We know search is changing. Almost every single day, something in our world shifts. Sometimes it’s a little shift and sometimes it’s Enhanced Campaigns, Expanded Text Ads, or Penguin. There’s a big change coming – possibly the biggest we’ve ever seen. And it’s already begun.
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend the Bing Ads Next event in Redmond, WA. It was the fourth such event that they’ve hosted, where influencers from across the globe can learn about the Microsoft business, strategy and more importantly, what’s coming next in the worlds of Search.
In the Search.Next session, Gurpreet Singh Pall talked about how different Bing is now compared to its inception in 2006. It’s a lot more than a search box on a webpage. Bing is now becoming a network, an intelligence that spans the whole Microsoft ecosystem, covering Windows 10, Cortana, Office, Xbox and more.
Search has already moved to mobile, social and we are currently seeing the rise of voice-based search and personal digital assistants, like Siri and Cortana. As the way machines understand and process natural language improves, we’ll find ourselves talking more naturally to our devices, rather than writing our search queries in such a way to try and ensure we get the right answers back. Alongside this, there’s talk of how predictive search could become a part of our lives, with the right answers being surfaced as we need them, without needing to actually search. We’ve already started this journey with tools like auto-suggest – it’s just a case of iterating further.
How else can we search without searching? Through conversations.
Over three billion people use chat apps every day, including Skype, Whatsapp, Slack, Facebook Messenger and WeChat. This gives us the perfect platform for the rise of the chatbot, or bot. But what is a bot? It’s a computer programme which mimics conversation with people using artificial intelligence.
In the near future, chances are development teams will be dedicating significant resources to building agents and bots. Why are bots awesome?
- You can interact with it in a natural way – just as you would a person
- You don’t need to leave your application – you can send the message from right where you are – allowing the bot to make use of the content surrounding your request
- More engaging than apps – Microsoft told us that people are engaging 3-5x more with conversational bots than with apps
- It’s already happening – it’s estimated that by 2020, customers will manage 85% of their relationships with enterprises without interacting with a human
— Jennifer Slegg (@jenstar) November 14, 2016
How could this work in practice?
Our relationships fall into different groups – broadly speaking these can be listed as 3 categories:
- Strong ties – the closest relationships that you’d have with your family and friends
- Weak ties – people you may still deal with regularly, such as colleagues or mentors to whom you don’t have ties which are as close as the above category
- Temporary ties – just what the sound like – be it the barista who serves your morning coffee, the assistant who helps you in a store or a customer service representative online
While it’s unlikely that bots could ever replace the relationships you have with your nearest and dearest (although having seen “Her”, who knows?) but a number of the other, more transitory relationships in our lives could potentially be fulfilled by bots. I’ve been at events where Microsoft have shown the ordering of coffee via a bot within Skype, the booking of a hotel in Vegas, or the finding and purchase of a dress.
It’s also possible that rather than having to search to find what you want, or to visit a website to interact and purchase, you could do everything you wanted without ever leaving the chat app you’re in. They may get so good, that in the end you might not think about whether or not they’re human.
So what are the key elements of this brave new world? How do we start making conversations the platform? To begin with, you need three things:
- Personal Digital Assistants
The Personal Digital Assistant is really key in this case. Taking Cortana as an example, she acts as the meta-bot that can interface with all of the other bots on your behalf. Really, she’s just the next step up from Bing, who supply us with 10 blue links as the answers to our questions – we will ask her a question and she’ll answer. What she’s also doing is helping to connect our devices together and help us improve our productivity. In future she’ll be able to do even more, such as remind us of things we’ve committed to do, without us needing to create the reminder ourselves.
In addition to this, they’ll have access to all of the vital information to enable them to act as the bot-overseer, such as payment details, addresses, dress sizes, favourite drinks, regularly ordered/required items and so on.
Where’s this already happening?
There’s already some good examples of bots live in the marketplace which can show us the potential of this technology.
Skyscanner has launched not one, but two bots on different platforms. Covering both Facebook Messenger and Skype, you can use the bots to search for flights to a specific destination, or even to tell you where you can go from the departure point of your choice. The Skype bot has also been built in such a way that it can easily be integrated into group chats to help facilitate bookings for multiple people.
One thing I really like about the bot is the way that it can make suggestions if you’re not sure about where you’d like to go.
Alternatively, it can give me suggestions for weekend breaks:
Clicking on “Route Tips” gives me all sorts of information on what sorts of prices represent value for money, what day out is cheapest to fly and which month is cheapest – versus the months when most people choose to go. This is brilliant for people like me to choose to go away in the off/shoulder season to deliberately avoid people 🙂
Once I’ve decided where I want to go and when, the bot comes back with results and prices for me to choose from, with the ability to sort results if I wish and to set a price alert.
Skyscanner haven’t stopped there – they recently announced an integration with Amazon’s Alexa service, allowing you to have voice only conversations for booking flights. The service isn’t yet available, but Skycanner explain why this sort of integration is so important to them (and it’s not just because it drives bookings, although I’m sure that helps):
Conversational integration is appearing in everything from wearables to cars to mobile apps, reinforcing that conversation and messaging are fast becoming mainstream. We expect voice products to be a major driver for this mainstream adoption
Skyscanner is always looking to offer our users fresh, innovative and engaging new ways to search for their travel . Chat bots offer something truly revolutionary by bringing travel search within the very platforms users are already interacting with on a frequent basis
Before attending the event I have to admit that I hadn’t ever really heard of WeChat. I’m not sure how widely known it is in the UK and Europe. It turns out, it’s absolutely massive in China. It has over 846 million month active users (for reference that’s more than double the number of active users on Twitter) and is probably the dominant force in social media and messaging in China.
Putting aside for a moment the concerns around censorship and how open WeChat is with its users, where the platform becomes very interesting when you start to look at “Official Accounts”, in particular at the “Service Accounts” derivation.
Service Accounts have access to APIs and can build their own “apps” within the WeChat app. Most importantly, this includes access to payments via WeChat Wallet and is part of how WeChat and parent company Tencent are fuelling massive growth in revenues (they take a cut of every payment which goes through the platform).
Within WeChat, you can do all of the following things (and more), without leaving the app:
- Buy plane tickets
- Buy train tickets and check timetables
- Donate to charity
- Book a taxi
- Make cashless payments inside retail locations
- Transfer money to friends
- Split the bill at a restaurant
In theory, you can run most elements of your life via WeChat, which goes some way to explain why users spend 70 minutes a day inside the platform.
While we’re not seeing the same level of conversational interaction as Skyscanner shown within WeChat, it’s fascinating to see the rise of the app-in-app culture and how much more it’s possible to do with an API. Facebook has over 30,000 bots but doesn’t yet monetise them in the same way. It’s not inconceivable that within a short period of time we could be managing most aspects of our lives from within Facebook.
How can I get involved?
Microsoft have a number of ways to start getting involved with bot development. For those more technically-savvy than me, you can visit Microsoft’s Bot Framework, which has a directory of existing bots, a bot builder SDK that you can download plus loads of tips and resources to get you started. (Top tip, start here!)
If you’re like me and you’re not quite that technologically gifted, you can still get involved and understand how bots would work with your business thanks to the Microsoft QnA Maker. This allows you to create a repository of questions and answers from a mix of sources, such as your FAQs page, or even items that you want to specify yourself. You can combine these together via the bot and it can act as a great starting point for human interaction.
For example I built one in a few minutes to see how it could work for us at icelolly.com. I added in the link to our FAQ page and also populated it with some of the most common questions that our Live Chat team receive, which aren’t covered by the FAQ.
You can then test drive the bot you’ve created by asking it questions and seeing how it responds. This also gives you the opportunity to “re-train” the bot in how it should answer certain questions if it isn’t quite responding how you would like. You can also provide multiple ways of phrasing questions to ensure the bot has as much knowledge as possible.
Once you’re happy with the responses from your QnA bot, you can publish it, take the Service URL it gives you and then integrate it into the platform you’d like to use. While this might be chatbots at their most simplistic, there’s still lots of potential here that could work well for many businesses as a proof of concept.
These are just a couple of examples showing the early stages of this technology and how it can be seamlessly integrated into our lives. I believe, as do a number of influencers in the wider industry that this is only the beginning and we have a lot more yet to see from bots and how they’ll play a part in the future. There’s a very high chance that bots could be the “next big thing” in marketing. We’ve seen revolutions in social, mobile, app and more. Year of the Bot, anyone?