Alexa will soon let brands answer your questions

·2-min read
An Amazon Echo smart speaker (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Archive)
An Amazon Echo smart speaker (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Archive)

If you ask your Amazon Echo a question today, Alexa’s crisp, digital voice will do its best to answer your query from its database of answers or via a seemingly related website.

But soon, it will let brands answer questions too in a feature called “Customers Ask Alexa”, blurring the line between neutral, objective advice and straight-up advertising.

The blog post accompanying the announcement gave an example of how this would work in practice. Brands can “easily discover and answer frequently asked customer questions using self-service tools,” and then suggest their own (somewhat biased) answers.

A cleaning brand, for example, could answer the question “How can I remove pet hair from my carpet” with general advice, as well as a product suggestion with a link to the Amazon storefront.

It’s not clear quite how egregious this could get, but Amazon is evidently aware that there’s a risk for user experience to nosedive rapidly. The blog post mentions that all supplied answers will go through “content moderation and quality checks” before Alexa picks the answer to give Echo owners.

“Amazon recognizes brands as experts on their products,” Rajiv Mehta, general manager of Alexa Shopping at Amazon said in a statement. “With this new capability, we have made it easier for brands to connect with customers to help answer common questions and better inform their purchase decisions.”

While that’s undoubtedly true, it could see Amazon as a kingmaker if two big brands answer the same question. And while it’s not certain that these product-heavy responses will see an uplift in sales (attempts to get people to buy directly via Alexa have proved unconvincing to date), it would certainly put the retailer in an awkward position if it’s seen to be playing favourites.

There’s also the chance it could backfire on consumers who worry their smart speaker is turning into a glorified billboard. Back in 2017, Google was on the receiving end of backlash when its Home devices started promoting Beauty and the Beast without any kind of provocation, and it’s hard to see this sort of quasi-advertising greeted any more favourably five years later.

In any case, Amazon has some time to sort out the details. The blog post says that Customers Ask Alexa will only reach Echo devices in mid-2023 after first coming to the Amazon search bar for brands via an invite-only program.