How Digital Assistants are shaping the way we search online

29th October 2015

I am sure that you are all aware that mobile searches have already overtaken desktop searches, the ease of picking up your mobile phone and tapping in your question is unbeatable when compared to desktop computer searching, or so it seemed. Then came the introduction of the digital assistant, which has taken the ease of searching to a whole new level and has made it a lot more fun!

Being able to ask your phone a question is nothing new. Already well established are Siri, Cortana and Google Now.

But there is an entrepreneur in America with a reasonably successful company called Facebook who now wants to use digital assistants to improve his customers’ experiences with his product.

Facebook are currently testing their own personal assistant – ‘M’. Although not powered by voice commands, it will be available as part of the Facebook Messenger App and will be able to provide you with information and also complete tasks for you – but more on that later...

Back to the existing digital assistants….

What first appeared as a novelty asset on our phones is fast becoming the go-to search function, being a lot easier (and wittier) than a standard internet search. This change in the way we use the internet to search may well lead to changes in the way we optimise for searching. So how do they work? Digital assistants work in the same way that search engines do but with some key differences that make them extremely user friendly...

They search online and offline - Windows Cortana for example, will search files on your hard drive as well as the internet, so it can search through your saved documents and your emails to find what you’re looking for.

Conversation is key – the ability to be able to ‘just ask’ that burning question and actually hear your answer is the reason digital assistants are becoming so popular, it is also the human nature of their answers which are often humorous. Take Siri for example, when asked the question "What's zero divided by zero?" after a long-winded answer it added "And you are sad that you have no friends" – harsh, but this answer became an internet obsession and is just one of the many funny one liners which Siri has up its sleeve ready to entertain users.

They get to know you better – just as Google tailors its search results based on your previous habits, digital assistants do the same but go one step further. They keep an eye on your internet search history, your location and your general usage habits to give you a very personal user experience. Google Now, for example, can let you know when you should leave for the airport based on the information it has on your flight booking and your current location, so you don’t even need to ask! This is surely something which is only going to develop further and reduce the need for Google searching as you will be given an answer before you even ask it!

They get straight to the point – Your digital assistant will get you the info you need, and fast. They look for immediate, Knowledge-Graph like responses, removing the need to browse through a page of websites which may or may not be able to help.

How do we adapt SEO to this new way of searching?

As the likes of Cortana, Siri, Google Now and M (once released) become more and more popular, it seems that changes will need to be implemented in order to ensure that sites will be found through a voice search, we will be relying not only on browser rankings, but also on the appeal to a digital assistant that makes them choose it for their user. Effects of Google’s Knowledge Graph have already been felt by Wikipedia, and with digital assistants working in a similar way, could the same thing happen with other sites? There are things you can be doing to adapt to this change…

Keep it conversational – Digital assistants search for a way to answer your question that suits the conversational tone, so using long-tail keywords, colloquial phrases and long form questions will help.

Be more visual – currently, digital assistants have no choice but to visit a specific web page for photos and videos so include more of this content in order to get yourself ahead in this way.

Concentrate efforts on other platforms – make the most of the platforms that digital assistants can’t reach. Use social media and third party directories, not to improve your ranking on digital assistant’s searches but to increase your popularity in a field they can’t access – for now.

How does Facebook aim to beat existing digital assistants?

Facebook Messenger is already one of the most used Apps for messaging out there, it’s therefore no surprise that Facebook want to utilise this and get in on the action. So what will it do better? ‘M’ will be able to look up information on your behalf but it will also be able to complete tasks for you such as purchasing an item, booking a restaurant or making travel arrangements for you. Unlike the existing digital assistants out there, M will use real people as well as artificial intelligence to complete the tasks it is set. Users of the Facebook App will simply have to tap a button at the top of the Messenger app to send a note to M. It will then message back the user with a solution to the task, whether that is a restaurant recommendation or a confirmed booking.

What does all of this mean for the future of internet searching?

Considering the growing popularity of digital assistants, they could well overtake and even replace the browser-based search altogether. We may become dependent on immediate answers and will need a digital assistant to give us our information so that we don’t have to search for it. This could mean the SEO world being replaced with a new way of achieving digital visibility.

With this in mind, it may be time to start thinking about your online presence and how digital assistants may have an effect on it in the future. It may not happen overnight but we all know how fast technology evolves. It is always worth investing in your online presence and knowing what’s around the corner helps you to stay one step ahead of your competition.