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The Rise of Virtual Assistants, and the Evolution of Search and Discovery

Virtual assistant tools are on the rise in social, with Facebook adding them into Messenger (via ‘M’, Bots and smart tips) and Google integrating them within their new Allo messaging app. These additional functionalities make sense – Facebook and Google, with their increasingly advanced AI systems, are learning more and more about our individual likes and interests, context for what we’ll likely go searching for in future. Given the amount of collective insight and knowledge these systems now have, there could come a time where they’ll even reliably be able to recommend what you need before you even know you need it.

Such innovations are also being enhanced by the rise of another type of virtual assistant - those being added into your home via devices like Google Home and Amazon’s Echo. Already, more than five million Amazon Echo units have been sold, and 3.5 million Google Home units activated, and those numbers are expected to increase to around 24 million assistant devices in homes by the end of 2017.

It’s important to recognize that these functionalities are all connected. Not technically, of course - they all serve very different purposes and utilize totally different systems. But habitually, these systems are training users to change their expectations on search and discovery, we’re learning to expect these systems to know us, to learn our behaviors and needs, and to provide relevant recommendations with less manual input at each turn.

That shift is a significant change in search behavior, and it could have major implications for marketers moving forward.

And this week, we’ve seen reports of a new development on this front, with the first paid ads delivered via Google Home.

The ad's a bit clumsy, a bit forced into the interaction, but it’s a first step, a first move by Google to monetize this new discovery process.

It may seem like nothing, an obvious move - of course they’ll be looking to push in ad content - but it’s worthy of note in that it raises the consideration of how these new assistant tools are going to change the game, both in digital marketing and in SEO.

For example, using Google Assistant in Google Allo, you can now seek recommendations for, say, a restaurant to meet at during any interaction.

On the Rise of Virtual Assistants, and the Evolution of Search and Discovery | Social Media TodayAs you can see in the example, the query posted within the conversation is ‘sushi restaurants nearby’. Those types of conversational queries around going to become more important – which is relevant from an SEO perspective (considering the language people use when searching), but more than that, it’ll also mean these systems are in charge of delivering relevant results.

What if you could pay to ensure your business came up as a relevant query? What if this becomes a whole new means of outreach? The arrival of ads on Google Home shows that they’re exploring their ad opportunities, which could well extend to search recommendations and direct links to ordering options.

Here’s another example, this time within Facebook Messenger.

On the Rise of Virtual Assistants, and the Evolution of Search and Discovery | Social Media TodayAs you can see, there are now automated prompts showing up for some users (in test mode) to set a reminder for an event, based on machine learning systems which have ‘read’ the context of your message.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has noted their development of such tools - more importantly for detection of abuse and dangerous behavior, but still, the same process can be used to provide immediate, direct prompts, like this, based on message context.

Now imagine if that prompt didn’t say ‘Set Reminder’, but instead it said ‘Place Order’. With more payment options being added to Messenger, and similar, immediate pay options being built into home devices, such prompts will become more common. And if there’s a way for your business to tap into those recommendations and become the preferred source, that could present a significant opportunity.

As noted, such developments have the potential to change search and discovery as we know it. We’re still in the early stages of this shift – Facebook's only testing out these tools and Google Assistant is still ironing out the kinks (a recent error made elements your Google search history accessible to others on a chat thread). But it’s important to consider the wider implications of the new behaviors being learned, and how that’s going to change the marketing process.

Tools are being developed to streamline the buying process, to make it more immediate, easier for users to simply place an order for something while it’s top of mind, even have systems detect needs and order on your behalf. And with that new world will come a new range of marketing and outreach opportunities. Some will see significant benefit from this, especially those that get in early and work with these new processes. Others will lose out as a result.

It’s worth paying attention as these elements evolve to ensure your brand is at the forefront.  

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