Will Virtual Assistants Kill SEO As We Know It?

It is safe to say that artificial intelligence is single handedly the most important technology to be introduced into search marketing in the last few years. From Google’s RankBrain algorithm which feeds searches through machine learning technology, to Alexa, Siri, and Cortana for voice search, AI is changing the way we use and interact with search engines. This week Google made a big announcement at their 2016 I/O event, where CEO Sundar Pichai exhibited the company’s new assistive search tool dubbed Google assistant. Google’s choice to not capitalize “assistant” in the name is an interesting one, as it signifies that this is not a stand alone tool, but instead a technology that could be built into other Google platforms.

Google assistant is not a tool or a service; it is a technology that could shape how searches are performed.

The Rise of Virtual Assistants

With virtual assistant technology, search engines are no longer here to give you options and information, but instead to help you complete daily tasks.

When we talk about these emerging technologies in search, we hear a variety of words like artificial intelligence, bot, machine learning, and virtual assistant used interchangeably. However, the descriptor that search marketers should be most interested in is “virtual assistant.” Not because it is the "right way" to describe something like Google assistant, but because it indicates a shift in how search technology is positioned in our lives.In the current search landscape, Google is merely a website, a far away entity, a resource that we seek out in order to find information. But, if virtual assistant technology surges like I believe it will, search engines like Google will be woven into our lives seamlessly and become part of our everyday reality and routine.

Imagine: Instead of opening a browser and searching “chiropractors in Austin TX”, with a virtual assistant you could voice activate a device by speaking aloud. You could say, “I need to see a chiropractor,” to which the device might respond, “I found a 5-star rated chiropractor 1 mile from here, would you like me to schedule you an appointment?”

With virtual assistant technology, search engines are no longer here to give you options and information, but instead to help you complete daily tasks.

Zero-Sum SEO

According to Google, 20% of all mobile searches on the Google app and Android devices are voice searches. Based on the steady upward trend of mobile usage, as well as constant improvements in voice search technology, it is safe to assume that the 20% figure will continue to climb.

With a virtual assistant the entire front page of Google becomes irrelevant– you are either the best result for a given search or you are not.

So what does it mean when semantic search gains a larger and larger share of the search pie? It means that search results are moving towards a zero-sum state where the answer given to a searcher is the ONLY answer, and every other possible result is irrelevant.

To use our previous example again, when your virtual assistant device returns: “I found a 5-star rated chiropractor 1 mile from here, would you like me to schedule you an appointment?” you have no need for more search results. You already know this chiropractor is highly rated and nearby, so you don’t need to sift through 10 results on the front page of Google.

With a virtual assistant the entire front page of Google becomes irrelevant-- you are either the best result for a given search or you are not.

What Do The Statistics Say?

The idea that semantic search will create a full-blown, zero-sum landscape is a fun thought exercise, but it is just that, a thought exercise. Consider this: Nearly 70% of U.S citizens own a smartphone, however mobile search only accounts for roughly 50% of all Google searches. So even though most Americans have the capability to conduct searches on a mobile device, they do not roughly half of the time. To go further, according to one estimate, the average person does less than one Google search on mobile per day. That is hardly a usage rate to get excited about.

Don’t Freak Out and Quit Your SEO Job

There is plenty to be excited about with virtual assistants and the future of semantic search, but there is no data indicating Google SERPs as we know them are going away anytime soon. Nearly half of all Google searches are still done on desktops by people like you and I who spend the majority of our days at our computers.

Additionally, we need to look at consumer intent if we want to understand the future of search. While there may be more and more people using semantic search (eg: “coffee shop nearby”) on their mobile devices, there are still plenty of informational and research queries that make more sense on desktop.

Mobile queries may skew towards local intent and high purchase intent (eg: "looking for nearby coffee right now") but desktop devices are better positioned for informational search (click on one search result, go back to google and click another for more info.) Both mobile and desktop devices currently have their own place in search, and both will continue to be relevant into the future. As long as we are still using desktop computers in our daily lives, desktop search will be important to SEO.

Moving Forward

Virtual assistant for semantic search is an emerging technology that shows promise, but it is hard to know if or when users will embrace the technology fully (see the negative reception of Google Glass as an example of unpredictable acceptance of new technology.) Google search as we know it is deeply ingrained into our culture and will continue to be an important tool regardless of how the information is presented to a searcher.

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