Digital Assistants and the Rise of Voice Search: An Introduction

This is the first installment of a blog series that explores the current state of digital assistants and their impact on the e-commerce industry.

“Alexa, read me this blog.”

A couple years ago, that phrase would have seemed crazy. But digital assistants have exploded over the past year and have become one of the fastest-growing segments of consumer electronic devices, according to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). The rise of these digital assistants has tremendous implications for brands and retailers that rely on search marketing to drive traffic to their website. To begin with, searching by voice, or “voice search,” has fundamental differences from the way we think about “search” today — starting with the queries themselves. Additionally, voice commerce represents a whole new host of challenges for retailers still adjusting to a world where the majority of traffic takes place on mobile devices.

eMarketer estimates there are 36 million digital assistant devices in use in the US right now. Much of this usage has been by early adopters, and until the last few months, the space saw very little mass market advertising. Instead, consumers have been buying and sharing via word of mouth.  

Voice search encompasses two primary use cases:

  • Digital Assistant — a device whose primary interface is voice
  • Other devices — using voice search on a phone, for example

Voice search has been around since the introduction of Siri on the iPhone in late 2011 and the technology was primarily used for applications such as voice to text, informational queries, maps, etc.

The more recent introduction of digital assistants, however, is driving the increase of voice search across both new devices and existing ones. The first was Amazon’s Echo, launched in June of 2015.

The most common uses for digital assistants to date have been:

  • Playing music — streaming via services like Pandora or Spotify
  • News/Podcasts — from quick-flash briefings to long-form podcasts
  • Shopping lists — creating shopping lists
  • Home automation — controlling lights, security systems, thermostats
  • Amusement — games, stories
  • Cooking — recipes, kitchen timers

One similar element of this space to the smartphone space is that the use cases are constantly expanding as more “skills” are added to the devices. This creates a challenge for providers similar to the challenges of the App Store on your phone — cutting through the clutter of tens of thousands of apps isn’t easy, and app developers struggle to build awareness. At the same time, consumer behavior has the potential to change rapidly based on the skills that are developed. Often it takes an app to realize the potential of a new device; for example, for many, the first introduction to mobile commerce was ordering items in the Starbucks app.

The goal of this blog series is to both outline the current landscape (with the acknowledgment that some of this will become quickly outdated given the pace of innovation) and provide brands and retailers a point of view on how they should be thinking about voice search and commerce.  

Over the next four posts, we will cover the current landscape of digital assistants, evaluate how the shopping experience might evolve in the near term and longer term future and finally wrap up with recommendations on what brands and retailers can do to prepare for this future.

Coming next week:  Part 1 — Device Roundup

The biggest names in tech (heck, really just business at this point) are all making significant investments in the digital assistant space. The result is that these investments will drive significant, rapid product innovations as each of them looks to capture this new market. Those big names include Amazon, Google, Alibaba, Apple and Microsoft.  

While we would expect others to enter this space (for example, Sonos and Samsung), we will focus on these five. Each player’s motivations gives us ideas on how they might think about this space, and understanding the roadmaps these companies are pursuing is crucial to anticipating changes in consumer behavior.

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