Walmart and Google have heard the future, and that future sounds like ordering products using your voice. Their alliance will allow customers to shop for Walmart products using the voice-activated Google Assistant or Google Home speaker--in a clear shot at Amazon, whose Echo speaker was a best-seller last Christmas. Apple and Samsung are also developing in-home smart speakers.

These devices are the evolution of the voice assistants most people first encountered on their smartphones. Asking Siri for the weather forecast was just the beginning. Voice assistants will soon be present and listening in everything from your car to your refrigerator.

Here's what that will look like--and why you should care.

Voice will be the primary way we interact with technology.

Smartphones are now ubiquitous, but their touchscreen keyboards are not the best way to input text. Couple that with the need to go hands-free--whether while driving or when trying to follow a recipe when your hands are covered in marinade--and the convenience of speaking to your device is clear. More than 20 percent of mobile searches on Google are now conducted via voice.

In the recent past, the usefulness of voice input was limited by the accuracy of speech recognition software. In 2013, Google's voice recognition accuracy was barely 75 percent. This year, Google reported that it exceeded 95 percent accuracy--the rate at which humans recognize speech. At this pace, voice will become the primary way we interact with all digital devices in the very near future.

Voice-enabled shopping is the next logical step. Don't bother writing out a grocery list--just shout out what you need and let Alexa do the rest. As these devices get better at recognizing individual voices, they will be able to customize orders based on your personal preferences. Just watch out for your kids ordering toys and candy when you're not listening.

How can you benefit from voice technology?

Small business owners may throw up their hands in frustration at the thought of competing with Walmart and Amazon. But local entrepreneurs can benefit from voice technology, too.

The best way to begin is simply to become familiar with the technology. Start using a Google Home or Amazon Echo device so you can understand how the interface works. Try syncing your calendar to a voice assistant to get reminders of appointments, use the Rhino Fleet Tracking skill to follow the locations of your drivers or deliveries, or use the Shopify skill to track your inventory and orders.

To reach customers through voice-enabled shopping you'll want to become an Amazon Marketplace seller. Listing your products on the site will give you access to Amazon's consumer data and distribution muscle; it also will allow your customers to place orders with a simple verbal request to their Echo devices.

Finally, make sure your business can be found by local customers using voice search. When a busy homeowner shouts "Alexa, find a plumber," you want your plumbing business to be at the top of search results.

To do this, claim and correct your business listing on the many online directories used by search engines: Google My Business, Bing Places, Foursquare, Citysearch, and dozens more. Consistent NAP information (name, address, phone) on all these sites will signal to search engines that your local business is legit and reliable.

The future of shopping is ready to be heard.

I fully realized the potential of voice technology during the holidays last year as my family gathered around a newly unwrapped Amazon Echo. My parents, siblings and children all had a blast getting it to tell jokes, play music and find recipes.

What struck me was how easily this interface crossed generations and technical abilities, from schoolkids to grandparents. Unlike any new technology I've seen, everyone knew how to use the voice assistant, intuitively. Voice-enabled devices aren't just useful, they are compelling and enjoyable in a way that new technology should be, but rarely is.

As use of these devices grows and as more consumers discover their appeal, ecommerce will increasingly move from computers and mobile devices to voice. Completing a purchase from Amazon is now as easy as saying a few simple words. Walmart and Google are working to catch up. To stay competitive, small business owners also need to pay attention to this trend.

Published on: Sep 7, 2017