Recently, Bing has been experimenting with a chatbot feature directly in search results. Columnist David Freeman discusses how this shift could impact marketers.

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.

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.