Voice Search Could Become Mainstream Within the Next 5 Years

Or so Bing's 'search evangelist' would have you believe

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Even though people are pretty accustomed by now to talking into their smartphones, smart watches and other devices like Amazon Echos, voice search is still somewhat of a novelty. However, the role it plays in the overall ecosystem of search does seem to be growing. 

According to Christi Olson, the search evangelist for Microsoft Bing Ads, voice queries now make up 25 percent of Bing mobile searches and 5 percent of total searches on any given month. And while that number might still seem small, she said voice search could become much more mainstream within the next five years.

Olson, speaking on Thursday at Advertising Week, said brands should start thinking about how their online presence matches with natural language rather than just written words. Companies should begin optimizing their websites so that when voice search reaches critical mass, brands aren't forced to play catch-up, she said. She said she expects the adoption curve for voice could be as soon as five years.

"When you look at paid search and organic search, businesses tend to lag behind with these new technologies," Olson said. "And so when you look at when the search engines come up with something new, we can give guidelines and guidance to think about how to adjust your content."

That might sound like an aggressive time line. However, personal assistants like Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa, which both use Bing search, are gaining popularity. Hardware specifically centered around voice assistants, such as the voice-operated Amazon Echo powered by Alexa, are also becoming increasingly ubiquitous in homes around the world. In fact, this summer, Amazon said it's sold more than 3 million Echo devices since they launched in late 2014. 

And then of course there's Google, which according to comScore still controls around two-thirds of the search market. Earlier this year, the search-engine giant debuted Home, Google's own voice-operated hardware, during its developer conference. At the time, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said it's like "having a voice-activated remote control" for both entertainment and tasks.

Geoffrey Colon, product marketing manager for Bing Ads said that while older people might be comfortable just typing into their smartphone, new technology often is aimed at younger users. (He mentioned Snapchat as one example.)

Colon cited a quote from the writer and futurist Alvin Toffler: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."

"I never was comfortable speaking into my phone," Colon said. "But my girls? That's all they know how to do, because they don't know how to type yet—they're 4 and 6—but they can talk. So I think many of these things the adoption will actually take off because of the next generation."

Microsoft doesn't yet have a time line for monetizing voice search, but Colon said advertising products could be introduced at some point. He referenced the early days of online search, when everything began as organic before paid search was introduced. However, voice search could happen faster than that, perhaps in a few years rather than a decade. 

"I think when you look at how experiences work, we always try to figure out how to get technology to work in a way that's relevant," Colon said. "So I think right now we're in an area of: Let's see how voice search actually works, and get it to work at a good sort of rate before we move into how do we monetize it."

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.