Scott Huffman Voice at CES – FI

Google Assistant VP Scott Huffman Reveals Google’s Position on Voice App Discovery and Sundar Pichai’s View of Voice

Scott Huffman, Google

Scott Huffman, vice president of engineering for Google Assistant, opened the Voice Live at CES conference this week by sharing Google’s perspective on voice and where it is headed. One of the key topics Huffman covered is a top priority for many voice developers–discoverability. A second was Google’s plans for supporting third-party developers. The company plans to do more on this front according to Huffman and Danny Bernstein, managing director of global product partnerships for Google Assistant.

Discoverability is a Focus for Google Assistant

It was particularly interesting that Huffman spoke with more clarity on the problem of voice app discoverability than anyone at Google has previously expressed publicly on the topic. There was a clear acknowledgment that this is a problem, Google is investing to make it better, and that developers also have a responsibility to market their products. According to Huffman:

There is no magic…Discoverability is not a solved problem…

“The reality is that discoverability is going to continue to take an investment from us in terms of providing the hooks that allow discoverability and from you as you build things and then market those things to users to help them understand what capability is there.”

He then talked about linking on the phone from a mobile webpage into an Action and improvements to the Assistant Actions directory among other initiatives. These platform improvements alone will not solve the problem. Voicebot reported in Voice Insider #38 in May 2019 that Google had significantly curtailed its implicit invocations feature that drove referrals from the Assistant to third-party actions. Many developers reported to Voicebot that referrals were down by 50-70% and some invocation phrases were down to zero that previously generated significant session traffic. Reviving a functional implicit invocations feature will be an important step in addressing discovery.

Even before the implicit invocations change, developers were concerned about lower session counts on Google Assistant than Alexa and expressed frustration in building an audience on the voice platform. Initial developer reaction was positive to Huffman’s openness about the challenge of discovery, the commitment to making improvements, and clarity that Google does not expect to solve the problem on its own.

A Bigger Focus on the Developer Ecosystem in 2020

Danny Bernstein, Google

The reaction was even more positive about Google’s comments about supporting third-party developers in 2020. “Another thing we spent a lot of time on in our review with Sundar this year was around the developer ecosystem and what investments we are making,” said Huffman.

Bernstein added, “One of the things we realized last year was that we needed to be much more out in the community…There is a clear idea inside of our company that we really need to partner because users on the Assistant expect that the services they use will be there. It’s like a really basic idea.” As a result, Google plans to be much more active at conferences this year and with third-party developer programs. Bernstein didn’t offer many details beyond more event participation but did stress that he is committed to ensuring a higher level of responsiveness to developer needs going forward.

Some third-party developers, most from leading agencies, told Voicebot recently this change is already being felt in the community. Google held a meeting in Mountain View in late 2019 with many prominent agencies and other developers that seems to have begun shifting sentiment. Previously, many of these same people expressed frustration at a perceived lack of responsiveness from Google around basic issues and a reluctance to share any information.

There are also many developers convinced that Google is laser-focused on expanding first-party services and had little interest in third-party partners. Google clearly wants to reverse that perception where it persists. Huffman’s comments about Google (Alphabet) CEO Sundar Pichai’s focus on this point was no doubt an intentional addition to the presentation. Google’s recent activities, presence at CES and next week at Project Voice will help provide more evidence. There remains some skepticism among independent developers that reached out to Voicebot this week and it is not clear how Google will engage that strata of third-party collaborators, but at the brand and agency level, the change in sentiment has been quick.

Google is Bullish About Voice

Another point that Huffman stressed was that Google is bullish about voice. “We’ve just been through our 2020 planning cycle…Sundar and his team are really excited about voice and continuing to invest here. It’s a really major strategic area for Google…If anything, Sundar is very much in a mode of doubling down here.”

That is important for the industry to hear. Interviews, both recorded and informal, by Voicebot with developers at Google I/O in 2019 found several viewed the company as stepping back from the Assistant as a standalone solution embodied in Actions on Google. There was a lot of focus on Android and adding voice to mobile apps at Google I/O last year. Voice developers expressed concern at the time that Google Assistant was destined to become just another Android feature and independently developing for voice apps might not receive appropriate support.

Google Assistant team members have told Voicebot that the company was simply trying to encourage its large Android developer community to embrace voice. Indeed, there are far more I/O attendees that are Android developers than Actions on Google users so highlighting Android-friendly ways to incorporate Google Assistant is a logical strategy for the event. It will be interesting to see the relative ratio of presentation time Google Assistant receives at I/O 2020.

Regardless, it seems that Google doesn’t plan to wait for an invite-only developer event to show its commitment to third-parties. The Google Assistant team has a busy schedule in the first quarter that includes events in Las Vegas, Tennessee, San Francisco, and Barcelona.

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