How Should Online Businesses Move from This Update?
In a sudden change of tune, a top Google software engineer recently stated that voice-enabled search is not the future and will not supplant other modalities like images or even text. If true, it essentially means that businesses, website publishers, and digital marketers should not invest much time or energy optimising their pages for it.
This was the opinion shared by developer Martin Splitt during a conversation with host John Muller in Google’s “Search Off the Record” podcast. His words have set the internet world abuzz and dominated the headlines on some of the most popular online media outlets. It has also caused some confusion and even concern for those who might be affected by its implications.
Is this just the point of view of one man, or is it a warning of things to come, something that should be taken very seriously? Before we discuss this, let us take a look back at how Google has been selling voice search SEO hard since Google Assistant was introduced to the market.
The Promise of Voice Search
When Google launched Google Assistant in 2016, it allowed voice-enabled search and opened up new possibilities for delivering content. Since then, the tech giant has been telling website developers to implement structured data to optimise for search. Structured data is organised information that communicates specific information about a page, allowing the search engine to display content in an attractive manner.
- Speakable Structured Data for News Publishers
In 2018, Google adopted the schema.org Speakable structured data, initially for news publishers only. It “marks up” or creates the structured data code for parts of news articles that are deemed most relevant to the search. Google Assistant then reads these sections aloud, asks the user if they want to hear another news article, and sends the relevant links to the smartphone, tablet, or whatever device is being used.
Implementing Speakable markup helps news publishers engage with voice search and allows their content to surface on Google Assistant. It promised a world where people can just ask Google what the latest news is. Google then speaks it to them and gives them other relevant links.
- More Developments on the Voice Search Front
Google also brought Guided Recipes to the search console. By marking up their content using recipe structured data, publishers can make their content eligible for this recipe enhancement which guides users through recipes on smart displays and Google Home.
This year, Google published another developer page about the Speakable beta program. It is designed to identify which parts of an article or a website page are compatible with audio playback using text-to-speech or TTS technology.
In other words, adding this markup will allow apps and search engines to read the content aloud on devices with Google Assistant, which means that businesses will have additional content distribution channels to reach more of their target audience.
- Better Speech Recognition Technology
Google also unveiled its cutting-edge speech recognition AI called the Multitask Unified Model or MUM this year. Google technologist Pandu Nayak has high hopes for it, saying that not only can it understand language, it can also generate language too.
Aside from being trained in 75 different languages, it is capable of performing multiple tasks simultaneously. These features allow it to understand and process information more comprehensively than previous models.
Compared to the natural language processing or NLP AI introduced by Google three years ago, MUM is much more powerful — about a thousand times more, to be exact. Aside from recognising speech, it can process information in other formats, including pictures, webpages, and others, all at the same time.
These and other developments are leading people to think that voice search is, in fact, the future. At the very least, voice-based search is a very big part of it.
- More Room to Grow for Voice Search
Around one out of every four consumers own a device that has a voice-controlled assistant, and around the same number have used it to make a purchase. In addition, one out of every three consumers has used voice-based devices to create their shopping lists.
Most of these smart speaker users are between the age of 18 and 36, while a smaller number belongs to the older age group of 37 to 52. They do a wide range of searches, from ordering products to playing music to ordering food to making calls.
- The Challenges
The challenge with voice search as it stands now is that the experience it offers is still short of seamless. For instance, some queries are not understood on the first attempt, and they have to be rephrased to remove slang words.
In some cases, speech impediments and even accents can make the process harder. To make things worse, users often have to wait for the voice answer to finish before they can rephrase the question.
- Text Search Still Dominating
Text search is still the preferred mode for a higher number of users despite the exciting promise behind voice search. It is easy to see why.
When typing queries, users get the chance to correct spelling mistakes. Most of the time, Google will even give suggestions on how to phrase the question better and make it easier for the users to find what they are looking for. Overall, it has fewer complications, allowing it to offer a better user experience despite being more rudimentary.
Nevertheless, history has shown time and again that a certain period of adjustment or transition is needed before a new piece of technology is fully accepted. It happened when mobile phones replaced home phones, text messages displaced emails, and social media platforms became the modern-day word-of-mouth. With the right approach, this could happen to voice search too.
We are still far from Google’s 2013 vision of a keyboard-less future. In fact, the verdict is still out on whether it will someday become a reality. Still, all signs are pointing to the possibility that voice-enabled search will eventually become the go-to input modality. It’s just a question of when.
This brings us to the heart of the controversy: what compelled Googler Martin Splitt to have a change of heart?
Why Voice Search is Not the Future
Martin Splitt did not mince words when he expressed his doubt about voice search, describing it as “the future that will never be.” To be fair, what he was referring to was the keyboard-less computing technology portrayed in the wildly popular TV show Star Trek.
In the show, the characters spoke directly to the computer, telling it to execute a wide array of different tasks without pulling out a keyboard and typing in a command. The idea for Google Assistant actually came from this paradigm.
- A Promise Unfulfilled
Google became so engrossed with the notion of a keyboard-less future. It served as their roadmap to their idea of what search will look like in the future. They referred to the technology internally as the Star Trek computer as they tried to build a realistic version, which eventually became the Google Assistant.
Back then, calling voice search the future was not a stretch. So, what happened?
Google, or at least one of its top minds, might be having second thoughts after gaining a more mature understanding of the technology. To be more specific, he realised that so far, all they have been able to do was change the input modality and maybe how the searches are phrased. The fundamental use of natural language to get information from the internet is basically still the same.
Simply put, the user search experience has improved, but the elements behind it that process the voice commands have not. This hypothesis makes sense because voice search is inherently imperfect based on differences between AI technologies from the likes of Alexa and Siri and how queries are phrased.
- Hitting a Wall
Unless something else comes along that will disrupt the current norm; consumers will not see significant changes in the voice search landscape for the coming years. However, it could also mean that businesses, website developers, and digital marketers do not have to worry too much about voice-specific SEO.
Another reason why voice search won’t likely be as big in the future is that other content strategies and modalities like visual search are taking bigger strides in terms of technological advancements. Image recognition AIs are developing much faster than speech recognition AIs. As a result, the pull towards visual search is stronger, as shown by how effective visual discovery is in optimising the shopping experience.
How Should Businesses Move Forward?
Martin Splitt is just one man, and he was just expressing his opinion. Besides, no one really knows what the future will be like. All we can do is to take the best course of action based on the most reliable information available.
Still, if you are a business owner and you are going to make a decision on the matter based on anyone’s words, it would be hard for you to do better than a top-notch Googler’s opinion. Martin Splitt has inside information that people outside Google are not privy to. He also has the expertise and the experience to put two and two together and formulate the best approximation of the situation. So, if he says that you should not put too much stock into voice search SEO and focus on other input modalities instead, you should probably listen.