Smarter digital assistants and the future of search

It’s search Jim, but not as we know it.

The dream of an ultimate personal assistant isn’t a farfetched sci-fi fantasy like the interactive computing systems in Star Trek. It’s technology available today already being applied to search engines.


Leading visionaries in search technology, including Google’s Beshad Behzadi in his keynote speech at the SMX West Keynote to Satya Nadella at Microsoft’s Build conference, are articulating a vision of smarter and more capable personalized help that will drive efficiency, focus and ultimately, happiness.

Nadella believes the next big bet for Microsoft is “conversation as a platform.” This is a more intuitive and accessible canvass integrating into apps, as well as artificial intelligence (A.I.) and bots that can interact with other bots. While the devices and technology used to access search are evolving, search will still be an increasingly integral part of everyday life.

Understanding intent through voice search

Today’s digital assistants like Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Google Now are voice-search enabled and growing smarter with every interaction. According to comScore, 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020.

Since voice search is more conversational and uses natural language, the A.I. is evolving to understand user intent and context based on the previous search queries, multiple step queries and user behavior.


Words can provide invaluable substance to A.I. technology during the search process. For marketers, the longer query strings from voice search as compared to text provide richer user intent data. While a text query would typically be one to three words, a spoken query is often three or more.

For example, on my desktop I would search for “blue t-shirt.” But when it comes to a voice query, I might ask, “Hey Cortana, where can I find a cool blue t-shirt?” The conversational tone provides a signal of intent to purchase, style preference and desired shopping locations if I granted access to my location. It permits marketers to:

  • Build user-intent models to understand where the user is in the customer journey.
  • Match advertising campaigns (messaging and landing pages) to the right stage of user intent.
  • Develop site content with a conversational tone, providing specific answers to users’ needs and top questions. Voice searchers are looking for quick answers. Content answering specific questions will make your site a go-to resource.

AI, the ‘Added Ingredient’ for enhanced consumer experience and engagement

Technology giants like Microsoft, IBM and Google are focusing on new ways machine-based learning, A.I. and bots can analyze data. Personal assistants like Cortana, powered by Bing search intelligence, can request permission to gather data from email accounts, calendars, social networks, geo-locations and mobile apps to start learning about behaviors and preferences.

The A.I. engine analyzes the information to make recommendations before they have a chance to ask a question. The more interactions a user has with their assistant, the more accurate the predictive models can be – and the more her serendipitous proposals will delight us and make life easier.

A screenshot of a conversation with Siri in which the user (our editor Christopher Ratcliff) tells Siri "Open the pod bay doors HAL", a reference to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Siri wearily replies, "Oh, not again."

For many, the end of the day reads like a frustrating laundry list of stuff that still needs to get done – including the laundry! Efficiency is now one of the keys to happiness, and technology give us back time to be in the moment.

If I give my personal assistant access to the locations that are important to me and my calendars, she can send reminders when I need to leave to make it on time to my next appointment.

The predictive component A.I. can monitor traffic and figure out if I need to leave work now to pick my son up from day care because of a freeway accident.

It can deep link into apps, such as Waze, and suggest the best alternative routes based on current road conditions.

Soon, this intelligence will integrate into shared intelligence across A.I. bots, and tasks such as renewing your driver’s license will be done on my behalf and save me time.

For marketers, it’s important to understand and adapt to this new technology to build immersive customer experiences. As deep-linking and intelligent agents are integrated into apps and products, consumer engagement with brands will reach the next evolution. This means there is more potential than ever to influence the path to purchase in the customer journey.


While “Beam me up Scotty” and journeys to the final frontier are not yet a reality for most of us, the capabilities and technology for building the ultimate digital assistant are almost here.

This new “other” way to get things done will make it more appealing for consumers to share personal data so that assistants can become more predictive and take actions on our behalf.

We’ll continue to use search, websites, and apps. But how we interact with them will provide more intent and context for A.I.s and bots to help us get things done in our daily lives. This way we can focus and be fully present in the moments that matter the most.

Steve Sirich is GM Marketing, Bing Ads, Microsoft and a contributor to Search Engine Watch. 

For lots more information, download our Marketer’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence report, which takes a look at how AI can be used for marketing, now and in the future.

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