, which in turn will lead to more accurate results.

For example 'football trainers' being typed into Google is somewhat ambiguous, but nevertheless a likely term for someone looking for either a pair of shoes to play football with, or for someone to help teach football. Someone using voice search is much more likely to go the whole hog, and say 'show me football trainers near me' or 'trainers to play football' given that saying a few more words is negligible compared to the gain in accuracy.

How's it changing ecommerce?

With the surge in popularity of voice-assist products such as Google Home and Amazon Echo, voice shopping is what the world of ecommerce needs to be prepared for.In the US, big names such as household brand Target has already partnered officially with Google Express, that uses Google Assistant to help shoppers centralise all their regular shopping in one app. Domino’s Pizza has developed a service so that customers can order pizza via voice, and PayPal has also created voice-activated payments.

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Target's announcement on October 12, 2017. Image:

Now most ecommerce businesses are not in a position to announce their new partnership with Google, given, but the jump to voice-assist apps on Android and iPhone will mean the likelihood of smaller to medium brands optimising for this new shift in consumer expectation increasing.

How will the technology impact on how consumers shop online? Without screens consumers won’t need to use regular channels such as a website to make purchases. Instead, brands might need to focus on voice-based interfaces. We've already seen this for Amazon customers, who can order anything via Alexa by asking for it, which responds with a few suggestions – nothing compared to the pages of results per Google search we've been used to.

The next big goal for merchants may well be to get within the top suggestions on Alexa et al. All the same hoops to jump through will no doubt exist when trying to get a decent search result placement. There have already been reports that Amazon is in talks with a number of brands to deliver a new type of advertising, potentially charging for higher placement on certain products or categories. The worse case scenario is that it might make it harder for smaller brands to get noticed, at least initially while the new style of advertising and brand placement settles to allow other players into the market.

Another change we might see is a shift in website content to facilitate voice search. Consumers tend to be more expressive and when using voice search, using long-tail keywords and questions. This means sites will benefit from using NLP (Natural Language Processing) and machine learning to deliver better on-site search results. Some search platforms (like Klevu) use AI and NLP technologies to help drive more relevant customer engagement – these services may well see a surge in uptake.

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Klevu AI-powered search facility. Image:

To conclude...

2018 may well be the year of voice search and we're likely to see an increase in voice shopping as a direct result. How big that shift will be and how many opportunities will present themselves to the average ecommerce merchant remains to be seen.

We wait to see if ComScore's prediction that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be voice searches shows true, but what is certain is that our new embrace of voice recognition will mean that our expectations of the online shopping experience will be forever altered.