Is Voice the Future of Search?

Pete Peranzo
by Pete Peranzo 10 Oct, 2016

Let's cut to the chase - yes.

With the rise of digital assistants like Cortana and Siri in addition to smart home hubs like Google Home and Amazon Echo, we are getting more accustomed to searching with our voice rather than our keyboards. Let's take a look at why people are moving to voice search. 

Old fashioned searching

Not long ago, not everyone had the ability to read and write. Just a 100 years ago, reading was something that was reserved for the elite, with few libraries and a low access to the ability to search for written information. Back then, people learned information through mouth to ear methods. They told stories, asked questions and communicated without the written word. The meteoric increase in written communication that's come with the internet means that written communication is more prevalent than ever before. However the internet is losing much of that text based format in favor of videos and images. In many ways the rise of technology that cuts out writing and reading is a return to much more basic forms of communication.  

Most marketers and technology enthusiasts just assume competency in reading and writing. While yes, literacy rates today are higher than they've ever been, they're holding steady without improvement in over a decade. Fourteen percent of Americans are illiterate and another 20 percent of Americans read at or below a fifth grade level. One in five high school graduates can't read. Yet the number of Americans with smartphones continues to increase, with 68 percent of adults owning smartphones. Those two numbers are increasingly crossing over one another. Voice search is a way for people who struggle with literacy to access the vast amount of information that's available on the internet. 

Also look for audio input searches to change the way that kids interact with technology and information, as without the need for textual input there's far more access for little ones. Another population that could suddenly gain access to the wonders of the web thanks to voice - the elderly and disabled. People who can't type due to physical limitations like arthritis or physical handicaps are able to search with voice.

Who you'll be talking to

There are an ever-growing number of digital assistants out there, waiting to help out. What's important to realize here is that, just as has been the case with nearly all technology, newcomers to the marketplace could well be game changers. Though the internet today continues to be dominated by the big companies, remember that there is always the likelihood of an innovator coming onto the scene.

In any case, here are the major players in voice search and digital assistant tech.

- Siri - Apple

The first real voice search to come into the marketplace, Siri is more sophisticated than ever. Siri is designed to be like a person, someone to have conversations with rather than strictly as a digital servant. Think Alfred from Batman - there to help out but also to provide a bit of comfort. Siri tells jokes, remembers things about you and offers more personalized searches the more you use her. 

- Cortana - Microsoft

Microsoft is really still in the early development of Cortana, which struggles to access a wide variety of information thanks to its interface with the company's Bing search engine. Cortana is standard today on most Microsoft devices, including the Xbox One, making it the first digital assistant to be able to hang with you while you play video games.

- Alexa - Amazon

The revolution in voice search might really be coming from Amazon. Alexa is the first digital assistant to be free from a screen thanks to Amazon's Echo device, which works with smart devices to control your home as well as interfacing for search, music, news, and interfacing with companies like Uber and Dominos. Alexa is also starting to move off of the Echo and onto other, non-Amazon devices like the Triby. 

- Google Now - Google

Google doesn't personify its search engine like the rest, which sounds a lot like something Google would do. This is much more of a data driven experience, though as Google infiltrates more household appliances it's quite possible that there will richer opportunities for interaction with Google. In addition to voice, Google is using its Google Now on Tap to allow users to search for images. With this function you could take a picture of say, a plant on the hiking trail, then Google will search for things that look like it so that you can identify. Search without text is coming.

- Hound - SoundHound Inc.

This is one that many people haven't heard much about, but this startup that launched in 2005 is on the cutting edge, and many say that the Hound app offers the best functionality out there in terms of voice searches and voice commands. With sophisticated technology, Hound is able to understand human language much more fluidly than most of the others. 

Look for Facebook to launch its own voice command in the not too distant future. 

Digital servants

These voice activated devices are known as "digital assistants," though the term "digital servants" might be more accurate.

What these smart devices really amount to are electronic servants that do the bidding of their masters. There's a reason that people love to imagine themselves being kings and queens, ordering around the help - it makes life easier. Just as the revolution of appliances changed the way that people did their housework sixty years ago, so too is the revolution of smart homes changing the way that people live today, or at least it will be soon.

Technology is becoming smarter, more sophisticated and better able to handle the wide range of variables that come with decoding human speech. This is no small task - taking the idiosyncrasies of the ways that we talk and then translating those into patterns that a computer can make sense of. The improvements in processing, speed and complexity of the tech that goes into everything from phones to thermostats is what makes voice control actually functional.

Smart voice search is now able to:

- Understand more complex questions

- Ask follow-up questions for unclear search terms

- Decode more kinds of speech (e.g., dialects)

- Offer more personalized results as it learns the behavior of searches

- Identify different individuals based on their speech and respond to their individual needs

Even more important is big data - the massive stores of information that are now available for these services to mine for answers in. You can't search for something if you don't have a place to look and as the Web has progressed over the last 20 years it's become clear that there is the possibility for nearly everything to be found online. Keywords, tagging and more savvy search tech are key to refining voice search.

Look for voice search to rise quickly. What was once a novelty is set to become a highly integrated and truly useful in everyday life. Are you ready for the voice search revolution? 

Pete Peranzo is the CEO of Imaginovation, a full-service, turn-key digital solutions company serving Raleigh, NC and Charlotte, NC. He is a results driven individual with over 15 years in the IT and software industry. Pete's background in customer support is a driving factor in the company's long-term success and reputation. He has embedded customer service into the company's core culture, and feels that fast turnaround, great communication and high quality support are keys to long-term business relationships.

Follow him on Twitter @PetePeranzo.