Today's Internet is still largely silent, with a minority of low-fi sites and a handful of hi-fi pathfinders. The reasons for this - low bandwidth, clunky players and tiny loudspeakers - are largely historical. Now broadband has achieved critical mass in most of the developed countries. Flash and other embedded players were a start, but the coming of HTML5 at last allows audio to be written into the code of a static web page, which is a major breakthrough. Many home computers nestle among multi-speaker set-ups, so most websites browsed at home are already missing a trick by ignoring the power of sound. And for business users, whether in the office or on the move, Bluetooth and stereo headsets already allow them to enjoy web sound without bothering those around them.
What nobody predicted was the much more rapid rise (especially in the developing countries) of the mobile web. Computers are fast being outpaced by mobile phones, whether smart or not, as web browsing devices, and since most of those phones are already being used to play music with headphones attached, mobile web sound is a natural and yet largely unexplored medium.
Businesses that sell sound (or products that make a sound) can reap immediate benefits from web sound, so these tend to be the sites that lead the way: Amazon invented risk-free music buying by offering track samples; Ferrari lets you revel in the sounds of its cars while you dream of owning one.
But for any website, sound can be a potent parallel or even alternative information stream, as well as making the site friendlier, more personal, more fun and more accessible (particularly to those who don't read six point Helvetica too well). Think of the engaging way that the Greyworld sonic artists have made the physical world more fun and more interactive by using sound, and then just think how much more can be done in the virtual world, where physics and cost are almost completely removed as barriers to creative imagination.
Let's remember that the Golden Rules apply here more than anywhere, because the web brings a degree of user freedom that allows for no second chances. Online research in Canada found that it takes only 50 milliseconds for people to decide if they like a website or not. While it obviously takes longer to assess a sound, the message is clear. You need to make a good impression and you need to make it quickly. To achieve that consider the following:
- Make the sound optional - have obvious sound controls; start with sound off; above all, never impose audio that carries on streaming after your website is closed.
- Make it appropriate - consider the audience demographic and the material on the page when you select a sound. Conform to BrandSoundTM guidelines if they exist. Also, differentiate between background sound (which simply creates an appropriate ambience) and foreground sound (which relates to a specific item, for example a short quote when you show someone's picture, or the Ferrari engines mentioned above).
- Add value - don't use sound for the sake of it; remember this is a parallel stream. People can look and listen, so don't just read the words on the page - amplify them, give examples, make them come alive, and use people's voices more than anything.
If improved user experiences and increased sales aren't reason enough to add effective sound to your site, how about survival? Consider that there are three dimensions of content: first, from passive (the content is fixed or linear, like a novel or film or TV programme) to interactive (the user can change the order, weight, presentation and many other aspects of the content); second, from static (unmoving words and pictures) to dynamic (audio, video and animation); and third, from fixed-access (you have to be still in a certain place to access the content, like TV or cinema) to mobile (you can access the content anywhere, like books, magazines or mobile devices).
I suggest that most of the interesting action in the next decade is going to be taking place in the space marked with the cube: dynamic, interactive, mobile content. For example, suppose I want to know who won the FA Cup in 1958. Which is easier? Stopping what I'm doing, and using my eyes and my hands to operate a screen and keyboard (either fixed or mobile) to make my query and retrieve the answer, or using my voice to query an intelligent agent though my headset and then receiving the answer in audio through the same device?
By using mobile, dynamic, interactive content I am able to keep on doing what I was doing before - walking, driving, making a meal - and achieve the same result. Conversation is our most natural form of communication, and it is inevitable that the web will offer this way of working.
Huge sums of money are being spent on voice input and output, and on the kind of artificial intelligence that will make intelligent agents into virtual personal concierges for us. I believe that within a decade sound will replace keyboards and screens as the primary input/output medium for all our devices. From our work system to our home information/entertainment system to our personal terminal, we will store, manage and access digital information by talking and listening. Sites like AudioBoo and SoundCloud are leading the way, and doubtless many will follow and create their own rich takes on web sound.
In this new world of the aural Internet, a website that's mute will become invisible too. This means that exploring how sound can enhance your personal, company or brand website is sound business in every sense - but please do use the tools we've explored to make sure that the sound you create is appropriate and effective.
Julian Treasure - a global expert in the evaluation, strategic planning, implementation and deployment of sound in business; the chairman of The Sound Agency - a leading audio-branding consultancy; the author of Sound Business, a seminal book on how to apply sound for business benefit, and the creator of BrandSoundTM : a strategic framework for the effective use of sound in brand management.