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How Voice Search Evolved In 2017

Voice search has become one of the quickest growing areas of SEO over the past two years.

15th Jan 2018
15th January 2018
Voice search has become one of the quickest growing areas of SEO over the past two years. From humble beginnings involving calling up a Google representative to make a Google query, to a surge of growth in 2016 which saw Google confirm that 20% of mobile queries are voice searches, it’s clear to see that voice search has grown spectacularly ever since first being introduced back in 2002, even if at times the growth has stagnated due various factors like lack of adoption and technological limitations.

But what’s been causing this growth? In this post, we’ll explore the different ways that voice search evolved in 2017, as well as what held it back over the last year. We will also explore how voice search has started to interact with other forms of search technology, and how it fits in the new SEO landscape of 2018.

Evolution of Devices

In previous years, the only way to perform a voice search was mainly on a mobile device. Desktop PCs also had the capability of using voice search, but due to the fact that it requires a microphone, desktop PCs were often neglected in favour of mobile devices which were more convenient for users to interact with due to the microphone being readily available and the capability to use the voice search function being readily accessible as well; this was in the form of saying a phrase like “Hey Siri” or similar before then carrying out a voice search.

Despite the neglect though, in the 90s and early 2000s, there was a surge of activity on desktop computers. DragonDictate, one of the most popular speech recognition programs, was launched in the early 1990s and Microsoft Office incorporated voice and speech recognition in 2002 in a bid to improve upon the technology of the time as well as improve user experience.

However, in recent years we’ve seen an increase in other devices which use voice search as part of their functionality, in the form of ‘smart speakers’. The two most popular of these smart speakers are Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home. Both brands offer a range of products designed to add functionality to the home, with the main focus being around customers using voice commands, but both have different objectives. Amazon is focused more on retail within its ecosystem, whereas Google is focused more on partnerships and expanding its data collection and storage, unlike Amazon.

In addition to smart speakers, other devices such as TVs and media devices like Amazon’s Fire Stick also now incorporate voice search commands to allow users to interact without needing to use any input devices other than their voice. And as the technology has improved, the range of devices continues to expand, creating a full ecosystem that is designed to sit within a home or office.

Voice search technology is now firmly part of the modern smart home, allowing you to control your lights with your voice, set an alarm or turn the TV on, to give a few examples. Amazon have even developed a smart alarm clock, the Echo Spot, which functions like the other Echo devices and allows users to use voice commands with it, further adding to the ever-expanding Amazon suite of devices.

But despite this surge across a wide range of industries, there have still been a few that have resisted the changes, namely in the gaming industry. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Xbox One were notable for having the Kinect, an attachment for the Xbox that worked on both motion sensing and voice command allowing you to game without a controller or just use your Xbox with your voice. By the time the Xbox One was announced, the Kinect was poised to evolve into a fully modern system, designed to control your home media system in the form of the Xbox One, aurally. However, despite selling it from 2010 to 2017, it was announced in October 2017 that the Kinect would be discontinued due to a variety of reasons, including lack of adoption by consumers.

That is not to say that industries resistant to voice search have ignored it entirely. Sony’s PlayStation 4 allows you to operate it with voice commands, and Microsoft has changed its focus from the Kinect and instead used the technology that was in place in the Kinect to create a digital assistant in the form of Cortana, which is also available on many Microsoft products as well. It’s clear to see that whilst some forms of voice search technology may fail, such as the Kinect, other forms such as digital virtual assistants are on the rise.

Evolution of Virtual Assistants

Virtual assistants have been evolving in rather dramatic ways since their introduction back in the 1960s. The first virtual assistant was the IBM Shoebox, which was presented to the general public in 1962, could recognise 16 spoken words and the digits 0 to 9.

Since those early days, virtual assistants have grown exponentially, with users now being able to gather information on a wide range of subjects such as the weather or looking up facts, as well as being able to set alarms, play music or videos, as well as making purchases from e-commerce businesses. This increase in intelligence has prompted the rise of AI in the consumer market as a competitive advantage for businesses to develop and use as part of their marketing mix as well as for sales applications, and this development of additional voice and virtual assistants is driving competition in the development market as every company attempts to jump on board the virtual assistant wave.

One reason for this is that nearly all modern smartphones have some form of voice integration, whether it’s Siri on Apple iPhones, Google Assistant on Android phones, or Bixby on Samsung phones. Some of these, such as Bixby, even have a dedicated assistant button to allow easy access to Bixby, whilst Google and Apple have opted for voice commands such as OK Google or Hey Siri to activate their voice command abilities.

Originally virtual voice assistants had limited functionality, serving more as a keyboard substitute but 2017 saw the rise of AI and a true assistant, as you can now order an Uber, a pizza or even purchase products happily on Amazon with Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant. This ties into Amazon’s focus on e-commerce and retail. Google Assistant has also expanded its range of abilities, being able to scan your emails and offer up suggestions such as making notes on your calendar amongst other functions and integrations with other Google services. All of these are designed to enhance your experience whilst using the device, whilst also collecting data, which furthers Google’s aim of creating a linked ecosystem.

2017 also saw a massive jump in virtual assistant usage compared to 2016. Amazon’s Alexa rose from 0.8 million monthly users in May 2016 to 2.6 million monthly users in May 2017 in the US alone, and Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant, grew its US user base 350% between May 2016 and May 2017, according to a survey from Verto Analytics which was reported on by TechCrunch. One interesting point is that usage of Siri dropped by several million users, equating to a drop of 3%, which we will touch on later on in this post. But how does this growth factor into everyday usage for voice search? And what does the marketplace hold for voice search?

Evolution of a Marketplace

Voice search usage is growing in unexpected ways that not many users could have predicted 10 years ago. For example, China is the country that has seen the biggest growth in using voice search, with a staggering 64% adopting it across the country. Other major international adoptees of voice search include Thailand, which is close behind China, with 57% adopting it in the country, according to a recent survey reported on by DigitalMarket Asia. It’s clear to see that from these figures that businesses, if they’re not focusing on international customers’ needs, will need to start incorporating that into their global marketing going forward.

Back in 2013, China was dominating the voice search app market by being able to create apps that could reach 93% voice search recognition accuracy, whereas Siri in the US was just being properly introduced to the general population. However, 2017 showed that more companies were supporting voice search, with the number of Alexa Skills (the equivalent to apps on Alexa) growing to 15,000 in 2017 according to an article by BusinessInsider, so it’s clear to see that the marketplace is adapting as the technology keeps evolving as developers add to it.

And as the marketplace for voice search keeps growing, it is only natural that advertising will come to the forefront at some point. With customers already purchasing from Amazon’s Echo devices through Alexa, it was thought that advertising would soon be underway and that businesses would be taking advantage of one of the fastest growing trends of technology.

However, Amazon announced that it would be introducing a restrictive ad policy in 2017 that banned advertising through a lot of the Alexa Skills, apart from streaming music, radio and flash briefing Skills that have been installed on the Echo device. As such, this has curtailed a lot of third party advertising on this particular platform, although not all virtual assistants or connected devices are experiencing the same ban.

Google announced in May 2017 that they would be monetizing Google Assistant with ads and e-commerce functionalities, and this has resulted in several partnerships including with Walmart, allowing customers to order through the voice search functionality. This caused an increase of 50% in Walmart’s online sales year on year in one quarter according to a report by MarketRealist, suggesting that voice search is becoming an increasingly popular market for e-commerce.

Final thoughts and predictions

As the technology for voice search keeps evolving, e-commerce will also have to evolve alongside it. Whilst many e-commerce businesses are already scrambling to become Mobile-First compliant in time for the perpetual, they should also be aware that they need to optimise their websites so that voice search algorithms can search their website correctly.

Another point to cover is that as more competitors enter the market, the more the market place will develop based on the higher level of competition. Roku, a media streaming company, have recently announced their intentions to join the market by creating their own virtual assistant, according to a recent TechRadar article.

Thanks to this and other competition, we’ve already seen Apple’s Siri lose millions of monthly users as people migrate to other platforms and ecosystems. How the new Apple HomePod will fare when it’s launched in Spring 2018 is unknown, but it could potentially end up failing due to oversaturation of the existing market. This, on top of continued delays in production that saw the tech giant push back its expected delivery date for the HomePod means we predict Siri will be this year’s biggest loser in voice search.

In addition, we predict that we will see more voice search queries related to e-commerce businesses. With two of the three major players either operating their own e-commerce platform or partnered with a company who operate an e-commerce business, businesses who are wanting to succeed in e-commerce with voice search will need to adopt a variety of optimisation strategies to ensure that they are equipped to both capture and assist shoppers whilst competing against Amazon’s own in-house e-commerce capabilities and other brands who have opted to work on their voice search capabilities.

Google and other search engines have been pushing searcher intent as one of their key rankings lately, and voice search queries are going to be an extremely valuable set of data to help e-commerce businesses understand searcher intent. This can then help to optimise an e-commerce website, but a few things need to be kept in mind before that can occur.

One of these is the fact that depending on the type of business, international or small data sample sets that voice search queries may produce may end up skewing or biasing data. This can affect how to optimise your e-commerce site, so we’ll be covering how best to optimise your website and avoid these pitfalls in a future blog post.

If you’ve got any further questions about voice search after reading this article, or if you’d like to know how to incorporate voice search into your marketing strategy, then why not get in touch with us? Drop us an email at or call us on 01793 238 697