Apple Gets Into Position for the Voice Search Revolution

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In this regular Street Fight feature, local marketing gurus David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal kick around some of the biggest ideas affecting the local search ecosystem and the broader industry. Send an email or leave a comment if you have specific topics that you’d like them to touch on in future columns!

David: Hey Mike, so far in 2017, we’ve focused primarily on Google and Amazon. I thought this week we might move on to the third of the four horsepeople: Apple.

Mike: They rarely get mentioned in the assistant race particularly in the home but I think they have as good a shot at is anyone at this point with the building blocks they are putting in place. They seem to be working on fundamentals prior to entering the home market.

Did you order AirPods? My brother ordered and received them and he said that both the sound and the microphone worked incredibly well.

David: I have not ordered AirPods — the $150 price tag is a bit steep for a guy in the middle of bootstrapping a new startup.

It’s interesting to me that Apple’s commercial blitz focuses entirely on AirPods’ sound quality and entertainment value, as opposed to the practical utility of an embedded microphone or convincing me they won’t fall right out of my ears.

Listening to music is a solution in search of a problem — there are plenty of other headphones where the sound quality will be just as good if not better.

So why are they positioning AirPods as just another set of headphones? If they believe, as you and I do, that the uptake of AirPods is critical to their foothold in the voice assistant wars, why aren’t they doing what Amazon’s doing with Echo and selling a billion of these things as a loss-leader to win the much more important long game?

Seems to me they’re missing a golden opportunity to hasten the execution of Google’s golden ad goose.

Mike: I am not sure that they need to be first. They need to be best. And they don’t want another Maps disaster of over-promising and under-delivering.

Apple isn’t ready to pitch them as part of an assistant solution YET because their cloud needs work; Siri is still being improved. I am wondering if Amazon is falling prey to overpromising with their 7000 apps, none of which can be found or are compelling?

David: Well, the issue of discovery is a long-term issue that has plagued mobile app stores as well.

Skills will get much more compelling in time, though. As I said in my newsletter last week, that most current Skills are being released to basically test the waters. I’m not sure enough developers have truly wrapped their heads around what’s possible, let alone had time to read the documentation and develop an actual Skill.

But back to Apple, obviously they’ll retain an advantage over Amazon in “on-the-go” searches, since our phones are always with us. (Even if Alexa continues to be baked into more and more non-Google Android devices, as we speculated last time, that won’t be enough to catch Apple.)

Unfortunately for Apple, people overwhelmingly conduct voice searches at home. Perhaps this is a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy, though, thanks to Alexa’s massive adoption lead.

Mike: Clearly Amazon is gunning for more on-the-go searches and Apple is likely gunning for more at-home ones. The question of who will get the total package quicker is what we need to be studying.

One factor in the race is that there will be mics everywhere and the one we choose to use will be the closest “always-on” one and AirPods certainly fit that bill. But Apple doesn’t care which microphone I use and I also have my iPhone, my Watch and my Apple TV if I don’t spring for AirPods. Although the allure of a decent wireless mic might entice me, despite its very high price. That would definitely confirm my Fanboy status.

David: Pretty sure you’re already on that club’s board of directors, but AirPods would elevate you to president :).

Mike: I will wear the award proudly!

One area where Apple has made strides in an area that I think is important to the assistant world is in search. They have gradually and steadily improved their local search, and in the stats I am looking at, have had a large business benefit.

They have done this with the single-answer SERP at the top of both Siri and Spotlight and have recently upped their game their with click-to-call. Clearly Apple is actively scraping websites and looking for things like schema notation.

David: And voice searchers love them some single-answers.

Mike: These single-answer results seem to me to be the essence of a voice search result.

They are ahead of Amazon in this regard but the question is: Are the results “good enough” for most uses?

David: Certainly for branded/recovery searches, Apple’s search engine is already “good enough.” Though I’m not sure their generic/discovery search game is up to snuff yet–a long-term disadvantage relative to Google, if not Amazon. And I think they know it: I get far fewer instant answers in Safari for generic queries.

Mike: Interestingly, though, keyword-based searches on my iPhone, both in my immediate surroundings AND in the towns I will be visiting, have dramatically improved.

By partnering with Yelp, TripAdvisor and Foursquare, using their Maps results and doing their own scraping they are giving pretty good results on local queries. Often including the same click-to-call or driving directions immediately. Talk about disintermediating Google. And I am seeing the results of Apple significantly impacting critical local KPIs in analytics.

David: I stand by my earlier statement that Apple is still not showing the kind of intelligence for generic queries (without local intent) that Google is with featured snippets.

But what your queries illustrate to me is that Local–which anyone reading this column is obviously focused on–is the canary in the search coalmine. They explain why you and I feel voice will be so disruptive to the SEO industry, but more general practitioners don’t see it the same way.  

You seem to feel that search quality won’t be the criterion on which consumers base their voice assistant choice, though, is that right?

Mike: General and local search are “nice to have,” but for me at least, the home assistant that will win is the one that helps me stay in touch with, plan and coordinate with the 8 or so people with whom I am most in touch: family, a few very close friends (of which you are one) and a few business associates.

I trust Apple with that information and they have made strides in helping me with share home- & business-oriented tasks like shared shopping lists, shared notes and alerts on my Watch. Clearly both Siri and Apple’s cloud services are steadily improving and that will position them well when they do release their home assistant.

Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either [email protected] or [email protected], or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider. He’s the former founder of, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike Blumenthal, he’s a co-founder of Local University. Mike Blumenthal is the co-founder and analyst at Near Media where he researches and reports on reputation, reviews and local search. Mike has been involved in local search and local marketing strategy for almost 20 years. He explores the online to offline local ecosystem and helps businesses understand it and benefit from it through writing, speaking and education.