Just How Big a Deal Are Voice Search and Chatbots for Local?

Share this:

Voice control vector illustration. Smart computer

Two weeks ago at Street Fight Summit, we raised a little controversy around the degree of hype versus disruptiveness of voice search to the hyperlocal economy. Street Fight believes voice search is a critical emerging technology, a view that seemingly contrasts with that of many companies on the supply side of hyperlocal. Meanwhile, we’re both less than bullish on a related user interface technology, chatbots.

Street Fight regularly checks in on what’s on the minds of companies selling technology and services into the hyperlocal media and commerce marketplace via executive survey. We posted an online survey during September and October of 2016. Eighty-two executives from tech companies, publishers, and digital agencies, most of whom said they were VP or C-level, completed the survey. Readers can use our analysis to get a directional view of the technologies vendors are prioritizing, and what they think are near-term challenges and opportunities in the market. We presented our initial interpretation of the results at Street Fight Summit, and we’re just about ready to publish our State of Hyperlocal report.

Besides asking about what’s hot in new tech as indicated by company investment priorities, we also like to see if the Street Fight community thinks particular technologies might be over-hyped. This year, respondents rated voice search and beacons as current topics that wouldn’t be dominating conversation in a year.


There are two ways to interpret these results: either the technology is highly overrated, or that its significance won’t emerge for another year or so. Last year, Facebook stores and buy buttons topped the list, and indeed, they never caught on. Street Fight agrees that the payoff from beacons in the near-term is more obvious in foot traffic tracking, internal inventory management, and, perhaps, store sales staffing than in “Minority Report” -style personalized push advertising.

But we think voice search is underestimated.

Google recently said that 20% of mobile queries were voice searches. Voice search and personal assistant adoption appear to be increasing rapidly after a sluggish start. Too many companies may be remembering the initial disappointment of Apple’s Siri and near total disregard of Microsoft’s Cortana. But Amazon and, now, Google have reintroduced the concept of voice as a viable UI. Reviews of Amazon’s home-based Echo and Google Home are mixed, but definitely better than the early Siri reaction.

We’ve written often about how mobile is re-configuring search. Google still dominates mobile search, even as shoppers use a wider array of sites and apps as sources of information, location, and product availability. Even if it’s not mobile yet, Amazon may play a big role in on-demand ordering. And Amazon could implement voice into its omnipresent mobile app that’s already the premier showrooming threat for on-the-go shopping.

Local marketers must do their homework now. As voice search and personal assistants catch on, their impact will ripple through paid search, SEO, listings management, and overall site design:

  • Merkle may think the impact of voice search on retail is a ways off, but it notes that search marketers will have to pay close attention to keyword evolution and query and response design.
  • Voice search will be more “natural” than shorthand typing, so search marketers will have to adjust for natural language input.
  • Virtual assistants favor snippets and schema mark-up. Agencies and content management systems will need to be fine-tuned.
  • Google is already working on adding clickable responses to voice queries and responses.

How ‘bout those ‘bots?
At the Street Fight Summit, Kik’s Director of Partner Success, Sergio Silva, echoed Microsoft with the “bots are the new apps” meme. Chatbots look like an easy extension of the mobile messaging user experience. However:

  • Messaging apps as platforms haven’t really caught on in the U.S. or Europe. Asian players such as WeChat, QQ, and Line have had some success in adding games, ride-hailing, and some shopping functions. Facebook — which has flopped several times in search and commerce – is trying to do the same. But even in Asia, most messaging revenue comes from gaming rather than commerce.
  • Remember when you couldn’t email between different systems? Neither do I. Cross-platform interoperability has generally been the rule for successful two-way communications, whether telephones, texting, email, or, for that matter snail mail and faxes. Instant messaging remains the most notable exception. Facebook’s Messenger and What’s App each claim 1 billion users, but can’t cross-communicate, and many of Apple’s iMessage features remain restricted to iPhone users (another 1 billion “active devices”). Those are big audiences, but they’re walled off from each other and, for the moment, require different bot technologies. Early bot translator technologies are focused on enterprise rather than consumer applications.

Chatbots might end up having a bigger impact within mapping apps or Uber, rather than messaging.

David Card is Street Fight’s director of research.