As Local Search Enters the Voice Era, Three Content Channels Dominate

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The drumbeat continues. In language reminiscent of the press that foretold the Great Mobile Revolution just a few years ago, we are now hearing that 50% of all searches will be voice-based by 2020. That’s a lot of growth yet over the next two years, but the sentiment is probably more important than the specifics of the prediction. Voice is the new interface, and whether or not it ever eclipses desktop and mobile in share of search audience, we can at least say with confidence that it’s taking a permanent seat at the table.

As usual, it’s wise to keep an eye on the future while applying some healthy skepticism to the hype. Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft have collectively done an excellent job of proving that the market for voice-based devices exists, but the monetization of voice search is lagging far behind overall usage. In fact, a report just out from The Information claims that although Amazon has sold 50 million Alexa devices, only 2% of Alexa users have used their device to make a purchase on Amazon this year—and of those, 90% purchased just once and never tried again. Clearly, Amazon hasn’t made transacting business on its own retail channel compelling enough in a voice context.

What, then, do people use their voice-based devices for? Turns out the report in The Information conforms pretty well to my own usage habits. We check the weather. We set timers. We listen to the radio. Some of us have set up smart home systems, using voice commands to turn on lights or adjust the thermostat. These are not insignificant usage trends, but they don’t speak to much of a recurring revenue model for voice, at least not yet.

However, the situation is not unlike the early days of mobile, when the App Store exploded with thousands of free apps that had no chance of making any money. (Anyone remember the blowing-out-the-candle app? I loved that one.) Only over time did developers learn how to get rich by leveraging what was special about mobile—to make games profitable, for instance, via advertising and in-app purchases. The trick is to create engagement and ubiquity, then monetize the eyeballs—or in this case, the eardrums.

There are some indications in voice search of other paths to commerce. Certainly, the local business channel is one that seems well-suited to voice, given the many potential use cases, like asking for suggestions of nearby restaurants when family and friends want to go out—or even better, helping the driver of a voice-enabled car find local amenities in an unfamiliar city. Indeed, at least one survey from BrightLocal found that 53% of smart speaker owners use voice search on a daily basis to find information on local businesses. I find that statistic implausibly high and would like to see further studies bear it out, but it could be a leading indicator that voice search for local is on its way.

For now, local businesses concerned about being found in voice search have three main data sources to worry about. For Google Home, what’s needed is a robust GMB listing with detailed information designed to capture long-tail search traffic (i.e., very specific queries like “are there any pet friendly hotels near me with free WiFi?”). For Siri, businesses should make sure their Apple Maps listings are claimed and up to date. Of course, Apple Maps also relies heavily on Yelp reviews, and Yelp listings happen to be the main source of local content on Amazon devices as well. So you’re well covered today on the three top voice platforms if you have strong listings on Google, Apple, and Yelp. If you want to do even more, make sure your Bing listings are up to date for Cortana (note that Yelp reviews show up here as well), and submit your listing info to Here and Foursquare in order to be found in Samsung’s Bixby interface.

A note on the widespread use of Yelp on voice platforms. With strong representation on Alexa devices, Siri, and Cortana, Yelp has found itself in a dominant position in voice search. This makes sense when you consider that voice interfaces are predicated on the notion of recommendations and quick answers rather than screens with endless links. In these early days of voice, Yelp content offers a big boost to voice platforms as they try to showcase the local results most consumers would recommend.

But local voice search will never blossom if voice platforms don’t do more to help users complete transactions with local businesses. Alexa is a good example. When I ask my Echo device to recommend nearby Mexican restaurants, optometrists, or furniture stores, it does a reasonably good job of interpreting my query correctly and delivering to the Alexa app a list of results that match what I’d find if I searched Yelp or another directory. But there are no follow-up questions: “Would you like to call to book an appointment?” “Do you want to order a meal through DoorDash?” In fact, the only way I can really take the next step is to open the Alexa app and tap links in listings. When it comes to transacting business, Alexa has no advantages over mobile search and even has the disadvantage of forcing me to use two interfaces to get what I want.

I’m sure this will change as voice platforms mature, especially so if the growth of voice does end up mirroring the growth of mobile, which is a story of ever-increasing micro-monetization. In the meantime, local businesses stand to gain market share on all digital platforms by following the best practices I’ve outlined for voice. There’s nothing to lose, and plenty of advantage to be gained, if you prepare now for the great voice revolution that may be on the horizon.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.