Missing links are typically more the purview of paleoanthropologists or fire and brimstone preachers in the pulpit, but as voice technology becomes more prevalent, it is becoming increasingly clear that voice is a missing link in its own way – and one that will help search evolve into much more than search – as well as a means for search engines themselves to maintain relevance.
That’s because as unnatural as it may have seemed to talk to our devices when Siri was introduced in 2011, voice is indeed a natural interface – particularly for younger generations – and it will maintain a connection between consumers and platforms in the ecosystems of tomorrow.
How Voice has Already Changed Search – and Diminished the Power of the SERP
The search landscape is already a far cry from ten blue links – and will continue to evolve as more consumers gravitate toward voice technology.
That’s in part because, as Michael Bonfils, Managing Director at global digital marketing agency SEM International, noted, when consumers use voice search, it’s also typically while they are doing something else, like driving or cooking. And these users have more immediate needs, like local “near me” queries. And that, in turn, not only opens opportunities for brands to optimize for local SEO, it also means potentially less interest from consumers is going to the search engine itself.
Indeed, David Lau, vice president and head of paid search and programmatic media at digital marketing agency iCrossing, pointed out the rise of apps mean app stores are arguably the new primary portals for content discovery, and we’ll see less reliance on search engines and browsers because consumers will have pre-selected curated content that they subscribe to, like Reddit, and they visit those sites directly instead of using Google.
In other words, it’s not unthinkable that we could lose the search engine as a destination and someday tell our grandchildren bedtime stories about visiting Google.com. And that means Google, Bing, etc. better have a few more tricks up their sleeves.
Purna Virji, senior Bing Ads client development and training manager at Microsoft, however, said she thinks this is not so much a threat to search engines themselves, but rather SERPs – and that’s because SERPs interrupt consumers.
“If you are watching TV and see something and you stop and go to the SERP to find it, it’s such a disruptive task and we’ll see less and less of that,” Virji said. “It’s like, now I’m driving and I want to know, ‘How do I get there?’ and these queries will be more integrated into tasks.”
Jarvis and Samantha are (Fictional) Textbook Examples
Search will also evolve to include even more predictive thinking.
“I would love it if search was like Jarvis [in Iron Man],” Lau said. “I can talk to this computer in a way I would talk to a person and it understands me and spits out what I need. If we can get to the level of AI that can simulate something like that…with witty banter on the side like Siri offers, [I’d be thrilled]. You know the movie Her? He’s like, ‘Oh, pull up my files’ and it’s done or [she says], ‘I see you have bill due tomorrow, so I paid it.’ It’s that predictive level of thinking that is not search-esque as we define it, but it’s where the industry is moving toward.”
And This, of Course, Requires the Integration of Commerce
“This suggests that the e-commerce potential for voice search will be significant,” said Scott Litvack, director of organic search at digital marketing agency Prime Visibility. “Any brand where there is a direct action to take, such as Dominos, or even a site like Amazon where your order preferences might be already uploaded and you just ask your phone to order more of something, will be a great opportunity for voice search.”
Lau, too, pointed to shoppable media and the integration of voice and bots for a more seamless user experience in which, say, a consumer follows Kim Kardashian on a social network, sees a dress they like, asks for more information and then tells their phone to buy it. In this scenario, an e-commerce bot is able to facilitate and place an order wherever the consumer has an account set up.
Conversational Interfaces Bring Everything Together
In other words, voice search could propel the collapse of the funnel entirely and prompt a new trend in which consumers conduct their searches, browsing, and purchases within the same interface, said Tom Anthony, head of research and development at digital marketing agency Distilled.
And this is actually already happening, as Amazon Echo allows consumers with Prime and a 1-click payment method on file to purchase physical products with Alexa, Anthony added.
Or, as Virji put it in a recent Q&A, as search assistants become gateways to other apps, like a refrigerator that knows you are running out of milk and adds an alert to your calendar. We live our lives more in more in ecosystems like the one Apple has created in which it’s easy to buy everything in one place. And voice will make our lives more like this, too, she added.
“I think, again, personally, conversational interfaces bring everything together…like Alexa is in my home, I can talk to it and change my [restaurant] reservation by an hour,” Virji said in the Q&A. “It will bring together multiple things and there will be really fierce competition with Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, which have lots of users in their ecosystems. Voice can keep people in an ecosystem.”
And as car manufacturers start to integrate voice technology, it becomes easier to see how these burgeoning ecosystems could follow us around everywhere and facilitate our every move, making Google.com seem quite antiquated, indeed.
Voice Assistants Today Might as Well be Homo Habilis
In other words, next-generation interfaces that combine voice, gestures, and screens everywhere have the potential to become so much more than just assistants.
“Voice is not good for feedback. But combine it with things like Magic Leap [which is developing a platform it says will enable consumers to “seamlessly combine and experience your digital and physical lives”] and [holographic computer Microsoft] HoloLens and Google’s Soli project [which Google says is a new sensing technology that uses miniature radar to detect touchless gesture interactions] and Glissando [which is trying to combine voice and gesture interfaces] and you begin to [see] a next-generation interface,” Anthony said. “This is going to be important as we’re going to have interfaces in hundreds of devices and we can’t be expected to learn [them all].”
Indeed, natural language could easily be the common thread – with the added bonus that it is an interface users don’t have to learn, Anthony said.
Virji agreed conversation is the platform “that sits there and pops into action when you need it to make your life easier, and it’s all about actions and intent.”
She used the example of a consumer looking for a good pizzeria in London. Siri could pull up a recommendation and then ask if said consumer wants to book a table and then do so, cutting out a middleman like OpenTable.
And, funny enough, in another pizza example, Chris Hart, head of US client development at SEO platform Linkdex, agreed.
“Sooner or later, you’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, I want pizza,’ and [your voice assistant will say], ‘the best sausage meatball pizza is over here and this other place had a bad review,’” he said. “This is the kind of thing you’ll get to. It’s not just a result, but it’s going to give you an interaction to some degree to allow the thing to be more lifelike, conversational and results-based based on your needs.”
Voice as the Means to Perform Groups of Actions
But that’s really the tip of the iceberg. A little further along, it will be all about grouping actions together with AI and voice to, as Larry the Cable Guy says, Git-R-Done.
So when a consumer tells Siri he or she is hungry, Siri will know the consumer tends to like pizza, but has eaten it the last few days and is likely to be more in the mood for, say, Greek food and can then ask if said consumer wants to book a table, Virji said.
Travel site Kayak is another good example.
“You need a ticket, so: ‘Where are you going? When do you need to go? And how much are you willing to pay?’” Virji asked. “It’s taking groupings of actions and making that happen; that is where voice is going.”
And this will only accelerate as consumers demand more convenience and search engines and other platforms evolve to attempt to enhance user experience on a broader scale.
And that’s in part because there’s an escalating war for consumer attention, Virji noted.
“Think about it: If I’m on my phone and I see a cute pair of shoes on TV and want to buy them, it is easy for me to go to the Zappos app,” Virji said. “But if I’m Google or Bing, I want [consumers] to do a search so I can benefit from the ad revenue. Search engines will have to compete for attention versus apps, but they’ll still exist [in the future]. I don’t think they’ll go away – they’ll just have a different function ultimately.”
An Added Bonus: The Power to Transform Lives on an Unprecedented Scale
And while harnessing the power of AI and voice to act as all-encompassing personal assistants is perhaps indulgent in one sense, there will also be use cases that enrich lives, like Microsoft’s Seeing AI project, which uses intelligence APIs from Microsoft Cognitive Services to help people who are visually impaired or blind better understand what is around them.
In a video, the developer behind the project demonstrates how he can take a photo of what’s in front of him while wearing a pair of special glasses and then hear descriptions of the images, such as the ages and genders of the people within, as well as their emotions and what they’re doing. The program can even read menus.
“It’s pretty cool that AI is about inclusion,” Virji said.
Google V. Bing/Microsoft V. Amazon V. ? : Place Your Bets
So it seems whatever player creates the conversational ecosystem more consumers use is the one that will be dominant in this brave new world.
In the Q&A, internet marketing consultant and SEO expert Ammon Johns pointed out that Microsoft is in a great position in voice because it has data from Connect, as well as gaming platforms and it has years of experience in which voice is built into its OS, so it is actually ahead of Google in this respect, not to mention when it comes to research into gestures and body position.
But, that’s not to say Microsoft/Bing is necessarily poised to dominate the future of search.
Indeed, for his part, Duane Forrester, Vice President of organic search operations at digital marketing optimization company Bruce Clay, said Bing won’t necessarily unseat Google with voice because Google is “In there just as deep.”
And SEO and Internet marketing expert Alan Bleiweiss, too, noted the future of search domination is still up for grabs.
“Google isn’t dead in the water at this point, since they have such a strong share foothold with Android,” Bleiweiss added. “If we’re looking worldwide, they still dominate market share exponentially over iOS.”
Further, while Bing provides results for Siri, Cortana, and Alexa, Bleiweiss noted Apple works with additional partners like Wikipedia, Twitter, Wolfram Alpha, Shazam, Yahoo Stocks and even Rotten Tomatoes as sources for Siri results.
“So Bing doesn’t get all of the result real estate,” Bleiweiss added. “Bottom line? The industry is now in a fierce race to dominate voice search and AI. Who comes out on top down the road? Give me $1,000 to bet, and I’ll split my bet evenly across each of the players, setting aside $250 for an as-yet-not-known new party.”
Virji, too, said the future is still up for grabs with all major digital players – including Microsoft and Google, but also Amazon – racing toward monetization.
Further, she pointed to products at Microsoft’s recent annual developers’ conference that she said are bigger than just voice search and personal assistants and encapsulate conversation as a platform that tie in artificial intelligence. For example, Siri can help business owners determine if, say, they need to bake more cupcakes simply by asking, “Do I need to bake more cupcakes?” which the AI then calculates.
“You can still talk to Cortana or whoever, but the task will be bigger than ‘show me pictures of red shoes’ and ‘book a restaurant,’” Virji said.
Per Virji, it’s in part about search engines figuring out how to continue to serve ads to consumers, which could be via the SERPs or via interfaces such as Google Home, a voice-activated home product similar to Amazon Echo that says it allows consumers to get answers from Google, stream music and manage everyday tasks, or Cortana partnering with players like OpenTable. As long as consumers continue to look for things, search engines can keep serving ads to them, she said.
But Forrester noted what could really unseat Google as we know it is the coming shift by a new generation.
“As desktops die off, mobile becomes our primary means. With decreased real estate, organic results will fight against paid ad space for exposure,” Forrester said. “This will force a trust conversation within that generation — do we trust organic rankings only, or does Google do a good job of showing me paid ads that answer all my questions? This is the pivot that’ll challenge Google. Well, all engines really.”
At the same time, Lau pointed to Microsoft getting Surface tablets in front of young consumers.
“Bing has done a great job of putting more devices in classrooms. [They’re] changing the behavior of the next generation to use Windows products and…the default search engine is Bing, so their first interaction with a search engine is Bing. We joke with some of our partners they’re farming the next generation of searchers so [Microsoft] can harvest [them] when they become the next generation of primary spenders 15 to 20 years from now,” Lau said. “Maybe it’s a conspiracy theory about the long con over there, but it looks like Microsoft is going to make a play for search later on and Google needs to come up with something innovative today. If you see what Google is working on – it’s self-driving cars, it’s not search-related anymore.”
For his part, Aaron Levy, Manager of Client Strategy at digital marketing agency Elite SEM, said the story is indeed in those tablets and Bing building voice into more than just mobile devices.
“It’s essentially a part of Windows 10, but that’s not really just desktops. If you think about it, they’ve built a tablet that 100 percent replaces laptops,” he said. “What they’re doing better than anyone else is making things more mobile and crafting a seamless experience across devices. It’s kind of brutal on mobile…but on desktop/laptop/tablet, it’s phenomenal. Once people adopt the Cortana experience, they stand to make a big play. That’s where they really have a dominant position and where they stand to take some lunch from Google.”
Further, Levy noted the Chrome OS is light years away from being anything meaningful and there is a million different iterations of Android.
“The vast majority of the world is most comfortable with Windows for their main machines. If Bing[/Microsoft] can find a way to make a mobile platform that sticks, then they’d have a real shot,” Levy said. “The not-so-quiet elephant in the room is Amazon/Alexa, but that’s a whole different dialogue that’s potentially outside of search. At least for now.”
As search engines face the not-so-distant future, they must evolve beyond search. And voice is the missing link that will help them — and other platforms — develop and nurture the ecosystems necessary to retain consumer loyalty. And while Google may dominate search as it stands in 2016, a new leader could easily emerge as this space evolves.