Voice Wars: The Battle for Your (Audible) Intent

A Dispute Emerges

Amazon is on the cusp of launching the world’s first paid search platform for voice interactions – and digital commerce leaders across the world should be anxiously watching. While customer adoption of digital voice assistants – such as Amazon Echo/Dot or Google Home – has been relatively slow, this past holiday season put more than 8 million Alexa’s into the homes across the US. This means that everyday consumers are interacting with this new technology – asking questions, seeking advice, and generating rich intent signals that are ripe for digital advertisers to monetize. At 8 million daily users, the amount of voice interaction is roughly equivalent to an ecommerce site the size of Best Buy or Target.

Or course, not everyone is talking to their Alexa’s with the intent to purchase a new television set for the home, and in fact, there’s still a lot of work ahead to improve the experience around voice search; however, that hasn’t stopped Amazon innovators from exploring new types of ordering strategies, such as exclusive deals only available to Alexa owner. But the real question on everyone’s mind (at the digital leadership level) is how will this impact my business – in particular my organization’s ability to acquire paid traffic from high-intent, high-value search activity.

The Changing Battlefield

If we look at the paid search industry as a whole, it has really been just a history of one company’s complete and utter rise to dominance and control over the consumer’s quest for knowledge: Google. For context, Google’s paid search offering (i.e. – the ads that show up next to the links that you are looking for) brings in roughly $45 billion annually and wields an incredible 55% of total worldwide paid search revenue – a number that would likely be higher if it were not for the likes of emerging Chinese leaders like Baidu. It has risen to this position in part through its superior search experience but also – more importantly – the introduction and scaling of the paid search bidding mechanism. Without the work that Google and several other search innovators (GoTo, Overture, etc.), managing and optimizing web-scale search traffic would be just an interesting computer science problem rather than a cash cow.

Google’s paid search offerings allow it to monetize its traffic at scale and, in return, pour more R&D dollars back into improving the overall experience for its core users. None of this would be possible if consumers chose to conduct their search elsewhere – and it is in part because of the open web that keeps the Google giant innovating on its core search experience (moving to mobile in the past few years as well as investing in new digital products that may or may not succeed). Amazon’s move into paid voice search stands to threaten this monopolistic hold on the search advertising industry not only because they are well positioned to potentially create the next killer monetization format but also because they are likely to control the landscape for voice traffic altogether. How Amazon ultimately discovers how to monetize this traffic will shape the long-term evolution of voice-based search altogether as it will directly enable (or not enable) the pouring of R&D dollars back into the core voice experience.

A Digital War is Coming

As the world’s largest digital retailer, Amazon has a vested interest in understanding how to leverage any and all consumer intent signals to convince shoppers to purchase goods and services from one of its many digital channels. The rise in digital voice assistants presents a new landscape in which customers can express their intent – and as such as new opportunity for organizations that own that intent to monetize it.


Amazon is well-versed in maximizing digital marketing dollars to acquire and convert online shoppers. In 2015 alone, Amazon spent $2.8 billion on total digital marketing spend – making it the largest digital retailer by total spend (followed closely by HSN at number 2 and Wayfair at number 3). Out of this gargantuan allocation, almost $200 million was paid to Google alone for paid search marketing – making it one of the search giant’s largest individual customers by total ad spend. This relationship, however, is becoming rocky at best.


The Seattle giant has been steadily evolving its own brand around product search. In 2003, it created a dedicated product search R&D division named A9 that focused (and still does) specifically on developing and maintaining technologies designed to optimize consumer inquires around finding products that are right for them. And to-date, this group has contributed to a massive shift in consumer behavior around just how products are found and discovered online. Today, a whopping 55% of consumers say that they start their online product search on Amazon directly – not Google where market dynamics can let any digital retailer bid on the traffic.

Not only is Amazon gradually pulling paid search power away from Google through changing customer behavior, it has also backed up its efforts to monetize this traffic in ways beyond direct purchase activity through its own online paid search business. Amazon launched ClickRiver in 2006 as a division focused on monetizing internal product search traffic through the same paid search dollars that digital retailers are currently allocating to Google. To-date, that business has grown quite steadily – pulling in over $750 million in 2013 and likely surpassing $1 billion soon. To say that Amazon is tactically positioned to upset not just Google’s business but the entire arbitrage system that the rest of the world of digital retailers rely on is an understatement.

Who Will Win?

Unfortunately, it’s still too early to tell how this opportunity will play out because voice search is still in its infancy. Neither Amazon nor Google have released any stats regarding the breakdown of types of queries that are coming through their respective voice platforms – and realistically speaking product teams are likely still learning how to even classify different types of queries altogether as consumers learn how best leverage the technology that exists in their homes today. In the meantime, however, several core questions will have to be answered:

  • How will people use voice search differently from mobile or desktop?

  • How will targeting work?

  • What will the ad unit be?

Should I Be Concerned?

As a digital commerce leader, it is your job to plan for the unexpected and in-turn create and execute strategies that will maximize your organization’s market influence. Given that Amazon has not even publicly announced the details of their paid search platform, it is still too early to plan any specific changes to your own paid search spend, and in fact, the companies that will leverage it first are likely going to use experimental ad dollars. If your organization can afford to do this and you have the product management resources on your end to manage the experimentation, perhaps it might be a good idea; however, the vast majority of digital retailers are more likely better off letting early adopters pay for the hard lessons and product evolution that will make this channel viable – or not.

In the meantime, we can all look for core stats regarding the viability of the voice search business altogether – such as total number of daily users or queries. Also equally important is the percentage of total queries that are going to either Amazon or Google, because depending on who wins that battle will dictate if other digital retailers can even participate in this new ecosystem or not.

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