A side trip into the world of digital voice assistants

The hype about digital voice assistants, such as Alexa, Siri, Google Home, etc. seems to take no end. New models are introduced on the treadmill, functionalities are compared in the blogs and countless conversations are illustrated in videos. What is changing, why we should deal with the voice assistants and how information providers respond to that trend – those are the topics of this blog.

Looking up, googling, commanding – access to information is changing

The memories of the first attempts to search an article in the (primary school) encyclopedia are beginning to fade – at least for most of us. The good old encyclopedia – a reference book, thick, all-knowing, and haptic. We have long since become used to obtaining information from the search engine Google. Google has been configured by many users as their home page in the browser to track information on the Internet. The hours-long thumbing through encyclopedias is over. Today, we type in whole questions in Google's search box and get the answers we need within seconds. The information processing in the so-called Google Knowledge Graph frequently makes navigation to other websites unnecessary.

The automatic speech recognition brings us to a different level. Alexa and Co. provide us with access to immense databases using natural speech. There's no need to type anything on a smartphone. We quench our thirst for knowledge or issue commands through artificial intelligence.

User: «Alexa, I need milk.»
Alexa: «I put milk on your shopping list.»

The dialogue with the digital voice assistants and their capabilities makes it clear that the way we get information is getting fundamentally different.

Why should we deal with Alexa and Co.

The boom about digital voice assistants is unstoppable. The market research institute Tractica predicts that the global sales in the area of speech recognition will total around USD 4.12 billion in five years.[1] A gold mine for technology giants, like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

Although Obtaining information from search engines, Remembering personal appointments and Getting weather forecasts are among the top three application areas for voice assistants [2] according to a survey by Norstat and Statista, virtual helpers should be taking on more and more of our everyday duties in the future.

We train the voice assistants with every conversation. For example, the number of available skills for Amazon Alexa has tripled in only six months and currently stands at 15,000 skills.[3]

Increased connectivity would allow language assistants to do shopping for us, book flights and hotels, or provide financial services. It's a matter of time before most conversions are triggered by our dialogue with a voice assistant rather than by typing on the smartphone. An early confrontation with Alexa and Co. is therefore worthwhile not only for private individuals but also for marketers.

We asked Matthias Schmid, Senior Consultant and SEO Specialist at Unic, how voice assistants are changing the way information is collected, and which optimization measures enable information providers to best respond to this trend.

Matthias, whether we're typing two or three keywords on Google or asking Alexa a question - the way we seek information is changing. What are the biggest differences between text and voice input?
Matthias Schmid:
A lot of people are still used to cut a search query into pieces, leaving a number of catchphrases, such as "current Swiss President". A voice search makes it possible to ask questions in an efficient way, such as “Who is the President of Switzerland?", and to receive direct answers. Thanks to the increasing intelligence of the voice assistants, certain information can be omitted. As a result, a simple question “When’s the next train to Bern?” will do if you search for train connection. The voice assistant can automatically use the current location as the departure point. He combines the search query with the existing implicit information and context information, such as the location.

What influence do these differences have on the search results?
Search engines now often provide direct answers to factual questions rather than lists of websites that may contain the right answer. The search engines are about user-friendliness, but also about keeping users in their own universe for as long as possible. Another important consequence is that these answers can be read by a voice assistant. This would sound unnatural with search result lists. The user can then enter into a dialogue with the voice assistant and clarify follow-up questions.

How can information providers use these insights for optimization?
Information providers who used to rely on their website to provide simple answers to facts, such as the names and term of office of the presidents, will receive fewer visits to their website in the future because the users will already receive the answers from the search engine. One possible useful way for information providers is to process complex information that a search engine cannot provide with a concise text response. For example, when it comes to questions such as which type of mortgage makes sense under specific circumstances. Here you can also work well with pictures and videos. Another way can be to give the information a personal touch. For example, a real estate portal could work with regional experts and give tips for finding a house in a specific region. It is also important to check many other options on a case-by-case basis, and account for the specific industry. The financial sector has different requirements regarding information than, for example, tourism.

Are companies today ready for these new technologies and this advanced way of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Getting the website and content ready for voice assistants means extra work in terms of the SEO basics. We observe that many companies are doing a good job of SEO basics today, and we recommend that you focus on the basics. Additional structured data are more and more frequently used according to schema.org; for example, to clearly identify price information or ratings of products for search engines. This makes it easier for search engines to find answers. There is a clear difference between countries when it comes to voice assistant apps. For example, Amazon is active in Germany and accordingly, there are many skills, from Deutsche Bahn skill through dictionaries to smart home services. In Switzerland, however, there are only a few services, so far mainly from news portals.

What activities does Unic recommend to be fit for the change caused by the voice assistants?
We recommend that our customers analyse the existing situation first. Does their own target group use the voice assistants in an active and regular way? Could our information lead to reasonable answers? If so, to which questions can we offer answers? During that step, we also check or develop the business model. Is Alexa used to give customers easier access to information, or is it about making money? At the same time, we try to find suitable applications and to create a prototype for a narrowly defined application as quickly as possible. As a rule, during that stage we primarily need to convince the stakeholders. And a new technology is best discovered by trying it out. If we succeed with all that, we are happy to help with the conception, details specification and implementation of the measures as well as their operation.

[1] Statista (2017): https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/621155/umfrage/prognose-zum-umsatz-im-bereich-spracherkennung-weltweit/
[2] Statista (2017): https://de.statista.com/infografik/8757/art-der-nutzung-von-digitalen-sprachassistenten/
[3] Statista (2017): https://de.statista.com/infografik/10134/verfuegbare-skills-fuer-amazons-digitale-assistentin-alexa/



Data visualisation – the tool for easy and quick knowledge acquisition

Our first article concerning digital analysis revealed the challenges faced by companies in today’s world of data. Companies often have enormous quantities of data at their disposal but fail to take advantage of them. This is because many entities focus on gathering and storing data, while the aim of digital analysis – which is to enable deriving data-supported recommendations and optimisations of actions – is frequently not pursued consistently. Data should support the decision-making process, and to this end there must be a possibility to analyse and interpret them comprehensively.