Google remains the dominant player in search marketing, but the industry is changing very rapidly and the old certainties may erode. Does voice search provide a platform for Microsoft to compete?
A study earlier this year revealed that Microsoft’s speech recognition technology demonstrated only a 5.1 percent word error rate in Switchboard, a conversational speech recognition task. This shows impressive development and shows that Microsoft is more than competitive in this domain, but it is only part of the picture.
Speech recognition and voice recognition are significantly different. The former extracts words and comprehends what is said; the latter also understand who said it. We could frame this as content and context.
Context will be the defining factor in who becomes the dominant player in voice search, with an increasing amount of internet-enabled devices providing the opportunity for a seamless, conversational experience.
No doubt, search is at the very heart of this battle.
Bing has positioned itself as simply a more effective search engine, with campaigns like Bing It On aimed at showing users the quality of its results compared to those of Google.
Occasionally we see stories of impressive user growth for Bing, but never quite enough to suggest a significant threat to Google’s totemic stature. Latest estimates from Smart Insights put Google’s global share of the search market at 77%, with Bing on about 8%.
The signs so far suggest that Google will remain the dominant search player in the West, but the sands are shifting and it is increasingly difficult to predict where the industry will go. With a newly-announced partnership with Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft is clearly not going to give up the fight.
So, if search is the glue that holds this together, what is Microsoft’s strategy to compete with Google? We know Microsoft’s speech recognition technology is effective, but how do its voice search capabilities stack up?
Microsoft voice search: the key details
Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana, is embedded into Windows-enabled devices and into Microsoft’s Edge internet browser. That provides access to over half a billion users, once we factor in Microsoft’s Xbox gaming consoles.
Cortana has a multitude of uses. It helps users navigate the Windows interface and can respond to a multitude of wider queries, powered by Microsoft’s Bing search engine, for example.
Of course, mobile is a core focus and therefore Cortana is available via a range of Microsoft mobile hardware and software.
Like other digital assistants, Cortana is always ready to answer queries on a Windows device. It now prompts users to test its broadening functionalities by pushing notifications like “Ask me to remind you to buy eggs next time you’re at the supermarket” or “Would you like to know which song is playing?”
It can be a bit creepy and intrusive, but for the most part users will only really notice Cortana when they need to use it. The list of prompts is quite formulaic and Cortana simply searches a query on Bing when it can’t understand what the user wants.
All of this functionality is at its best when a user is logged in across a range of Microsoft devices, however. The same is true of any digital assistant, but the the respective cases of Apple and Google this is simply more likely to occur.
This means that Cortana misses out on vital context, not through any technological shortcoming, but rather through the lack of mass adoption of Microsoft’s hardware.
On the software front, Microsoft fares better. There are now over 100 million monthly users of Cortana via Windows 10, and the latest edition of the Edge browser continues to bring voice search to the fore.
This is still not quite enough to make a significant dent in Google’s lead, however. One of the most searched-for technology-based phrases on Bing is [google], after all.
Microsoft’s voice search strategy
The challenge for Microsoft has always been to gain enough of the valuable mobile software market to compete with Apple and Google.
Where Apple controls a very profitable section of both the hardware and software ecosystems, Google has historically focused on its Android OS as a Trojan horse to ensure continued use of its products on a wide range of devices.
With Google Home, the Google Pixel smartphone, and Google’s soon-to-be-completed purchase of Taiwanese smartphone company HTC, the focus has shifted to hardware as the Internet of Things comes of age.
Microsoft’s Invoke smart speaker ensures it has a seat at the table, but it is the partnership with Amazon’s highly successful Echo speakers that should increase usage numbers for Cortana.
Microsoft has always fared well in the enterprise market (albeit under increasing competition from Apple and Google here, too), but the personal smartphone market has been harder to break.
Further integrations with popular platforms such as Spotify, to go along with Microsoft’s ownership of Skype, could start to position Cortana as an appealing alternative to the walled garden approach of Apple.
How does Microsoft voice search differ from Google voice search?
Although both function in similar ways, there are some core areas of differentiation:
- Speech recognition: Cortana does this fantastically well and, although Google Assistant is still very accurate, small margins do matter in this arena. Although only a sample size of one, I can also attest that Cortana comprehends my Irish brogue much more accurately than Google Assistant.
- Business task management: Cortana can be a huge timesaver with commands like “Pull up the latest version of my task tracker.” With full access to the Windows OS, it can locate documents quite easily and reduce time spent on laborious document searching.
- Context: When a user is logged in across Windows products, Cortana can serve accurate contextual results. See below for an example of the same phrase searched by voice on a Windows laptop using Cortana and Google:
The differences are slight, but telling. Cortana knows that I am currently in Spain (I am using a Windows laptop), and therefore provides the kick-off in my local time. Google is not privy to this information and serves the result in Eastern Time, as my account is based in the US.
When results default to Bing, it all gets a little hairier.
I follow up by asking who will be in the starting lineup and receive a bizarre result about the USA soccer team, a news story about a Leeds starting lineup from three years ago, and some news about the Leeds music festival.
This same pattern plays out across a wide range of travel, weather, and commercial queries. When Cortana can pull an immediate answer, it does so very capably; when it resorts to providing a list of search results from Bing, the quality varies. Google therefore represents a much more consistent, reliable option.
The new partnership with Amazon may open a range of avenues for Microsoft to reach a wider audience, which will only help to refine these recommendations. For the moment, Google’s superior search experience remains its trump card in the battle for digital assistant supremacy.
Image created by Clark Boyd
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