Where Home Phones Meet Voice-Assisted Search

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Smart home devices are set for a big year in 2017. Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft have made bets on the vision of a connected home. With more than 5 million Amazon Echos sold in less than two years, along with Google’s recent entry into the market with Google Home, it’s safe to say that smart home hubs are here to stay.  

As more homes use these devices, there are huge implications for tech companies, consumers, marketers, and those of us who still cling to our home phones. After all, the last device with a microphone and speaker that ruled the home was the lowly home phone. More on that in a moment.

The Almighty Device
We know well that our device preference for searching the web or shopping online has major consequences. 2016 will likely go down as the year when mobile’s dominance over desktop fundamentally and permanently shifted the way online information is organized and presented.

We see this in Google’s recent announcement to move to a mobile-first index. We also see it with the increasing adoption of design standards for touchscreen navigation. Indeed, we’re even witness to physical product design inspired by the minimalist  principles popularized on mobile devices. We’ve even seen it with the increase in phone calls to businesses, which has tracked higher alongside smartphone adoption overall. After all, the device many of us are searching on these days is a smart ‘phone.’ At CallRail, we’ve seen it every time we’ve analyzed call volumes to businesses that use our software to track and record phone calls.

If a change in our preferred device is responsible for such seismic shifts in how we organize information and design our world, then we know that device matters. When smart home hubs we see look like a new device category altogether, we can expect serious implications these tools will have on  how we interact with the world.

Out with the old, in with the new
Home landlines have seen a steady decline over the past 10 years to the point that only half of all American households still have a landline. It’s important to note that while landlines are on their way out, people are not giving up phone service in the home. It’s obvious that cell phones have simply taken the place of home phone service.

While not many of us mourn the loss of traditional home phone service, there is a convenience factor that has gone away. Gone are the days when you didn’t have to search for a lost phone itself to make a call. Gone are the days when you could call a household instead of being forced to choose between multiple people (Do I call Mom’s cell or Dad’s?).

None of these small conveniences are enough to bring back landline home phones, but they might hint at the lesser-considered potential of smart home hubs.

Your new (smart) home phone
Imagine a home phone, embedded with your contacts and local business information, that you could simply ask to make a phone call. Imagine that phone is sitting in the room with you and you don’t have to get up to make that phone call. Imagine being able to find a local plumber that is well-liked and has good reviews, and then being able to call that plumber you found. Imagine all of this happens through a conversation with a single device sitting right next to you.

You’ve just pictured a world when devices like Google Home and Amazon Echo can make phone calls with ease. This may not seem like a revolutionary way to use a smart home hub we can already do much of this on our mobile devices. However, the devices we use to interact with business information online and to make phone calls has pretty big implications for businesses  especially local businesses. Again, device matters.

What this means for local business marketers
Similar to the shift from desktop to mobile, local marketers need to consider how this next shift will impact their strategy. While much is yet to be sorted out, the smart home hub will inevitably offer a new device on which consumers will interact with local business information. Understanding how consumers find out a local business and how they decide to interact with that business will play important roles in local marketing strategies.

Being an early adopter in this space will likely produce results similar to what businesses gained when they first incorporated mobile responsive websites, directory strategies that focused on mobile, and click-to-call elements on ads and websites. Deciding to use marketing technology vendors that that innovate quickly around this changing landscape will also play a key role. After all, something akin to a tight AdWords click-to-call integration might make sense for this new, voice-centric world of smart home assistants.

A note about voice search
Most of us expect more searches to happen over voice, many of them on this new breed of smart home devices. Since the user interaction with a device like Google Home is vastly different from devices with screens, the way information is presented to the user will change substantially.

For example, a mobile device search for a local plumber will return five or more results on the screen for a user to choose from. A voice assistant search on Google Home for a local plumber might return two results by default, or possibly just one.  Wesley Young, the Local Search Association’s Vice President of Public Affairs has a great piece looking at the implications of voice search for businesses.

Google knows the experience using voice search is different, and is planning for a voice assisted future with new tools for developers. Just this month, the company launched its Voice Assistant API, which opens the door to a wide range of applications. Ars Technica played around a bit with the API when it launched.

A few limitations stand in the way
While these devices have the hardware to make phone calls (connectivity, microphone, speaker), none of them have built in native calling. Google Home coyly hints at the future capability when asked to make a phone call, saying it can’t perform that action “yet.” VoIP home phone companies like Ooma have noted the threat these smart home devices pose, and have been quick to build integrations like this ‘skill’ for Amazon’s Echo. But the promise of using an Echo as a home phone is still awkward: “Alexa, use Ooma to call XX”. Until these devices have native calling functionality onboard, I doubt we’re going to see them be all that they can be.

Another critical piece of the puzzle is reliable home Wi-Fi. Many people don’t know this, but Wi-Fi routers the majority of us use in our homes are woefully unprepared for Wi-Fi calling, not to mention the expanding IoT (Internet of Things). If we’re going to rely on a Wi-Fi connected device as our home phone, our home Wi-Fi is going to have to get much better. Luckily, companies like Ubiquiti Networks and Google are already working on solutions they hope will bring enterprise reliability to our home networks. Jim Salter did a worthy review of the new home wifi contenders at Ars Technica.

Despite these limitations, the market for these smart home devices is ripe with opportunity. Competition between existing players like Amazon and Google is set to heat up as Apple, Lenovo, and even LG plan to enter the fray with their versions.

Bottom line: 2016 brought many of these smart hub devices into our homes. However, 2017 will likely be the year they begin to bring back the home phone.

IMG_0256Mark Sullivan is director of partnerships for CallRail, a marketing analytics company used by more than 30,000 businesses in the U.S. and Canada. At CallRail he helps marketing agencies get the most out of call tracking data through advanced advertising analytics and software integrations. He frequently speaks at marketing technology conferences and writes for industry publications about trends in local search advertising. He can be reached via Twitter.