Windows Cortana, Siri, Google Now, Alexa, Facebook’s M – these and other digital assistants are clearly game changers for search. But how, exactly, are they altering the rules and the turf? What “game” are they changing, specifically, and how are marketers like you supposed to react?
Before getting into the wonky details, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.
Digital assistants: what are they, and why do they matter?
Here’s a great working definition from TechTarget.com:
“A digital assistant, also called a virtual assistant, is an application program that can understand natural language and complete electronic tasks for the end user.
Such tasks, which might have been performed by a personal assistant or secretary in previous decades, include taking dictation, reading text or email messages aloud, looking up phone numbers, anticipating requests, placing calls and reminding the end user about appointments. Popular digital assistants currently include Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Cortana, the digital assistant built into Windows Phone 8.1.
Today’s digital assistants are programmed with artificial intelligence, machine learning and voice recognition technology. As the end user interacts with his digital assistant, the AI programming uses sophisticated algorithms to learn from data input and become better at predicting the end user’s needs. Tomorrow’s digital assistants will be built with more advanced cognitive computing technologies which will allow a digital assistant to understand and carry out multi-step requests and perform more complex tasks such as making a plane reservation.”
How are these assistants different when it comes to search?
Let us count the ways.
- They look at data beyond the internet.
For instance, Windows Cortana will root through the files on your computer to get answers to certain types of questions and then use web-based searches to answer other queries.
- They learn from your habits.
Like an obsessed ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend, assistants pay close attention to what you do online and off. Google and the other SEs of course also stalk you and adapt their magic accordingly. But Cortana and Siri and friends take this to another level. For instance, let’s say you create a lot of Excel documents. Your assistant will learn that your searches for Excel-related terms are not queries for user tips but rather for files and spreadsheets you have on your computer or email.
- They cut to the quick.
When you search using a traditional interface, like Google, the assumption is that you want to read information and get educated. Those using digital assistants don’t want a bedtime story (in general): they want fast, simple answers. You don’t ask Siri for think pieces about the Donald Trump candidacy or insight into the state of the pollution problem in Beijing. You ask her for quantifiable stuff:
- “Which exit do I take to get to Applebees?”
- “What’s that Taylor Swift song my 4 year old loves?”
- “What are my odds of winning the PowerBall?”
- “Can eating a bad banana give me a headache?”
- They talk like you talk.
Digital assistants are programmed to be adept at being conversational. They’re not yet super-smart AI, but they’re getting closer all the time, and they’re able to tease apart the meaning of strange sounding searches (based on subtle conversational clues) in ways that Google and other SEs can’t yet do.
How should you alter your marketing strategies to accommodate the SEO changes wrought by Siri and her pals?
- Stop offering as much generic information in your content. Go deeper and niche-ier.
In the near-past, it made sense from an SEO perspective to fill your site with lots of overly obvious insights about your industry and service. But the advent of these assistants changes things – digital assistants don’t need you to weigh in on questions like “What is IP?” and “What is probate?” and “What is a muscle car?” and things of that nature. They can bypass your content and deliver the answer directly, cutting you out of the circuit. Instead, focus on writing valuable, hard to duplicate content that speaks to a niche and that can’t be bypassed.
- Multi-media it up.
Add videos, photos and infographics to your site. When you include this type of content on your site, you make yourself invaluable and avoid getting cut out the loop.
- If you haven’t already done so, STOP writing stilted, keyword stuffed content that sounds like a non-English speaker got paid $0.02 a word to write it.
There are many reasons to keep your content conversational and to give it a personality. First off, Google et al are getting increasingly good at punishing sites that try to SEO-hack their way to prominence (as opposed to earning that prominence by providing outstanding content worthy of high ranking). But now that digital assistants are in the picture, you have even more reason to keep it clean and stay away from gross keyword stuffing.
- Don’t panic or throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Yes, digital assistants will reshape the terrain, but they’re not going to destroy everything you’ve built and force you to start over from scratch. If you’re building content that’s attracting the right people at the right time to the right places, keep ‘er going. If you notice your content marketing strategy fall off, consider optimizing more for digital assistants as a possible solution, but don’t jump to conclusions. Yes, it could be that your content isn’t conversational or that your blog posts are too simple or that you don’t have enough pretty pictures. But that might not be the main constraint. Bear in mind the 80/20 rule, and drill down to discover what’s really holding back your online marketing – and your business in general.
- Finally, remember to take a broad view of search and online marketing in general.
The hurly-burly of our industry (at least in 2016) creates a background of confusion. Lots of things are changing online. For instance:
Mobile searches are becoming more popular than desktop searches, and this fact alone has game changing implications.
While Google remains the 800 pound gorilla of the search engine jungle, competitors like Yahoo! and Bing and other pee-wee SEs are evolving and refining their methods. Some analysts predict that while SEs will retain distinct flavors, the trend is towards homogeneity.
Video search will grow in importance, as well local SEO.
The point is that the effect of digital assistants on the landscape is impossible to disentangle from the effects of these other forces. Does that mean we should wave the white flag and surrender to chaos?
Not at all. But just recognize that this complexity exists, and pay attention to business and marketing fundamentals (e.g. understanding things like your Cost Per Client Acquisition and Lifetime Customer Value), even as you set your sites on building the perfect honey trap for 2016 searchers.