Will chatbots become part of the consumer search experience?

When thinking about the future of organic search, common considerations include the impending mobile-first index, machine learning, AI, natural language processing, voice search, site speed, HTTP 2, personalization and consumer behavior changes led by the Internet of Things and digital assistants.

However, during an inspirational Future of Search meeting with the Bing team and Rik van der Kooi, corporate vice president for Microsoft advertising worldwide, discussion focused on a different topic — how chatbots could form a much greater part of the consumer search experience. Van der Kooi explained that since May in the US (Seattle area), Bing has been testing chatbots directly in paid and organic search results, as shown below.

While chatbot integrations have been in the news over recent months, most people outside of the Seattle area won’t have seen them in action or truly considered how such integrations could be used.

For instance, if chatbot integrations within search results become a future reality, they could be used to carry out the following without ever leaving search results:

  • Book a test drive
  • Engage with customer service
  • Order products and services

The possibilities are vast and shine a light on the importance of APIs and data integrations to enable the next generation of consumer interaction.

The challenges of a chatbot future

For a moment, let’s assume Bing’s testing is successful, and we see chatbots roll out in search results. Getting brands to a point where they can leverage the technology is going to be a challenge never before experienced by owned performance and marketing teams.

Do brands have the data infrastructure and customer service setup to make this happen? Who leads these teams, and are they willing to cooperate? What reporting metrics will be required? New relationships and process will have to be forged and maintained.

Measurement and reporting will also pose new challenges, as consumers will interact with brands through search results pages rather than on-site. Analytics platforms will need to find a way to track these interactions.

If chatbots are to become a part of the consumer search experience in the future, agencies and in-house teams have to set expectations with brands about the level of resource and data integration requirements.

For instance, being an early adopter and investing in new technology may produce underwhelming results until consumer usage becomes mainstream; however, at that point, you’ll be a front-runner with an advantage over competitors.

On the other hand, you can wait until consumer adoption has reached high levels, but you’ll then be playing catch-up to earn visibility within search results.

Prioritizing the short-term, middle and long-term future

While an exciting development, it is unclear whether chatbots will become a permanent feature in search results. Even if they do, it will likely be in the middle to long term.

We should keep a close watch on the direction search engines are moving, but at this early stage, this type of integration is more suited to brands with a healthy test-and-learn budget. For these brands, the test-and-learn process should not purely focus on search integration but rather how chatbots can be used to enhance consumer experience across owned, earned and paid channels.

However, for the majority of brands, the focus should be on how to increase performance over the next 12 to 18 months. For instance, with the mobile-first index on the horizon and mobile web usage ever increasing, a worrying number of brands are still offering a mobile experience that is not consumer-centric. Addressing that issue remains a key priority.

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