Mobile voice search is still learning | DMA

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Mobile voice search is still learning

Are brands doing all they can to be the chosen result by Apple, Google or Microsoft’s voice engines?

One in five online adults say they have used voice search on their mobile in the last month*. By 2020, comScore estimates that 50% of all searches will be voice searches**. We carried out an experiment using three different smartphone platforms:

1. Siri on Apple iOS
2. Google on Android
3. Cortana on Microsoft Windows

We set up each phone to accept voice input and give a voice response. We then asked each a series of questions.

We wanted to test out a few different question types:

What’s the average house price in BS6?
What’s the price of petrol in the UK?

Where should I go on holiday with young children?
What film shall I watch tonight?

What university is better – Oxford or Cambridge?
Which is better – craft beer or real ale?

Who does the best coffee in Bristol?
Then: How do I get there?

How did each platform perform?

For “What’s the average house price in BS6?”, our first attempt gave us results that assumed a US location. After changing to “Bristol, UK”, we at least got relevant responses.

None of the phones actually read out a price. Apple’s Siri did feature a price within the search results it displayed on screen. Microsoft’s Cortana made us choose a result before telling us anything, but that still didn’t get us closer to a useful answer. Google displayed some search results, the top one of which was a paid ad by a business offering house valuations.

This didn’t feel like a great start!

Next we asked “What’s the price of petrol in the UK?” After getting a response about the number of barrels of oil per day, we had to be more specific, clarifying ‘price per litre’. Although Siri displayed the answer within the first search result, it was Google that came out on top for this one, finally reading out the answer we were after: £1.17 per litre.

Next up, we asked “Where should I go on holiday with young children?” All platforms simply showed some search results. Cortana included two paid ads at the top. Siri wittily remarked “Someone asked me this the other day”, so we’ll give Siri the gold star this time.

We then asked “What film shall I watch tonight?” Apple came up trumps again by showing results in a nice visual way, instead of just a list of standard search results. Furthermore, you could tap on a film for more details and even local cinemas and showtimes.

For “What university is better – Oxford or Cambridge?”, Siri showed some search results. Cortana did the same but led with an ad for accommodation in Oxford: not very helpful. Google actually read out the top result from Which?, giving a fair assessment of the relative strengths of each university.

For the craft beer or real ale question, Cortana sold out to an advertiser again. Siri said she “couldn’t decide” and Google returned some useful organic (non-paid) results.

For the final question “Who does the best coffee in Bristol?”, all three platforms performed quite well. Siri served five results ranked by Yelp rating. Cortana and Google showed results on a map. When asking “How do I get there?”, Cortana was lost - “where?”.

Both Siri and Google prepared a map showing the top result, but only Siri fully proceeded to give audio directions without needing to press anything on screen.

And the winner is…

After all seven tests, Apple wins four of them, while Google wins three and Microsoft wins none.

We were disappointed that few answers were read out to us on any of the devices. Most of the voice searches still relied on the display and further interaction to give answers. That’s not so helpful if you’re driving, for example.

Microsoft fell down by selling out to advertisers that weren’t actually answering our questions, and it didn’t keep any context with previous searches.

Google did best at reading out answers, but Apple’s no-touch journey from “Who does the best coffee” to “Take me there” and its smart film results edged it to overall victory. Well done Siri, we’d treat you to a Clean Bean coffee if it didn’t mess with your electronic internal organs!

What does this mean for brands?

Voice search may currently be less common than text searches, but this is expected to change in the coming years.

The results served by each mobile platform vary depending on the question, and what matching content is available. Getting exposure for your brand in voice search is all the more challenging given that, in many cases, only one result matters. However, now is the right time to get your brand noticed through voice search, before everyone else catches up.

Paying for position is unlikely to win favour, especially if you’re not answering people’s questions. The secret lies in providing impartial, search engine optimised content that answers common questions better than anyone else. For example: the price of petrol or houses, the best places to holiday with kids, or a balanced view on the best university.

In competitive commoditised markets such as hotels, restaurants and coffee shops, being rated higher than anyone else is likely to help as much in voice search as any other type of search.

* globalwebindex, 2016
** comScore, 2016

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