As major tech firms barrel ahead on a tectonic shift toward voice-based computing, the revenue problem keeps coming up: if there’s no screen involved, where do the advertisements go?
This is a particular issue for Google, which earns the vast majority of its money from advertising shown on screens, but is aggressively marketing its screen-less “Home” virtual-assistance device that reads out answers to spoken questions.
When you ask Google a question via the search portal on a phone or computer, you’ll receive answers on your screen, accompanied by advertisements. So how will the company make money when the answers come not via a screen, but through the robot voice of its virtual assistant?
Well, Assistant, the virtual help-bot residing in Home, could just read out an ad.
Which it did this week. No, wait, it didn’t: what Assistant said walked like an ad and it talked like an ad but it was not an ad, Google said — after a lot of people responded bitterly to the apparent intrusion of advertising into the Home experience.
Here’s what happened: On March 16, “some Google Home owners reported hearing something extra when they asked for a summary of the day ahead from the smart speaker: an advertisement for the opening of (Disney’s new film) Beauty and the Beast,” tech website The Verge reported.
Tech pundit Bryson Meunier recorded his experience with what appeared to be a trial balloon from Google, and tweeted the results. After reading out the weather forecast, and telling him how long his commute would be, Assistant had abruptly changed course.
“By the way,” it said, “Disney’s live action Beauty and The Beast opens today.
“In this version of the story, Belle is the inventor instead of Maurice. That rings truer if you ask me. For some more movie fun, ask me something about Belle.”
Once news of Assistant’s apparent pivot toward sales-pitchery spread, outrage was swift and cutting.
“Spammy Google Home spouts audio ads without warning — now throw yours in the trash,” screamed a headline on tech site The Register.
“Never before have we witnessed a technology giant destroy a product with such precision-engineered idiocy,” sneered the article below the headline.
Later that day, voice-computing evangelist Brian Roemmele noted that “Twitter has Google Home trending with over 11,000 negative tweets by 6pm.”
Google’s response didn’t do much to quiet the gnashing of teeth. “This isn’t an ad; the beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guest and share their tales,” a company spokesperson told The Verge.
Google followed up with another statement to the website: “This wasn’t intended to be an ad,” it said. “What’s circulating online was a part of our My Day feature, where after providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content.
“We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users and we could have done better in this case.”
The company’s comments didn’t sit well with David Heinemeier Hansson, a Danish programmer who created the Ruby on Rails web development framework. In a blog post, Hansson introduced the Google spokesperson’s quote to The Verge with, “Just listen to the (profanity commonly abbreviated as “BS”) drip from this one,” he wrote on the blog Signal v. Noise.
Roemmele, in fact, essentially predicted the vitriol that greeted Google’s Disney experiment. In a November contribution to online magazine Quora, he wrote that in a world of voice-based computing, “advertising as we know it will not exist primarily because we would not tolerate commercial intrusions and interruptions in our dialogues.”
Roemmele believes commercial transactions, not advertising, will become the revenue generator in voice-based interactions between consumers and service technology.
Google’s head of ads and commerce Sridhar Ramaswamy said in November that the firm’s monetization of search queries could “range from being purely transactional, meaning we make it convenient for you to fulfill a transaction with this assistance, or it can involve promotion.”
The sort of promotion uttered by Assistant this week has been proved to be a bad idea, Roemmele wrote.
“There are many ways to monetize,” he wrote, “but we now can confirm the way Google just tested is clearly not one of them.
“It is early days and testing is a good thing and much to Google’s credit they have stopped the test because of the outrage.”
As for other options for making money from voice interactions, CCS analyst Ben Wood told the BBC that “the most likely outcome will be that there would be … voice assistants where the user gets a discounted device in return for accepting adverts.”
Photo: People visit a Google pop-up shop in 2016 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)