The future of search: How bots are shifting the customer journey

Steven van Belleghem, author of When Digital Becomes Human, explains the massive impact bots are having on search.

For many years, the only way to find something on the internet has been to use a search engine such as Google.

You type your request in, and multiple pages of results are returned. Chances are you won’t go beyond the first couple of pages, and we generally tend to criticise a company for not doing its SEO correctly if it doesn’t turn up high enough tin the results to be noticed. Marketers have spent fortunes on paid search advertising and keyword optimisation strategies to be on page one, and the level of success has meant make or break for many.

When you think about this, however, it really is a sub-optimal system. Why? Well, when you type something in and get hundreds of pages of results, it’s really rather overwhelming. And what if the thing you’re looking for is actually on page seven? Realistically you’re unlikely to stick around long enough to find it.

The good news is that the future of search is going in a very different direction: using bots. While this may be a term that some dismiss as the latest buzzword in technology, it’s quickly becoming clear that bots are going to have a huge impact on search. In fact, they already are.

The development of bots

A quick technology lesson on internet bots: these are applications that perform an automated task, from ordering food to telling you what the weather will be that day. They’re often programmed so it seems as if you’re having a conversation with a real human.

It won’t surprise you to hear that Facebook has been one of the early adopters of bot technology. What the social media giant has started to do is allow brands to offer customer service through its Messenger app. One company to take advantage of this is Dutch airline KLM. If you book a flight with KLM, it will ask you if you want your inflight documentation through Messenger. Say yes, and it will use a plug-in on its website to message you all the information you need, plus other useful things such as flight notifications.

Another example of bot technology is Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home, which are devices that you ask to perform everyday tasks, from playing a Michael Jackson song to putting a meeting in your diary.

Towards an automated search

The example of Echo shows the power that bots are starting to have over search processes. There are around 1.7 million Echoes in homes across America, with one out of three using it to order products. This means about 500,000 US households are buying products on a voice-controlled device owned by Amazon. If this increases in popularity and effectiveness, this creates a new world of search.

I predict that soon we’ll have services like this with us at all times, and be carrying them around with us on our smartphones. So think about how this will change the way you search for things. Again, I don’t think it will surprise you to hear that Google is one of the companies leading the way in bot-related searches, with the aim of making the search process automated and based on locations, and therefore hyper-relevant for users.

While we’re still a way off this, you can see some brands are starting to take their first steps along this path. Disney, for example, is about to launch a bot, in the guise of Mickey Mouse, that helps you book a holiday. Clothing company Northface has a customer-orientated search model that asks you intelligent questions about the product you’re searching for and tailors responses accordingly.

While these first applications of bots are optimisations of the search process, what we’ll see in the second phase is a completely automated process based on your profile. We’ll all have a bot who will gather information about our likes and dislikes, and then act as a personal servant to go through search processes for us, talking to other bots.

For example, if you’re looking for car insurance, your bot will start to talk to the bots of insurance companies. It will go through the results, and then present you with the options that best fit your requirements.

While this seismic shift in search will be brilliant for consumers, it does mean there’s a lot of work ahead for companies to ensure that their bots are talking to consumers’ bots and generating business. It’s the dawn of “Artificial Intelligence first” marketing, and it is going to be fascinating to watch this new style of search develop and grow.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is an expert in customer focus in the digital world. He’s the author of the award-winning book, When Digital Becomes Human, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99.

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