Amazon is reportedly rolling out an Answer Update feature for Alexa that alerts users when the assistant learns the answer to a question it did not previously know how to answer.
It demonstrates that Amazon is improving Alexa—and it is a nice add-on for millions of users—but it still doesn’t help solve an immediate need.
According to the initial report, Alexa asked a user if he would like to activate the feature, saying, “If you ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, but I find out later, I’ll notify you.”
It’s not clear how users will be notified, but TechCrunch reported that the feature is intended for factual queries, and users will be able to verbally request that Alexa turn it off.
Alexa has long lagged behind Google Assistant in particular in terms of overall knowledge.
In 2017, digital agency 360i conducted a study that found Google Home is six times more likely to answer a question than Alexa—which, when you think about it, isn’t terribly surprising, given Google’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
A May 2018 study of voice assistants from digital marketing agency Stone Temple also found Google Assistant answered the most questions and had “the highest percentage answered fully and correctly.” Cortana came in second. Alexa, however, had the biggest year-over-year jump, answering nearly three times as many questions as it did in 2017—up to 53 percent from 19.8 percent. But while Stone Temple found Alexa answers more questions than it did a year ago, it also found Alexa gets more answers wrong.
And while Amazon might have a theoretical advantage in commerce, research shows consumers aren’t using smart speakers to shop, at least not yet.
In a February 2018 study, professional services network PwC surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults and found they are far more likely to search, ask a quick question, check the weather or news, play music or set a timer. In addition, 50 percent said they never use their voice to buy or order anything.
Meanwhile, Amazon is losing market share.
According to market analysis firm Canalys, 9 million smart speakers shipped in the first quarter of 2018, which represented year-over-year growth of 210 percent. But, Canalys found Google surpassed Amazon for the first time, shipping 3.2 million of those devices to Amazon’s 2.5 million. What’s more, U.S. market share dipped below 50 percent for the first time as both Google and Amazon expand internationally and markets like China and South Korea grow.
A study from analytics firm Strategy Analytics had similar findings.
So while it certainly makes sense to improve Alexa, in today’s on-demand economy in which users expect their needs to be met instantaneously, this I’ll-tell-you-later feature seems kind of … slow.
Forrester analyst Collin Colburn said it’s a good way for Amazon to improve Alexa’s ability to learn questions people might be asking and to expand its knowledge graph, but he said it feels like a short-term fix on the consumer side.
“Basically a way to say, ‘We’re working on it,’” he said.
Pete Meyers, a marketing scientist at marketing company Moz, agreed that it’s interesting, but said it feels like just another notification of a new feature.
“Any time I’ve asked Alexa [or Google Home] a question, I’m looking for an answer ASAP, maybe even more so than with regular searches,” Meyers said. “If Alexa popped up a week later and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got the answer to that question now,’ I guess I might stop and think, ‘Oh, wow, it’s learning more.’ But I’m not sure the answer would be helpful at that point.”
And, depending how Amazon notifies users, Meyers said, this could get annoying and intrusive quickly.
Duane Forrester, vice president of industry insights at digital platform Yext, however, was more optimistic, calling Answer Update a compelling feature “because it shows us in real time how Alexa is expanding its knowledge graph,” which, he noted, will ultimately benefit consumers.