There was a time when a “personal digital assistant” referred to a now-obsolete mobile device that served as a precursor to the modern smartphone. Today, our digital assistants have a much more literal—though still incorporeal—form. Apple’s Siri and Google Now are just two popular examples of how voice recognition software have been applied to meaningful, functional systems. Rather than typing in a prompt or using an interface to perform a function or find answers, these digital assistants live up to their namesakes by performing these tasks instead.
For now, these digital assistants are novelties to most users, but they are growing in popularity, and one day soon they may completely replace search engines—institutions we assumed would be around forever.
Part of the motivation for this gradual shift is the raw increase in search sophistication. The original Google search algorithm, while sophisticated in its own right, only used a handful of basic determinations to qualify incoming queries. Keywords were mapped against keywords as they stood on the web, and links were simply counted and mixed into the formula used to calculate rank. Today, searches are far more sophisticated—they use a process called semantic search to analyze the intent behind a user’s query and find the most appropriate results to appease that intention throughout the web.
Digital assistants, too, are growing more sophisticated by the day. Early versions of Siri were clunky and unpredictable, mistaking spoken words for nonsense and generating unreliable answers. Today, most digital assistants function well in even intentionally challenging situations, and companies like Google and Apple are constantly upgrading them to new levels of intricacy.
While the evolving sophistication of search explains why digital assistants might be used more often, it doesn’t explain why they might be used instead of conventional searches. To explain that, we must look at how closely the Internet has become interwoven with our technologies of choice. Little more than a decade ago, the Internet was a separate function on a computer—you’d have to dial in to connect your computer, and fire up a browser to find what you were looking for. Today, most of our devices connect automatically to the Internet, whether through 4G or Wifi, and the majority of our apps and services rely on it for base functionality. The Internet is no longer a separate place that needs scanned for information, like trying to find a book in a library, but instead is all around us and in varying forms. When we search for something, a browser-based website may no longer be the best place to find it.
The dawn of wearable devices—namely the popularly rising smart watch—is also spurring the gradual transition from typical online search to digital assistant-based search. Wearable devices have smaller screens, more functionality, and are poised to help people who are constantly on-the-go. Because of this, they are naturally prone to more verbal queries and immediate needs—which the old style of browser-based searching cannot easily accommodate. As more users adopt wearable technology, it’s highly likely that assistant-based searches will rise accordingly.
Obviously, if digital assistant searches take over traditional online searches, the entire scope of SEO will change. Some benefits of SEO will disappear entirely, and some tactics will become obsolete in favor of newer, more refined approaches.
Voice-Based Search Queries
First, the quantity of voice-based search queries will greatly increase. Digital assistants rely on spoken commands, and as a result, queries will become longer and more conversational. That means you’ll have to update your own content to be more conversational and more colloquial to serve as an ideal match. It also means generalizing your optimization strategy so you don’t become beholden to keywords or short phrases.
Provision of Instant Answers
You’ve already seen the beginning of the instant-answer phenomenon with the release of the Google Knowledge Graph, which provides answers to questions and common queries without forcing users to find them on individual websites. Digital assistants will take this technology a step further, giving users short, concise answers whenever possible rather than just referring them to another source, like a website. This will mean reduced traffic and visibility for traditional websites, but could mean an increased importance on functional apps over informational webpages.
Since wearable devices and digital assistants will start being consulted on-the-go, rather than in a home or office environment, local businesses can benefit by offering more geographically relevant content and more incentives for physical visits. This may mean integrating new technologies into a physical location to accommodate early adopters, or simply optimizing in a way that gets you mentioned by digital assistants more often when your potential customers are nearing your location.
Immediacy of Needs
Finally, people will be consulting their digital assistants for more immediate, detailed needs. This demands longer-form, more tutorial-like pieces of content, and may mean publishing that content in new, more wearable-friendly forms like videos or audio streams.
It’s uncertain exactly when or how digital assistants would begin phasing out the traditional forms of search engines, but you can bet it will be a gradual process. While technology develops quickly, nothing happens overnight. Pay close attention to these trends as they evolve, and try to stay a step or two ahead of your competition in adopting new strategies to suit them.