Yelp’s Chad Richard On The Current State — And Near Future — Of Voice Activation

For the past several years, local digital guide Yelp has been working to move beyond being perceived as a “reviews site” to a platform that help make transactions between consumers and businesses.

For example, its Request-A-Quote feature, which lets Yelp users get the price of services before making a purchase via the guide platform, saw volume rise almost 30 percent over the past year.

Before that, Yelp expanded its restaurant services beyond its SeatMe and Yelp Now reservations tools with the purchase of former partner Nowait, a mobile platform that lets consumers virtually hold their place in line at casual dining establishments.

Yelp’s transaction business also was rounded out with last year’s $20 million purchase of location-based loyalty and retargeting platform, Turnstyle, which runs an in-store platform that then connects marketing services to consumers’ phones at 3,500 business places.

In a conversation at November’s Yext’s Onward 2017 conference with Yext President and Chief Revenue Officer Jim Steele,  Yelp COO Jed Nachman discussed  how the role of Connected Intelligence systems that power voice activated assistants and chatbots dovetails perfectly with the trajectory the 14-year-old company has taken.

“For voice and chat, you have to have the data to handle real-world interaction,” Nachman said of the company’s Yelp Knowledge, a tool that analyzes businesses’ reviews to help  understand the experience at specific locations.

To elaborate on how Yelp sees the rise of voice activation, we caught up with Chad Richard, Yelp’s SVP, Business and Corporate Development. Richard joined Yelp in 2015.

Before that, he spent six years at Apple as senior director of Worldwide Product Marketing focused on the Cupertino company’s operating systems and internet services, which included acquiring and building up the first mass market voice-enabled assistant, Siri.

GeoMarketing: What’s the state of voice activation and what does it mean for Yelp?

Chad Richard: Voice activation is a rapidly evolving paradigm of human-computer interaction that I’m pretty excited about. The utility of voice assistants and voice activation is especially high when people are on the go, and high quality local content is obviously a vital component to those mobile moments, so Yelp has a big role and opportunity here.

How does the Yelp Fusion API program reflect the influence of voice activation?

Yelp Fusion is a set of APIs and customized feeds for partners and independent developers who want to integrate Yelp content into their apps, websites, and services. Voice-activated devices and virtual assistants is a very popular Yelp Fusion use case and we’re already seeing some cool applications with our data.

How does Yelp work with other voice-activated platforms?

Yelp has partnered with Apple and been integrated into Siri since its launch in 2011. We also supply local data and content to Amazon for Alexa. So, products like Echo and Fire TV products are enabled with Yelp content. We work with Microsoft on Cortana and also collaborate with companies like Hound, both in their Hound products as well as Houndify, their platform where developers can develop their own voice activated applications that are Yelp enabled.

We work with Nuance, which has been part of the roots of all this, from the actual NLP standpoint to understand what people are actually saying. We’re also working with Samsung Voice, in coordination with Viv, a startup launched by the creators of Siri after they left Apple. Samsung bought Viv and it now powers Samsung’s personal assistant, “Bixby.”

So, even at this early stage, Yelp is virtually omnipresent in all the voice ecosystems. We’re powering voice experiences that are really great when you’re on-the-go, making queries to your smartphone, and even on your Echo when you are hanging out at home. You’re already using Yelp when talking to Bixby or Siri on your Android or iPhone.

The other place we’re seeing voice activation starting to grow is in the car. And that’s not just through Apple’s CarPlay, where you’re using Siri. It’s also native in dashboard experiences. So we’re already working with a lot of auto manufacturers via the Yelp Fusion API, and as those interfaces evolve to offer voice, Yelp will help to deliver our great local content as well.

Yelp’s always been pretty successful at getting our content integrated into car dashes, from BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Lexus, Toyota, Honda, just to name a few automakers. Most of the auto manufacturers are working with us one way or another, either directly or through integrates like Harmon, or others selling into the auto space. In addition to finding great restaurants on-the-go, drivers can also reserve a table via Yelp Reservations so that there’s a table waiting for them when they arrive. Lastly, we’ve made it possible for drivers to “get in line” remotely at a restaurant through our acquisition of Nowait, which is now a part of Yelp Reservations.

How does Yelp serve as the bridge between brands and voice-activated devices?

When you are using voice enabled experience you want answers as opposed to a traditional search experience where you have a high tolerance for scanning various search results to find what you were really looking for. Yelp is a trusted source for high intent searches because we are able to deliver accurate information that’s highly relevant. This serves brands and businesses well by connecting them directly with the consumers via voice services.

How do you perceive the challenges for brands when it comes to using voice-activation?

One of the tough things about voice activation is for the assistant to really understand what consumers are really asking for. It means having as much content about the user as possible — such as identity, location and preferences – to having speech pattern technologies that can break down the query into specific nouns. If someone says  “Hong Kong café,” are they talking about a café in Hong Kong? Or are they talking about the Hong Kong Café down the street?

There are a million examples of how disambiguation becomes extremely important for these assistants to be smart and efficient for users.

There is the natural language processing and identity extraction side of all of this but its further complicated by the fact that these assistants are built with a broad range of data sources and therefore don’t just rely on Yelp data. We work closely with partners to help ensure they know when a question is best answered by Yelp.

How do you expect voice activation to shape marketing at the local level?

For us, voice represents an incredibly exciting human-to-computer interaction capability where local data is highly relevant. If you think about what Yelp’s been focused on for 14 years now — we’ve been connecting people with great local businesses.

But over the last few years, we have been really focused on getting transactional with it. And what’s cool about voice and Yelp’s role in this trend is the evolution from helping you find great restaurants and places to get a haircut, to actually being able to book a table or order pickup or delivery at that restaurant. Or go ahead and schedule that appointment at the hair salon. Yelp not only powers the discovery process, but it can power the purchase actions that follow.

From a marketing perspective, is the use of voice as opposed to text that different?

It’s not just about discovery with voice. Whereas text is offering a series of options for clicking, voice is about driving transactions. The consumer has this very clear intent that we can actually activate.

We’re seeing two types of voice platforms. You have voice platforms like Siri and Bixby, where you use voice to do the query, but then you get a visual response. And then you can “tap, tap, tap: book” or “tap, tap: buy.” That’s cool, but it’s also great in those moments when tapping isn’t an option – when you’re driving your car or using an Echo. You’re able to simply find — and get — that specific thing you want. And because it’s not a “tap-centric” environment, being able to conduct that transaction via voice is powerful.

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Think With Google: 5 Ways Voice Activated Assistants Are Changing Search

Voice activated speakers for the Connected Home are rapidly becoming mainstream consumer products — and those new devices are having an immediate impact on the way consumers search, Think With Google stats show.

For the 72 percent of smart speaker owners, using their voice activated assistants has become a daily routine, writes Sara Kleinberg, Group Marketing Manager, Ads Research and Insights at Google.

“Voice-activated speaker owners told us that talking to their virtual assistant—rather than having to type—helps them get things done quickly and efficiently,” Kleinberg notes. “And that means more multitasking.”

Here are the top reasons people turn to their voice-activated speakers, according to Google:

  • It allows them to more easily multitask.
  • It enables them to do things faster than other devices.
  • It empowers them to instantly get answers and information.
  • It makes their daily routine easier.

In terms of the specific implications for local businesses, the rise of voice-activated assistants have coincided with the increased importance of location management in SEO strategy — namely, that making sure that business location information is correct across platforms is key to ranking in Google’s “three-pack” of top mapped results, as is using optimal keywords.

Addressing the particulars of voice search is important in the same vein, especially considering that 76 percent of “near me” searches result in a business visit within a day. In fact,  we’ve previously reported that search volume for local places continues to grow — but explicitly stated “near me” requests are on the decline, since consumers now simply expect results that reflect their proximity.

But it’s the very essence of how people are searching via voice versus text that is most important for brands to recognize. And that’s a major reason that Google, which hasn’t typically had a major presence at CES, has one this year, Engadget notices, including a “skin” covering the outside of the CES monorail promoting the Google Assistant in addition to a booth in the event’s parking lot.

Just last week, Google said it had added more features—like Voice Match,  Broadcast and Hands-Free Calling— to the Google Assistant, which “now gives you the power to voice control more than 1,500 compatible smart home devices from over 225 brands,” a post by Rishi Chandra, VP, Product Management, Google Home, and Scott Huffman, VP, Engineering, Google Assistant, notes.

Source: Think With Google, CES 2018

Google Ups CES Presence

Even as Google remains the undisputed search leader, as Amazon Echo’s Alexa, followed by the forthcoming Apple HomePod smart speaker powered by Siri, the market is still up for grabs.

But not for long.

As GeoMarketing‘s Lauryn Chamberlain (who happens to be covering CES 2018 this week) reports, over two-thirds of consumers who currently own an Amazon Echo or Google Home plan to buy another device in the next six months — and 75 percent of Amazon Echo owners and 69 percent of Google Home owners will purchase the same brand again, according to new research from Strategy Analytics.

“This degree of loyalty may suggest that consumers are highly satisfied with the voice-activated devices they’ve chosen — or it could be simply a “recognition that the technical platforms are different and that switching would involve unwanted complexity,” Chamberlain writes. “But in either case, these findings indicate substantial consumer loyalty to one brand alone.”

Meanwhile as Google seeks to understand the changing shape of voice-fueled search, here are some of the stats that buttress previous studies that highlight the dramatic changes in the way consumers find places and products:

  • 62 percent of those who regularly use a voice-activated speaker say they’re likely to buy something through their device within the next month
  • 58 percent of smart speaker owners use it to manage weekly shopping lists
  • 44 percent voice assistant users order groceries or household items once a week
  • 52 percent of smart speaker owners would like to receive info about deals, sales, and brand promotions, while another 42 percent want to hear about upcoming events/activities featuring favorite brands

Time For A Conversation

As voice-activated assistant observers and execs have emphasized, the use of Natural Language Processing (NPL), is the most important aspect to fully connecting with consumers — something that has been fairly difficult to manage in typical product searches.

Almost 70 percent of queries to the Google Assistant are made in natural language as opposed to the “typical” keywords people type into a search box, says Kleinberg, adding that 53 percent of smart speaker owners say it feels “natural” speaking the device.

“Every industry can [add] value based on just having a conversation,” explained Dave Isbitski, Chief Evangelist for Alexa and Echo at Amazon, in a recent interview with GeoMarketing. “And while the technology that consumers are using to power nearly every aspect of their lives has indeed evolved, “it’s still almost like what’s old is new. We’re going to back to just having a conversation.”

And after decades of analyzing how word-of-mouth marketing has the greatest influence on a purchase, way beyond media and advertising channels, Google’s stat is particularly game-changing for brands: 41 percent of people who have a voice-activated speaker say “it feels just like talking to a friend or another person.”

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