Are businesses sleepwalking into a new era of voice search?

With only around 10% of companies investing in voice, are marketers missing a trick? Or are they taking a smart, long-term view

May 17, 2019

Are businesses sleepwalking into a new era of voice search?

Are professionals complacent about the impact that voice search will have on their businesses? Or do they know something that marketing pundits don’t? Our new LinkedIn survey of attitudes to voice search suggests that one of these two things must be true.

Gartner predicts that, by 2021, 30% of all searches won’t involve a screen. They’ll be driven by voice. That’s a significant enough share to deliver a considerable competitive advantage for businesses that invest in optimising their marketing for a voice-search world. It suggests that those ignoring voice could be giving up on a third of their potential audience for search and other forms of digital marketing. And given the short timeframe of the prediction you’d expect businesses to already be feeling the effects – and planning their responses.

Only that’s not what’s happening.

Almost half (43%) of the LinkedIn members in our survey said voice search is having no impact within their organisations at all. Only 14% expected it to have a significant impact in the future.

As a result, very few businesses are investing in optimising their marketing for a voice-search world. In most countries the proportion of businesses investing in optimising for voice is 10% or fewer. More are seriously considering voice investments for the near future – but not many more. The proportion of businesses planning to invest reaches 16% in the Middle East and North Africa and 14% in Brazil, the UK and South East Asia.

It’s noticeable that the regions responding most decisively to the rise of voice are those with a mobile-first digital heritage, where speaking into smartphones is front-of-mind as a means of navigating the internet. India stands out, with 20% of employees saying voice is already making a difference to their business and 14% of companies already investing in a voice-led approach.

Are the 80% or so of businesses not planning voice investments missing a huge opportunity? Scroll down for more on the silent rise of voice search in our infographic – and then keep scrolling for the reasons why they might be treading cautiously.

When a trend is so rapid as the switch towards screenless searching, it takes time for marketers to formulate a strategic response. One of the reasons why so few businesses are investing in voice today is that it’s still not totally clear what an effective investment actually looks like. A watching brief isn’t necessarily a sign of complacency if you have good reasons for waiting to see how voice develops. Here are some of those reasons:

30% of search traffic doesn’t mean 30% of monetisable search

Just because a third of all internet searches are voice-driven doesn’t mean that those are the searches marketers are most interested in. When somebody asks a digital assistant if they need to take their umbrella to work or what the traffic’s like, do they really want or expect a brand to be part of the answer? Will the AIs behind digital assistants be willing to serve brand-related results if they are likely to irritate their clients? Most voice searches are not driven by purchase intent. Research out last year found that only 2% of people using Alexa had ever asked her to buy something for them. Marketers could be right to be cautious about which search moments they are welcome in.

Businesses are already preparing for voice without huge investments

Voice search will change the nature of search queries – and the types of experiences that users expect in response to them. However, for businesses already pursuing forward-thinking SEO strategies, this doesn’t have to be a complete game-changer. Google and Bing are already developing their algorithms and presentation of search results to anticipate a voice-search world. They’ve introduced mobile-first indexing and developed Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) that can deliver information without the need for a searcher to click through to a site. Smart SEO marketers are adapting their strategies to fit this evolving search environment, focusing on search intent and delivering succinct answers to questions. Those businesses holding back on voice could be trusting that the search engines are still incentivised to deliver the most relevant result to a query, whether that query is typed or spoken. As voice makes search queries longer and more specific, the value of authority and relevance increases. Search marketers still need to focus on being the best answer to the real intent that a searcher has. They could be wise not to get distracted from this central objective.

Voice experiences aren’t yet delivering scale

The silent rise of voice isn’t just about voice search – it’s also about the experiences that those searches can lead to. The real opportunity for brands lies in developing content that can deliver deep engagement without the need for a screen – through audio branding, podcasts and new forms of interactive storytelling. Serious investments in voice will explore all of these areas. However, at this stage, they are likely to be restricted to big brands with deep pockets. At Advertising Week Europe this year, VaynerMedia’s VP Patrick Givens warned that voice experiences won’t yet deliver the reach that brand marketers tend to judge success by – but they will deliver deeper, longer-lasting and more engaged experiences. Voice is an experiment worth conducting – but the likely ROI right now means that it’s not an experiment all marketers can safely afford.

The fact that businesses are treading cautiously on voice so far doesn’t necessarily mean that they have their heads in the sand. As with so many sudden shifts in technology, it’s not affordable for every business to attempt to radically overhaul its marketing strategy while the new landscape remains unclear. Incremental changes might be the best approach for many. However, ignoring voice entirely is likely to mean ignoring some exciting marketing opportunities further down the line.