Twenty-five years ago, people searched for purchases by flipping through a catalog. Fifteen years ago, they typed keywords into Google to find sale items and track trends. Now they are using voice assistants like Amazon Alexa to guide them through the purchase journey.
According to a new report from Juniper Research, smart devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home will be installed in a majority — 55% — of U.S. households by 2022. Retailers need to come to terms with the new reality: In five years, most consumers will rely on voice-based product searches to buy everything from basic grocery items to fashion splurges and even large household appliances. Think about that: You will search for almost everything by asking a small speaker for help.
It’s obvious why this paradigm shift in consumer behavior is taking place so swiftly. Voice-based search is hands-free, easy, intuitive and highly interactive. Just as a retail store salesperson can help customers find just the right shirt for a graduation outfit, Amazon’s Alexa will be able to work as a virtual stylist that asks users’ preferences, scours through thousands — even millions — of available items, and recommends the ideal product using artificial intelligence.
While voice search is transforming the consumer shopping experience, retailers are facing new challenges. For brands and stores, it is critical to figure out how best to take advantage of voice assistants to showcase products and target customers in a way that’s accurate, timely and engaging. Here are a few important things to keep in mind.
According to “Think with Google,” 53% of people who own voice-activated speakers say it feels natural speaking to it, with many comparing it to talking to a friend. In a Google search box, customers might type the phrase, “summer floral dress.” When they use Google Assistant, they say, “Google, where can I find a nice floral dress for summer?”
That is why businesses need to re-think typical search keywords associated with their brands, and consider the more conversational phrases that people are increasingly using to find their products. Research by “Think with Google” shows that searches starting with “Do I need,” “Can I,” and “Should I” have grown more than 65% in the past two years. Smart retailers and brands are learning to incorporate those question-based phrases into their product descriptions and information stack. A denim brand like Joe’s Jeans, for example, might include a Q&A section that addresses users’ common queries such as, “How often do I need to wash my jeans?” or “Can I use bleach on my white denim jeans?”
People almost always engage in conversations with their voice assistants while doing something else, such as running on a treadmill or making dinner. Understanding search context can provide retailers with enormous insight into how and where customers are using their products, which in turn allows them to refine and improve their SEO and product marketing strategies.
For instance, someone who asks, “How much butter do I need to bake six muffins?” may land on a butter maker’s product page, which might include detailed information on how butter is used in different baking recipes. Smart retailers who use context-based product information will stand to gain a competitive advantage against companies that still limit their product descriptions to such attributes-based data points as color, size and ingredients.
Remember that an average person speaks 150 to 160 words per minute, but typically types 40 words. People can articulate questions and needs more specifically and succinctly when using voice-activated search, compared to typing keywords into a traditional search engine. As a result, voice queries tend to be much longer than text searches — typically at least 15 words in length. Retailers clearly need to flesh out their product metadata accordingly, by expanding product description detail and including question phrases starting with words like “where,” “how,” and “what.”
While many retailers and brands now rely on APIs with major voice speakers such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant to take advantage of voice-activated product searches, some innovative players have begun to forge proprietary paths. For example, Domino’s Pizza has its own virtual ordering assistant named Dom; similarly, Starbucks’ customers can order food or drinks with a My Starbucks barista app on their phone or device, just as if they are speaking to an in-store barista.
Whether they create their own AI voice assistants or leverage mainstream smart home speakers, retailers need to create specific data sets of product information tailored to the growing voice search audience. Since more than half of all Internet searches will be voice-based by 2020, a basic shift in consumer research and purchasing behavior is inevitable. Brands that act now to get their product information voice-search ready and become fluent in this new search medium stand to leave their slower competitors back in the world of desktop Internet 2.0.
Frédéric de Gombert is the CEO and co-founder of Akeneo, an AI-powered product data company and winner of Ernst & Young’s 2017 Startup of the Year Award and Deloitte’s Technology Fast 50 Award. Prior to founding Akeneo, he was the e-Commerce director at Smile, the largest open source system integrator in Europe.