American Marketer


How Siri’s voice-activated mobile search may affect overall search

February 15, 2012


By Matt Grebow

In Apple’s iPhone television commercials, a cadre of urban- and suburbanites summon Siri, the beloved iPhone voice assistant, for help with any number of urban and suburban concerns. They are in the car, getting dressed, walking down the street, “We have a flat tire,” “How do I tie a bow tie?” And, most comforting and discomforting of all: “What’s my day look like?”

Siri responds to this last question, somewhat disappointingly, with a list of scheduled meetings.

Technology consumers have fallen for Siri and her assured disembodied voice, and it is difficult to blame them.

Other smartphones, as well as mobile browsers, have offered voice-search features—and some of these are quite good—but mobile search, as a whole, has always felt like a bastardization of desktop search.

Serious talk

The mobile Internet pre-Siri was a tangle of fingers and mistyped letters and miniature type.

In other words, the problem with the mobile Internet has been a problem of real estate.

Not only does voice-activated search unencumber users from crowded screens, but it disintermediates information from the process of retrieving information, thus providing search results that are both more relevant and useful.

As for usefulness, do not underemphasize this attribute.

For most of their history, smartphones have been ancillary devices: they were good for phone calls and text messages, but could not compete with desktops or laptops for more-complex tasks.

If somebody needed information quickly, he or she would Google it. However do not be surprised if people start to Siri it instead.

The shift of voice search from curiosity to necessity will rest, in large part, on the form itself.

What we think of as a search-results page is, at heart, an index of links. In the past, these lists have been adequate for casual Internet searchers.

But the smartphone user presents an additional challenge for search engines: context.

Phone chatter

Depending on whose statistics you trust, searches with local intent make up between 20 percent and 50 percent of all mobile search-engine queries.

While links to Web sites may very well be helpful to these users, it is also likely that text-based recommendations are not always the most efficient conveyors of mobile information.

In this sense, voice search functions as a type of curated search, providing information in the format most pertinent to that information.

Ask Siri how the stock market is doing, and she will return the current numbers for the major indices.

Ask her if there is traffic in Hollywood, and she will dutifully show you a map of the city overlaid with traffic information. (Siri is not perfect: When she is stumped, she will turn to Google search for advice.)

And what if you are wondering what a blue jay sounds like? There is no reason why Siri, or any of its soon-to-be competitors, could not play back an audio clip and abandon the screen altogether.

As giddy as we feel having voice-recognition software that appears to actually understand us, Siri’s greatest legacy may be as the first widely embraced integration of Internet and mobile technologies.

Smartphones today are desktop computers without the desk, or more precisely, they are computers with an endless number of desks. Users provide not just explicit directions to their devices, but also implied ones—where they are located, what their preferences are.

Presumably as mobile technology evolves, our phones will likely pick up other sensory clues.

For this reason our smartphones, and not our search engines, may be best equipped to help us navigate a world laden with data.

AdWords or add voice?

Google and Microsoft are not taking the success of Siri for granted.

There is a subtext of their battle for mobile operating-system dominance: To truly understand how mobile users seek out information, which a search engine must know in order to provide the most interesting advertising, one must first understand how they interact with their devices.

What better way to understand smartphone-user behavior than to power both the device and the database of information?

Where will voice-activated search lead? Gesture-based search? Behavior-based search? Perhaps even device autonomy?

In the end, the success of Siri and voice search rests with the most basic interaction. It is just us and our phones. It is all just a conversation.

Matt Grebow is a senior manager of search marketing at The Search Agency, an integrated online marketing and services firm in Los Angeles. Reach him at