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Now before I start, I must clarify that I am a great fan of digital assistants. Something that allows me to check what I have to do today, the traffic on the way to work, and the latest headlines all whilst trying to get two young children, and myself, ready in the morning has to be a good thing. On top of that, I can control my Chromecast with my voice, and (if I was in America) order pizza from a well-known fast food chain without leaving my seat. I can get recipes emailed to my phone within seconds, simply by conversing with my phone and granting Food Network permission to send me an email all whilst still colouring with the kids.

So whilst it is still in its infancy I would say that this sort of technology undeniably has a bright future. The key is going to be for these companies to persuade us all that we need a digital assistant in our life.

However, I do have some concerns with how the tech giants implementing their personal assistants.

Recently I had a phone conversion with one of our directors about his pet hate - restaurants that serve food on anything other than a plate. That evening, the following appeared in my Google now feed:


Now I didn’t Google that topic, or search for the Twitter account that complains about it. But still it appeared in my feed. Coincidence? Probably, but it still triggered alarm bells.

On the same day, the Sun newspaper exposed the fact that Google has been listening without user’s knowledge, and that the word “OK” seems to be enough of a keyword to trigger a clip to be recorded and uploaded to Google’s servers.

For me, that’s fine, but the use of that data when I haven’t initiated the conversation feels like a step too far. It’s not just Google this happens with - how many times have you logged into Facebook and seen an advert for something that you recently discussed on the phone?

My guess is too many, it certainly has been for me.

It’s possible consumer fear around privacy issues will lead virtual assistants down a dead-end.

Just because I’ve been around a conversation mentioning food being served on a circular plate, doesn’t mean I want to read about it. Now this was a general conversation, but if we’d been talking about a specific brand, then it would certainly have turned me off the brand and likely would have resulted in the loss of me as a customer.

It’s not just this use of voice data that has caused controversy. In the states, Burger King decided to interact with Android phones and Google home devices as part of a 15 second add.

As you can imagine this annoyed a lot of users, being seen by many as a major invasion of privacy, with a secondary backlash against their digital assistants.

The outcry was so bad that Google stopped devices from responding to the advert, and Wikipedia updated and locked its page so that the add effectively died in the water. And what did we do as an industry, in the face of consumer outrage? Gave it the Cannes Grand Prix. 

So how should these technologies be used? Well they’re not for paid advertising, and Google seems to agree. Currently Google offers no paid services to promote content on these devices, and all PPC links are ignored when search results are returned at present. In fact, the only advertising opportunities on them is through sponsorship of audio content.

Instead, they’re designed to allow users to find out things such as “Where is the nearest coffee shop?”, or asking “Will I need an umbrella in London today?” before you leave the house for the train.

As a marketer, that naturally puts far more of a focus on your SEO activity. For those that haven’t undertaken any, now is a really good time to start - before these technologies become totally mainstream. For those that are currently doing some, then it’s likely to just be a small tweak to your current approach to consider the way users might find your brand via voice search.

The only other thing to consider is that a lot of voice search is undertaken on a mobile, so do make sure your website is mobile optimised, or you’ll be going to all that effort to only lose the customer at a critical point of engagement.

And lastly, if you’re already way along to the path to using AI to combine voice and search, just… please don’t be creepy.