In reality, the very first voice search emerged way back in 2007, when Google released the GOOG-411 service. GOOG-411 was effectively a telephone service that allowed users to run local searches via the telephone. Although this is a very basic version of voice search compared to modern day, it was in fact the platform for modern voice search technology.
Google took the data from GOOG-411 and used it to create a database. This data was then used to develop the first voice search app for the original iPhone. Before long, Apple released Siri, which allowed users not just to speak into their phone, but to effectively have a conversation with it.
Fast forward to current day and voice search has come on leaps and bounds. In the earliest days we could just about ask Siri basic questions. Today, we see consumers using assistants in their homes to change the heating, set the alarm, turn appliances on or off, and much more. It’s clear that voice search technology is improving rapidly. The question is: is it just another fad, a bit of fun, or is it the future? Will we one day see a world where voice search is the norm?
Early days of voice search
To answer this, we need to discuss the introduction of the first real modern voice search technology, back in 2011. As mentioned, Siri was the very first conversational voice recognition system. This meant it could reply using its own voice as well as listening to yours.
Prior to the Siri launch, and for a short time after, any rival voice technology only had the capability to listen. Instead of replying, it would bring up a page of information on the device for users to read themselves. At the time, Siri was considered more of a “cool feature”, rather than a useful new function that might change the way we live.
It wasn't until 2013 that other tech giants really took notice of Siri and released their own competitors. These comprised the now well-known Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa. In 2016, Google finally released its Google Assistant. Despite being last to the party, the Google Assistant was a massive success and quickly gained a reputation online as the most advanced voice-controlled assistant on the market.
By the end of 2016, all four major voice assistants were competing with one another to be the best and most popular. However, very few people took them seriously, and users were failing to engage with them on a daily basis. This was mainly due to lack of compatible devices at the time – they could do little beyond basic search queries. However, within a year or so, developers found more uses for voice and created new products to perform these functions.
Early predictions about voice search
Until recently there were very few people really looking into the future of voice search technology. However, as its popularity increased, so did the interest in what it could do for us in the future. Back in 2017, ComScore predicted that 50% of all searches in 2020 would be voice searches. Around the same time, Gartner, a leading research and advisory company, predicted that by 2020, 30% of searches wouldn't involve a screen at all. These sorts of prediction seemed farfetched in 2017, but at the time of writing, Google says over 20% of its searches in 2019 are voice searches.
Ogilvy, a leading research and advisory company, released a summary of digital trends for 2018. They predicted that voice search would be one of the biggest developments of the next few years. They emphasised how circumstances can be very important when it comes to using voice. For example, users were much more at ease using voice in places they found comfortable. More importantly, as people got more familiar with the technology, they would begin using it in public with less embarrassment.
The future of voice
In 2019, voice search is still growing, perhaps not as quickly as originally anticipated, but not without momentum. The lofty predictions of 50% of searches being voice searches now seem optimistic. It is clear, however, that voice search is becoming more popular year on year as the technology improves.
In 2018, in a now infamous speech at Google I/O, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai showed the world how Google can now physically action your request to book a haircut by ringing the salon and pretending to be a human. If you haven't seen this, it's well worth a watch. This shows just how far voice search has come in the last few years and how it is now ready to serve nearly all of our day-to-day needs.
On top of the improvements made to how the assistant understands and relays information, there have also been massive advancements in uses for voice search. Products such as smart thermostats and smart speakers have given voice more everyday uses. This trend is set to continue. Industry experts predict almost all appliances will attempt to integrate some form of voice technology in the next five years.
The next major development with voice is predicted to be in transcription technology. Services like Amazon Transcribe turn audio files into text files. Other than their obvious immediate uses, these could help us to translate foreign languages in real-time, making them potentially ground-breaking for international business.
Ogilvy followed up their “trends for 2018” presentation with a new one for 2019, in which they outlined three barriers voice search needs to get past to move into its next stage of application.
The first problem is that currently voice search lacks contextual understanding. Currently voice can only understand what it is being asked, not necessarily why and where it is being asked. If it could put the question into context using time, location and tone of voice, along with other factors to determine the true reasons behind the search, it should be able to give much more useful results for users.
Secondly, experts predict that home assistants will soon be able to differentiate between voices and therefore be able to offer different things to different people living within the same household.
Finally, previous uses have restricted voice to mobile devices. However, recently voice is being utilised in lots of new ways. Voice is becoming bigger and bigger in the car industry as it allows drivers to multitask safely. This is especially important as it allows drivers to listen to their emails, schedule meetings and perform other basic business functions on the way to work, saving them time later.
Preparing for take-off
It seems inevitable now that voice search is not just here to stay, but will soon dominate the digital landscape. This gives businesses new challenges to consider. For example, as an SEO executive it is your job to know what comes up when someone searches for your business by text. Soon, however, you'll need to consider how people might search if they were searching by voice. Would they say the same thing as they would type? How would you optimise for this?
Furthermore, before long companies will need to begin thinking about not just what their company looks like, but what it might sound like. As voice technology improves, it is feasible that some of the bigger businesses may adopt a Siri-style assistant to replace a traditional FAQ page or a chatbot. This is something that would change the way we interact with businesses forever. Business owners would need to think carefully about the sort of voice they want to represent them and their brand. Do they go for something informal and light-hearted, or something more professional? Do they go for a strong, local accent or do they go for someone with a softer, less regional accent?
We can quite comfortably predict that voice is here to stay and it is looking very likely that it will play a big role in our lives going forward. Whether or not it has the potential to go on and completely replace text search remains to be seen. Its potential applications are endless; ultimately only time will tell how much can be done with voice search. For a lot of us there isn't a lot to do but sit back and enjoy the new technology as it is released. For businesses, however, it will be crucial to stay on top of developments, especially when it comes to voice SEO and its potential development.