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Have you ever spoken to a friend or your spouse about a purchase you were thinking about making, only to see if show up as an ad on your Facebook page? It happens all the time, and it can make it feel as though the entire world is spying on you – and the bad news is, that might just be true. As voice search becomes a more important element in our digital ecosystem, there are microphones everywhere. What many people don’t realize, though, is that those microphones are always listening, even when they’re supposed to be turned off. And not only are they listening, but marketers may be using this information to their advantage.

Voice Search: The Microphone Is Always On

As a tech-driven, on-the-go society, we find voice search appealing because we don’t even have to pause to type in our search terms. In addition to using such search capabilities while driving, reports indicate that people also use voice search while cooking and watching TV. Heard a reference to something you didn’t understand or need to convert a measurement in a recipe? Just ask the voice assistant. But in order for voice assistants to hear your initial request – the call to Alexa or Siri that supposedly “turns on” the device – the microphone has to already be on and tuned in to what’s being said.

Despite the relative novelty of smart speakers and similar devices, background microphone function has already been at the heart of several scandals. These devices have recorded conversations and even sent them to individuals’ in the user’s address book. There are also significant concerns about what it means for devices to passively record children’s speech, as companies typically aren’t allowed to collect any information from children under age 13.

Other Listening Mechanisms

Is the idea that the microphone is always on also true for those who don’t own specialty voice search devices such as smart speakers and who have turned off voice search on their phones? Yes, those users too are caught up in the web of microphones. Even if you’re not an active voice search user, a number of apps have hidden microphone access settings that users never even think about. Safari’s iPhone browser settings for microphone and camera access, for example, aren’t in the same place as other access permissions, which means users need to locate them and separately toggle off access. 

With so many apps using different voice permissions and protocols, the best thing users can do is assume that their conversations are being overheard – and that those targeted advertisements aren’t a coincidence. The fact is, voice search is poised to become the primary way people use Google and businesses are actively adjusting their marketing strategies to account for this change. One option is to find an SEO agency offering unlimited keyword campaigns. Another option includes investing heavily in natural language research to ensure that both keyword campaigns and broader content development are primed for voice search. The medium is also likely to take over the ecommerce world in the next few years as smart speaker technology becomes a standard part of the home environment.

Advertisements Meet Accuracy

The microphones are tuned in and they aren’t going anywhere in the near future, raising the question: what’s a savvy consumer to do? For one thing, avoid making phone calls to businesses using voice search. Because voice search is relatively new and virtual assistants are still attempting to master the art of evaluation, scammers are purchasing ads that displace legitimate businesses. When you ask your voice assistant to call the company, it ends up dialling the number in the fraudulent ad, and your information lands in the hands of various bad actors. The process is still new enough that the ads don’t even have to be very good; they simply need to be optimized for voice.

There’s not much that legitimate businesses can do about bad actors, but what companies can do to give their site an advantage in this changing ecosystem is invest in communications-driven web design. It’s important that companies emphasize the importance of voice to their strategy when consulting with a web design agency. Not all businesses are ready for the pivot to voice, and not all SEO agencies can handle the nuances of this new search form. 

Despite concerns about living in a world where the microphone is always on, not all background listening has malicious intent. In fact, a lot of companies use background listening as a way to improve the accuracy of their voice recognition technologies and to enhance the databases used for natural language processing and machine learning. These improvements are critical to the Zero UI future that many developers imagine, as well as for improving the performance of existing voice-driven AI. Healthcare technology experts predict that speech recognition will be a standard part of medical tech within the next few years. For an industry with such highly specialized vocabulary, speech recognition will have to improve significantly.

A Transitional Moment

Right now, neither our technology nor our marketing infrastructure is ready for a voice-first approach, but that moment isn’t far in the future. Until then, though, search will remain in a transitional moment, in which voice primarily augments touch – or typed – search. The ability to visually evaluate search results, for example, is still critical to weeding out scams and low-quality results, and the majority of websites lack aren’t yet equipped for voice optimization. Voice already has a hold on users seeking convenience, but even though it’s listening in, it leaves much to be desired in regards to accuracy, and it will take some time for the technology to catch up.