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Talking sales

By Retail Technology | Tuesday May 15 2018

The rise of voice technology has been rapid but what effect will it have on the retail industry? Quill CEO Ed Bussey looks at the potential impact of ‘conversational commerce’

While still far from the highly advanced, artificially intelligent and self-aware robots of various sci-fi classics (Knight Rider’s crime-fighting assistant KITT springs to mind), voice technology is rapidly advancing.

Last year, sales of home voice assistants rose by 279%, and they are expected to grow by another 60% in 2018, according to data from the Consumer Technology Association. And although voice-enabled home speaker devices, such as Amazon’s Echo range, are principally used now to ask simple questions or enact basic commands – eg ‘what's the weather like today?’ or ‘turn off the lights’ – with the widespread addition of high-quality screens, they’re poised to become powerful tools for consumers to both search and shop online, making ‘conversational commerce’ an imminent reality. 

At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Google announced that it is teaming up with Lenovo to add a screen to its Google Home device, and Facebook also recently announced its intention to launch two smart voice assistant devices, fully equipped with screens, facial recognition software and a front-facing camera – laying down the gauntlet to rivals Amazon, Google and Apple

Online searches 

Research from Capgemini suggests that in just three years’ time, 40% of people will prefer using voice assistants to conduct online searches, over traditional desktop and mobile methods. 

With this in mind, retailers urgently need to consider how best to optimise their digital strategies and ecommerce stores to prepare for a future where consumers increasingly shop using voice.

One of the most significant implications of voice search for retailers is the behavioural shift in terms of how online searches are phrased and constructed, which will have a considerable impact on SEO. Historically, text-based searches for products have consisted of simple, keyword-centric queries – for example, a beauty shopper may type ‘sensitive skin cleanser’ into a search engine. 

But as an increasing proportion of search is done via voice, we can expect to see more conversational queries being fed into search engines via smart assistant devices, constructed using natural language. To contrast with the example above, a similar voice query may instead be phrased as: ‘Hey Alexa, show me the best cleansers for sensitive skin types’. 

Rich content

According to Google, 70% of its assistant requests are already in natural language. Retailers will need to address this change in search behaviour by adapting their SEO strategies accordingly – and, crucially, ensuring that key pages (such as product category hubs) are optimised with rich content that includes varied, natural vocabulary and phrases, maximising visibility in voice search results. 

Companies that fail to do this are likely to see their search rankings and organic traffic dip as voice search becomes more prevalent – with online revenues seriously suffering as a result.
Another consideration is how the rise of voice search will impact Google’s existing Featured Snippets feature (also known as ‘Instant Answers’). Currently, in response to simple question searches, this feature displays a short excerpt from a relevant page, summarising the answer. 

This snippet of content is displayed in the coveted number 1 position on the results page, and as such is particularly valuable – websites that land this spot need to demonstrate authority on the subject through engaging, accurate and genuinely helpful content. 

The Featured Snippet takes on an additional dimension in the context of voice search, as it is this content that is spoken or ‘read out’ by the smart speaker in response to such queries. 
Given that position 1 results enjoy a 20.5% click-through rate (as compared to 5.52% for position 10), securing this spot is hugely valuable for brands, who should be looking to bolster their authority around key product-related searches – using useful content like buying and how-to guides – to maximise their chances of being featured.  

Conversational capabilities 

Once conversational commerce has become more established, it’s likely that consumers will expect to interact with retailer websites in new ways. Most notably, the product page could potentially evolve from being a static source of information to having conversational capabilities – providing spoken responses to user questions about the product being viewed.

For example, a customer viewing the product page for a flat-pack furniture item might ask ‘how many people do I need to assemble this piece?’, with the expectation being that the website will be able to supply a verbal answer. 

To service this need, retailers will need to ensure that product pages are optimised with appropriate metadata – essentially FAQ answers – that anticipate customer voice queries, or else risk losing out to competitors if shoppers are unable to swiftly access the information they need to make a purchase decision.   

Research suggests that home assistant devices are fast approaching a tipping point when it comes to mass adoption – a recent survey of consumers from the UK, US, France and Germany by Capgemini’s Digital Transformation Institute found that, by 2021, “voice assistants will become a dominant mode of consumer interaction, with shoppers who use the technology willing to spend 500% more than they currently do via this mode of interaction”. 

Given the transformative impact that voice technology is sure to have on the ecommerce sector, it’s critical that online retailers move now to anticipate the change or risk being left behind.