During the past 20 years brands have invested millions in search engine optimisation (SEO) in a bid to guarantee a spot for their goods and services on the much-coveted first page of Google.
But now, the long-overdue search revolution promises to throw all the cards in the air, forcing companies to completely re-think the way they fight for online brand visibility.
New technologies such as voice and visual search, powered by artificial intelligence, threaten to increasingly sideline traditional text search.
The implications for brands will be seismic. When confronted with their last tea bag, a consumer can simply shout: ‘Alexa buy more tea bags’. This leaves the finer product detail, such as brand selection, to their voice assistant and its clever algorithms.
The same is true for visual search, which enables consumers to take a photo or potentially use a VR headset to search for goods and services.
The most benign result is that this search revolution will endanger years of hard-earned brand awareness and loyalty. The more worrying scenario is that the search revolution could effectively enable platform owners to filter results and direct consumer choice, as well as allowing them to further create and take ownership of marketplaces that their device customers access.
Speed of change
The speed and dynamism of this revolution is breath-taking. Capgemini’s recent Conversational Commerce report, which is packed with stats heralding the arrival of voice tech, claims a massive 28% of Americans have used a voice assistant, such as Alexa, to access financial service brands to either make a payment or send money.
Meanwhile Amazon recently made the bold claim that “millions of Prime members” across the US and UK are using their newly purchased Alexa-powered smart speakers to search for and buy goods and services.
And with 67 million voice-assisted devices predicted to be in use in the US by next year, 50% of all search expected to be conducted using voice tech by 2020 and companies like Pinterest encouraging its 200 million users to use visual search, the opportunities offered by alternative search tech are only going to become more golden.
Both Pinterest and Google are investing heavily in their Lens visual search engines which promise to open the door to a new era of online “snap and surf” purchasing and streaming.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are also waiting in the wings ready to make text search even more obsolete. Imagine the opportunities offered by AR, for instance, which can search for and overlay information about goods and services onto a real-time image on your smartphone. Point your smartphone at a new car and see an overlay about insurance products. Point it at a restaurant and see today’s specials. VR could enable you search for and view real-time drone footage of a holiday resort.
Brands that seize upon the potential of alternative search technology now, will have a significant competitive advantage over their peers as more and more consumers grow comfortable with ditching their keyboards. While brands that slavishly follow their traditional SEO strategies risk being overlooked. However, brands must also be aware of the pitfalls along the way.
As with all disruptive, emerging technology, they must not be distracted by the bells and whistles offered by platform owners such as Amazon, Google, Pinterest or Apple. Innovation for innovation’s sake is always a costly mistake. Companies must be guided by the need to serve people better, make products and experiences better and reduce friction.
Big brand challenge
Oliver Wright, managing director and global lead for consumer goods and service at Accenture Strategy, neatly sums up the challenges facing brands and what’s at stake if they fail to engage with voice and image search tech.
He says: ‘Without the physical presentation of a brand on a mobile device, computer screen or through a store experience, consumers are more likely to ask for a product type, not a specific brand, unless they have a strong existing loyalty. Therefore, never has brand awareness and differentiation been so critical.”
In other words, being ‘top of mind’ will be essential for brands offering both goods and services during the current search technology revolution.