Voice-based search will not only have technology issues to overcome, but in an era when news of data breaches is commonplace, companies such as Expedia will have to address the personalization and privacy issues as well.
Expedia continues to bet on voice-based search as it debuted hotel search, booking, cancellations, and loyalty point access on Google Assistant through a new Expedia Action.
The move is similar to Expedia’s capabilities on other virtual assistants, Amazon Alexa devices, which debuted in 2016.
Speaking at Skift Tech Forum 2018 in Silicon Valley in June, before Tuesday’s Expedia announcement, Tony Donohoe, then-chief technology officer at Expedia Holdings, acknowledged that the early days of voice capabilities might be “brittle” but, as with other new technologies, innovation will come in waves.
“Without a doubt, voice is our future,” said Donohoe, who subsequently moved on to become chief technology officer at SoFi. “There is just no question in our minds.”
With the new Expedia Action, in addition to hotel search, booking, and loyalty point access, users can access their itineraries and listen to packing list tips, for example, Expedia said. Users can access the Expedia Action via the Google Assistant app for smartphones and through Google Smart Speakers.
Expedia offered example of how travelers might interact with Google Assistant.
“OK Google, talk to Expedia.
Book me a hotel in Antigua, Guatemala.
What should I pack for Austin?
How many Expedia Rewards points do I have?”
At Skift Tech Forum, Donohoe said personalization and data science would be key to progress in voice technologies. He acknowledged that with Expedia’s Alexa Skill, so far the booking aspect has not taken off.
“Travel is a complicated transaction that you don’t actually do too many times in your life,” Donohoe said. “So you may take very few family vacations or meaningful vacations. Those are very important memories that you are going to take with you until your very last days. We probably can’t give you the perfect recommendation unless we know quite a bit about you so you have to be willing to tell us. That allows us to tailor an infinite amount of supply and combinations to get to the one or two right answers for you.”
There is a pushback to virtual assistants in some quarters because of privacy concerns. For example, Facebook on Monday debuted two video chat devices, which would place a camera and microphone in the room where a consumer installs it.
In addition, Google announced it is shuttering Google+ after discovering a data breach in March. Google said it didn’t disclose the breach because it couldn’t find any users who were impacted.
“Will people trust the social network’s new consumer device after all those data security problems,” technology website Cnet wondered.
Will they trust the Expedia Action for Google Assistant or Expedia’s Alexa Skill?
Donohoe noted that companies will have to be very transparent about how they use customer data. For example, companies would have also have to specify how long they would retain the data, he said.
Donohoe spoke about the complexities of voice-based search, noting the issues are exacerbated because there is no visual interface.
“It’s the confluence of the voice UI (User Interface) and data science giving you the one true answer,” Donohoe said, referring to ultimate goals. “And until you can give the one true answer, a pure voice search-based query is going to be difficult to attain. You can come close. It’s going to maybe require you to have a hybrid type interface for awhile or allow you to continue that search later on on a mobile device or on your TV screen or your computer.”
In its announcement about Google Assistant, Expedia noted that the new app doesn’t just benefit travelers, but also gives wider exposure to hotel partners on platforms that consumers are using.
At its debut, the Expedia Action on Google Assistant is available in English for U.S. customers only. But, as Expedia invests in voice-based search, it promises that more countries and languages are “coming soon.”
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Photo credit: Expedia users can try Google Assistant for hotel bookings using voice commands. Bloomberg