Q&A: Eli Finkelshteyn on Smart Speakers and Brand Experience

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Research suggests that almost 50% of households own at least one smart speaker. ComScore predicts half of all searches to start with voice technology by 2020. Just as brands are perfecting their personalized digital experiences, they now have to rethink every aspect of that experience—from search to delivery. And many of them are struggling. We interviewed Eli Finkelshteyn, CEO and co-founder of Constructor.io, about the challenges brands face as smart speakers begin to dominate customer experiences. 

Q: Smart speaker ownership is booming. What does this mean for content creators and brands on the web?

A: The boom of smart speaker ownership means a new and exciting way for brands to reach their customers. Smart speaker technology and voice search are still nascent technologies trying to find the right fit for users, but initial consumer usage and the number of brands jumping into voice in some way, spells out that companies realize this is an important new frontier.

Q: What are the challenges of meeting voice search demands?

A: There are two major challenges in voice search that double as opportunities. The first is, people tend to use longer, more natural language when searching via voice compared to text. Whereas people have been trained to stick to basic keywords when searching via text, on voice they’re much more willing to say what they want using natural language. 

This is both a challenge, because most search systems work using statistical algorithms built on the assumption that people search via keywords, but also an opportunity because people are giving more information on their search intent. If understood properly, that can lead to even better results. 

An example is someone going to Sephora’s iOS app, which has voice search, and saying “show me the cheapest lipsticks.” Most people would not type this into a text search system, and if they did, they’d get bad results. But on voice, it’s more likely, and if the system understands, like Sephora’s does, that “cheapest” means it should sort by price from low to high, the user now has a better experience.

The other challenge and opportunity with voice search is it can be done hands-free. Smart speakers have taken advantage of this, allowing for easy interaction while cooking or sitting on the couch. The challenge is this makes interaction and correcting more difficult. If you search for something on a smart speaker and get the wrong result, it’s extremely frustrating and difficult to correct. This is the biggest challenge holding voice search back: the right interface for it doesn’t exist yet. But companies are iterating, adding screens and new ways to interact, and once someone does figure out the right interface, expect usage to explode.

Q: What do these brands need to do to make sure their content is findable via voice search?

A: With current iterations of voice search, content and product descriptions don’t need to change. The understanding of users’ queries changes, but content data can stay the same. 

As voice search becomes more prevalent, we’ll likely see a world where hints of information available via voice but not text, like sarcasm, will be made searchable, but this will only happen after voice search becomes more prevalent.

For now, the major challenge for brands is just finding the right voice search partner, and the right interface before their competitors do.

Q: Which brands are currently excelling at keeping up with voice search demands?

A: Sephora is my favorite example of a company excelling at voice search. A growing list of other top brands has jumped into voice in a big way. Google announced 20% of their mobile searches were done via voice as far back as 2016. Amazon has been a leader in this field for a long time, allowing voice search on both their smark speakers and their mobile app. Instacart also recently announced they are moving into voice. As the list of well-known companies pushing voice search expands, the best brands will quickly follow, later to be joined by the stragglers.

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