THE BLOG
09/10/2015 11:53 BST | Updated 09/10/2016 06:12 BST

Why Voice Search Is Key to the Future of Mobile (and Facebook)

For most consumers, voice-powered search tools on mobile are yet to make a big impact; according to our global data from 34 markets, only about a fifth of online adults are regularly using them, putting them miles behind traditional search engines. Yet with Facebook now set to enter the fray with M - the AI-powered personal assistant tool that will sit inside its Messenger app - voice search could be about to get a whole lot more mainstream.

Certainly, there's no shortage of alternative voice tools on the market. From Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana to Google Now and Baidu's Duer, consumers have a wide range of voice-powered search services at their disposal. Significantly, though, none of these other players can boast such a sizable and immediately available audience as Facebook Messenger. Nor, arguably, could they integrate their voice tool inside a service which is already so widely used by digital consumers. Worldwide, our research shows that over 50% of online adults have an account on Messenger - rising still higher in many individual markets. That means Facebook could become a dominant player even if just half of its (still growing) user base started engaging with M.

What's particularly important here is that there's a pronounced appetite for voice search among younger demographics - the segment that would be most important for Facebook to engage. Among young mobile users aged 16-34, just 13% say they haven't used voice search on their smartphone. Moreover, almost 50% say they are using this feature more frequently than they were a year ago, with another 30% reporting no change in their usage. So, once younger age groups begin using voice search on mobile, they're highly likely to continue engaging with it. That's an important statistic for the prospects of M on Messenger.

Ask people about their reasons for using voice search and there's further good news for Zuckerberg and co. Convenience might be key here - almost half say they use voice search when driving or at other times when they can't interact with their handset - but almost as many believe it's a quicker or easier option than going to a dedicated search engine or app. What's more, about 40% see voice search of a more fun way of finding the information they need.

Certainly, the novelty factor of voice search won't last forever but it's not hard to see how it could be crucial in getting people to engage with it initially. As we've already seen, once you start using voice search on mobile you're pretty unlikely to drift away from it, and Facebook will know that emphasising the convenience and fun of its new feature is likely to resonate very strongly with its young and engaged audience. Look at the qualitative responses among young users and it can also trade on one other important factor: many are using it because they are too lazy to type what they need. Equally telling is that the biggest barrier to engagement at the moment is one that's very easy to overcome: 40% of those not currently using voice search say they don't think it works particularly well. As the tools in question become more sophisticated and intuitive, this type of resistance could well disappear.

That Facebook is betting big on mobile voice search is a sign of how search behaviours are set to evolve. Already, 80% of internet users have a smartphone and, in many demographics and markets, mobiles have moved ahead of PCs/laptops as the most common or important way of accessing the internet. But traditional search providers and tools don't always have the same dominance on mobile as they have enjoyed on other devices, especially because search behaviours are so fundamentally different. With so much of the consumer's time on mobile being spent inside apps, there's an obvious benefit to being able to complete search actions inside the app being used rather than having to open up a separate one or use a mobile web browser. And it's here where Facebook has another advantage over its rivals; it doesn't have to rely on previous search histories to know what the user's potential interests or queries could be. Instead, it can instead draw on the rich behavioural data gleaned through their usage of Messenger itself - meaning it can carry out effective voice searches inside an app which they already use heavily.

As Messenger continues its rapid evolution from a simple messaging app into a fully-fledged platform in its own right, it's not hard to see why we could all be talking a lot more about - and to - M.