What’s Google’s End-game for Voice Search

I touched lightly on this last week, but I’ve had some more thoughts over the weekend about the future of voice. I have to tell you – I remain sceptical of the technology (I’ve seen too many false dawns by this point to get hot under the collar about another sun peeking over another new horizon) – but if you squint, you can see the outlines of Google’s imagined future.

The paradigm of the last 20 years has been the search box and the SERPs. You want to buy a cheap flight to Alicante? Hop onto Google, search “cheap flights to Alicante” and take it from there. Sounds simple, yes?

But no. It isn’t. Because there’s actually a long decision making process. Which airport will you fly from? What time of day do you want to fly? Do you want reserved seating? Are you taking the kids? What’s the luggage allowance like?

That simple starting point spreads like a fractal into a thousand subsidiary questions that, eventually, lead to you clicking a ‘book now’ button.

Currently, the job of the internet marketer is to be everywhere in that journey. You want to be in the paid results if you can afford to be. You want to build vast ramparts of supporting content, enlivened with memorable marketing fizz. You want an optimised UX experience, and the biggest, brightest banners you can host. All of that is in your control and lets you take part in the journey and – hopefully – profit from it.

But now, let’s picture what I imagine Google’s ideal scenario is: you simply talking to Google Home.

Google? I’d like to go to Alicante.
OK. Which airport would you like to fly from?
Whichever’s cheapest.
OK. The cheapest flights to Alicante are from London Gatwick
That’s too far to travel. How much expensive to fly from East Midlands?
What date are you travelling? I see in your calendar 13th of August.
Yes. That’s right.
OK. The cheapest flight from East Midlands is with FlyBe and costs £320 per person. Flights from Gatwick start at £260.
What are the flight times from East Midlands?
There are three flights. 10am, 12:45pm and 4:40pm
How long is the flight?
The flight takes approximately 3 hours….

This is actually a verbal schematic of what your search journey looks like now. Only at the moment you have to type in a lot of stuff, and visit several websites to get this sort of info. And you’ll do it in all kinds of random order depending on the context of your last search.

Plugged into a voice interface like the one I imagine Google is shooting for and you get a very different experience.

You also miss one very big part of the journey: websites.

Facts are facts, and data is data. Any question that can be reduced to data is ripe for voice – which is going to make the marketer’s job that much more difficult, and possibly even hammers another nail in the coffin of the humble website.

Imagine the future I’ve just sketched out comes to pass, and that you sell flights. Where do you sit in that journey now? If Gatwick is too far for this particular lady to travel to catch a flight, then arguably you’ve saved £umpteen on an AdWords click for “cheap flights alicante” (or corresponding SEO investment over several years). But you’ve also got zero influence in the journey now, because already this lady is buying a flight from an airport from which you don’t fly.

I guess this is actually the ultimate in market efficiency – a truly transparent customer journey, unimpeded by commercial blandishments, remarketing tags and 34 different UX experiences.

So if – and to mind it is still a huge ‘if’ – Google’s slow-burn home invasion takes off in this direction? We might all be reduced to publishing data in Google friendly formats for our living, and letting the sentient, cloud-based deity they are building do whatever seems best to it, and Multivac will have been born.

Addendum: clearly I’m not the only person thinking this, and it transpires that exactly this train of thought was not only touched on by your man Dan Callis, but he did it with pictures and that. I recommend reading it for a better level of insight – and some actual tests!


ODI Cricket Scores Presage a Sci-Fi Dystopia

I bobbled into the office today and was reminded (by my Belgian colleague, for shame!) that England are currently playing Australia in the second O.D.I. She was only telling me because we’re doing badly (145/5 at last count) and wanted the chance to chortle at yet more national humiliation – which is all we deserve, frankly.

Anyway, I Googled for the score is our modern wont… and now Google is hosting not just the cricket scores, but the commentary. Here are some screenshots, and here is a link if you want to actually view it (i.e. if you’re Australian).


I’ve done a bit of searching around and can’t find the source of the commentary (Google have deigned not to credit anyone) which means that either Google are scraping something without credit, or have employed a cricket commentator – which would be the most amazing thing and part of me secretly wishes that’s true.

So. Another day, another market Google is making a play in. I don’t fancy that Test Match Special need to fear it in particular any time soon, but I think it’s yet another waypoint towards Google’s inexorable march to becoming a sneaky host for other people’s content (see: rest of this blog, passim).

Why do I chuck Google Home into this equation though? Well while I am sceptical about voice search as a thing, I know enough people with voice devices installed at home (I will be cold in the grave before I have one in my house) to get a sense of how it is being used.

“OK Google – what’s the England cricket score?” is exactly the type of thing I can imagine someone saying to their baleful little robot snitch. And of course, Google has the answer: (“England are doing terribly”). But now, with voice to speech they can make ancillary offer:

“England are 145 for 5. Would you like to hear the commentary?”
“OK. Buttler plays it off his pads for no run.” etc etc

This is, for me, what Google’s end game looks like. The “send some traffic to a selection of billions of websites” was always so much flannel – and this proves it. Google doesn’t give a single shiny shit about your website, or how good your markup is: they want to serve people information that is correct and timely. End of.

All those people shilling you how to optimise for voice search in the hope of maybe getting some branding out of it are kidding themselves, and they are kidding you. Google has no interest in you, your brand or your content – other than as a thing to monetise.

Asimov got this nailed down in 1956 in ‘The Last Question‘: a world where we talk to an invisible omniscient entity that surrounds us and accesses all human knowledge in real time to augment – and eventually supplant – human intelligence.

Anyway, we are slipping into a sci-fi dystopia. Enjoy.

Post credits scene:

England actually win the match, God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.