How Voice and Visual Search are Changing Product Discovery
Written By: Richard Sexton, Chief Product Officer, MicroD
Rarely do we notice the significance of technology changes when we are in the midst of them, and yet, just a few years later, we can point to watershed moments and say, “A ha! This changed everything!”. The internet as we know it, certainly the most momentous technological change of our lifetimes, is only about 37 years old! The iPad, which was actually scoffed at in its unveiling just 7 years ago. Think about how these innovations have changed your life as a retailer, and our lives as a whole. Now imagine someone could conclusively tell you that we are well into another cycle of innovation, applicable to retail as anywhere else. You’d want to know more, and participate, right?
The paradigm-shifting technology advancement is the ability to use non-written input to gather information and make decisions. Both voice and visual search have become the second and third legs of online discovery, and yet, most retailers are letting this opportunity pass by. How did we get to this point in search? Which technologies have enabled these exciting new ways of interacting with our sources of information? And how do we actively have establish our presence in this new environment?
To start, certainly the largest influence contributing to the rise of voice and visual search is the explosion of mobile internet usage. The overwhelming adoption of smartphones and tablets makes voice search easy with an embedded microphone, apps, and responsive mobile website designs. Take a look at Google search on your iPhone, for example. Even with two competing technologies, you can activate a voice search by saying “Okay Google”, tapping the microphone button on the search bar, or tapping the microphone icon on your keyboard. Any of these events will trigger a voice search using Google Now (Google’s voice assistant platform, but more on that later). In even the most basic interfaces, voice search is encouraged through the prominent placement of the microphone icon. Why is this so important? We found this quote that sums it up, from @stekenwright:
“Use voice search and you don’t get 10 answers back, you get one answer”
Here’s a startling fact. Over 50% of all searches are projected to be triggered through voice-activation in the next three years, according to comScore. Already, well over half of all search queries originate on a mobile device, with a growing proportion initiated as a voice search. Are you responding to these searches?
The other obvious reason for the dramatic increase in voice search is the emergence of voice assistants such as Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa. Voice assistants operate through hardware systems (Siri uses Apple HomePod, Google Assistant has Google Home, and Alexa operates through the Amazon Echo device). These hardware systems are connected via a wifi and linked to your personal accounts, allowing for customization of responses, relevant information, and easy shopping. Amazon blazed with way with the Echo system in 2014 and now accounts for over 70% of the voice-assistant device market, while Google Home was only introduced in 2016 (yet still has almost 30% of the market). Apple is behind the curve but their HomePod will certainly set the bar on the high end. The prominence of these devices in-home has resulted in them being labelled as the “third screen”, and over 40% of all households should have them by 2018. As the technology becomes cheaper, adoption increases exponentially (one version of the Echo device was available for less than $40 on Amazon Prime Day in June 2017)
A third reason is that the product discovery process has evolved to multiple platforms. Fifty-five percent of people in the U.S. now start their online shopping trips on Amazon.com, according BloomReach. That statistic marks a 25% increase from the same survey last year. As Amazon makes the Echo/Alexa experience more accessible through a focused content and pricing strategy, more searches will originate through non-verbal channels such as Google and Bing search consoles.
The Growth of Visual Search
The second technology leap that retailers must accommodate is the surge in visual search, which allows users to discover products using the cameras in their mobile devices or by browsing their favorite social or lifestyle sites Finding the product they want is as easy as snapping a photo and pushing it through to the app or uploading an image to the platform. Visual matching is providing far more accuracy in search discovery than written or even spoken word…a picture literally can tell a thousand words in this case!
According to PowerReviews, almost 40% of all shoppers use some form of visual search in their product discovery process. Yet so few retailers are prepared for this demand, even though the technology is readily available through e-commerce platforms such as MicroD. With the Visual Search interface in place, users can engage with complex algorithms with a blink of the eye. These elaborate software algorithms drive visual search by identifying shapes and forms in the original image, with some applications even matching colors and patterns.
Augmented Reality (AR) and 3D visualization are taking this experience even further by showing items from multiple perspectives and in the context of a user-designated setting. Although this technically is not “visual search”, the increasing use of AR and 3D as a visual selling tool are indicative of the multiple paths of product discovery.
Voice and visual advancements are revolutionizing the way users engage with digital channels…and product discovery is real-life example of this change. To be successful, retailers must be aware of how these new technologies require changes in their cross-channel content, such as product information, availability, store directions, and reviews. Specifically, the retailer needs to respond to voice search by building content that emphasizes natural language processing…think of the many ways customers interact with your business and build a content strategy around the language of those interactions. Your responses to their questions could determine how other users will be directed towards your site in voice search.
Another tactic is to leverage User Generated Content (UGC) on your site. This is your business’ proprietary content and it reflects how customers interact with you digitally, from Facebook posts to business reviews to product Questions and Answers. All this content can be repurposed on your site to match voice-activated queries.
You also need to research the questions that are most relevant to your business and make sure you have answered them in such a way that your responses stand a chance of being displayed as a Featured Snippet. Don’t worry about this now, since we’ll have a blog post in another 3 weeks on dominating organic search results with Featured Snippets and Local Listings. For now, think of how potential customers may be using voice search to find information about the products your business sells, and how you might best answer those information searches in a way that provides the best experience possible (as far as the user is concerned).
A visual search strategy is easier to execute, since it depends on having the technology available onsite. As an early adopter of visual search, your business will be at the forefront of product discovery, increasing engagement with your offerings and driving conversions onsite and in-store.
Building a content strategy for both text and images that accommodates the use of voice and visual search will assure the home furnishings merchant stays visible even as these product discovery channels are dynamically changing.