The search box as you know it will soon disappear. It might not be such a good thing.
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What’s known as the user journey in tech industry-speak, is about to change, in many ways.
The agents of change? Your voice and your habits, coupled with your ‘favourite’ app’s ability to understand you.
It’s been on the cards for a while – trying to find a way to make search engines understand the way humans ask questions, the way we look for things, the way we sometimes don’t know what we’re looking for until we stumble across it. So far the best efforts have been text-based and reactive.
Now all the major tech companies are competing to corner the market in virtual assistants, intelligent search engines built into hand-held or free-standing devices, search engines that understand human voice and behaviour and can offer results before we even know we need them.
Google Now tries to predict and respond to you the way a long-trusted secretary would, someone who would be able to give you, in the words of Google: “just the right information when you need it.”
Amazon’s Echo is, according to Amazon, “a hands-free speaker you control with your voice [connecting] to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly. All you have to do is ask.”
Microsoft say that Cortana is a personal assistant that “will help you find things on your PC, manage your calendar, track packages, find files, chat with you, and tell jokes.”
Apple suggest that you should “[t]alk to Siri as you would to a friend and it can help you get things done.”
According to Recode, Facebook’s new virtual assistant, embedded in its messenger app “can arrange to have flowers delivered. It can warn you that it’s likely to rain. It can snag you hard-to-find tickets to [an] upcoming […] movie.”
What all these virtual assistants have in common is a tendency towards monopoly-thinking, to force you, the customer, to use their ‘results’ and their suggested services only.
The problem is inherent in the wish to make a service seamless, where the user gets one piece of information at the right time and isn’t prompted to verify that source as the best one.
One can imagine all kinds of ways these virtual assistants could be used to rig the game, so that only a company’s preferred vendors are allowed to be featured in the new, immediate and single ‘search result’.
The business model?
The problem is the business model, or models.
On the one hand speech assistance doesn’t allow for contextual advertising (this applies to both advertiser and virtual assistant owners).
On the other, how can a small business break into the virtual assistant’s preferred result for a particular request?
In other words, what is the user journey for companies trying to get customers to buy their products or services? What does service discovery look like in an age of virtual assistants?
So far we have bought the idea that Google search has offered up the ‘best’ ten results for our query. This assumption has been based on the idea that Google is an open market-place where advertising can compete for prevalence, only so far as it is relevant to user. The algorithm has served links, we have assumed, based on the quality of the content found on the pages behind the link.
How will this work for a virtual assistant’s search results?
How do we know we are being offered the ‘best’ result, not only ‘a result’ at the right time?
Amidst all the euphoria about the uses of virtual assistants, the major providers of such services also have some explaining to do.
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