Publishers, meet Alexa: voice search is this year's disruptive force

Publishers, meet Alexa: voice search is this year's disruptive force

Voice search technology has lurked just beyond the mainstream for several years, but the explosive interest in Amazon's Alexa and Google Home over the holiday season - voice-activated, internet-connected virtual assistants, which are at the vanguard of the 'internet of things' -  reintroduced voice search to popular conversation.

Amazon, for instance, sold over 400% more Alexa units this year than it did in 2015, according to data from VoiceLabs. And while Google hasn’t been as quick to release sales figures, VoiceLabs claims Google Home unit sales quadrupled from December 24-26 alone. What's more, John Koetsier wrote that third-party developer growth has increased over 1500% in the last year for Alexa and Google Home combined.

In short, Amazon and Google are engaged in a full-fledged voice search arms race. Modern publishers have no choice but to bite the SEO bullet - voice search technology, publishing, and search engine optimization share common ground. But how?

Google has been working towards an increasingly personal search experience since the engine’s inception, and with the success of Alexa and Google Home, the unification of user and technology (in other words, you and your machine) may be complete. The phrase, “what are the best apparel boutiques in London?” may now return more relevant results than “apparel boutiques London.” That’s a departure from the robotic phrases users are conditioned to plunk out on the keyboard.

Google’s “Rank Brain” algorithm can even provide structured snippets or altered headlines to match a semantic search phrase. In short, search engines are angling towards conversational search. And as Googlers use voice search more, so will they expect to receive aural answers. The consumer appetite for voice search is growing, and publishers will have to meet the market where it exists.

Podcasts might be the place to start.

Edison Research showed 23% growth in podcast listening between 2015-2016. How about growth since 2013? A whopping 75%. All told, 57 million Americans listen to podcasts. Most of that listening occurs on mobile devices (often via voice search), and with the popularization of at-home voice search interfaces like Alexa, users may eventually listen to podcasts at home as often as they do on a daily commute.

Podcasts have established themselves as genuine literary mediums. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Sarah Koenig’s Serial have turned into smash hits, and they have done so through masterful writing and storytelling. Not to mention the Guardian’s  Short Story Podcast, which just might be a window into the near future of publishing.

Recent reports indicate that Alexa and Google Home users haven’t warmed up to using extension features yet - they still prefer the basic functions. That shouldn’t deter publishers from starting to develop apps to complement Alexa and Google Home as consumer appetite grows. An entire ecosystem will build up around Alexa disconcertingly soon.

Imagine sitting on the couch in your living room; you fancy a chapter of Oliver Twist or Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Then a terrifying truth dawns upon you: the bookshelf is too far away. And you are comfortably wedged between two cushions. Does this mean no book for you? Will the daunting cushions deter you from Dickens? Never.

All you have to do is kindly ask Alexa to read to you, preferably through your favorite publisher’s third-party app. Extensions to Alexa’s basic capabilities will gain traction over time as customers grow accustomed to their new friends from Amazon. Publishers will simply need to bring new literature to readers (or listeners) with Alexa’s capabilities in mind.

This isn't an either/or situation. Literary podcasts and Alexa-inspired third-party apps from publishers won’t hurt printed book sales, at least according to current trends. Bookstore sales increased more than 6% in 2016, and those who enjoy paper and binding will continue to do so.

The mediums are complementary. Publishers can reach a higher volume of potential readers through podcasts and third-party apps; once reached, those readers are more likely to buy print editions of a books or story collections. And in regards to revenue, publishers’ income will remain commensurate with the quality of their podcasts, apps, audio services, and other ventures. In the digital economy, volume of users often dictates profit - and volume comes through quality and user-friendliness. Again, a high volume of digital users will, in fact, lead to more physical book sales.

One thing always leads to another; as consumers buy more Alexa units, as voice search capabilities improve on smartphones, and as Google’s algorithm evolves, publishers can meet literature fans in an entirely new ecosystem. 

Are you ready?