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Conversational search: an update for 2024
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Imagine that outer-space colonization has begun and you’re standing on the rusty red soil of Mars. You’re hungry and need to find a restaurant. You ask a nearby local for a recommendation, but — you guessed it — she speaks Martian.

But wait: you have a smartphone that’s picking up Wi-Fi back on Earth. You pull it out and, in your native language, tell it how badly you need a big, juicy pizza. The Martian just stares, but the search algorithm jumps on its information-retrieval mission and makes quick sense of your sentence. It interprets your plain English (or French or Spanish) request and supplies its best Google search suggestion.

Great! Except unfortunately, the recommended pizza joint is 140 million miles from your current location.

You’re back to square one, but fortunately you can still enjoy the benefits of conversational search. This artificial intelligence–driven technology built on voice recognition and natural language processing (NLP) technologies has certainly been giving traditional keyword search a run for its money. 

Applications

Here are some ways it’s being utilized nowadays:

Voice search 

Conversational search sounds like it’s the same as voice search, doesn’t it?

The difference is that voice search allows people to speak queries and get text answers (or even spoken answers, but not in a way that resembles a conversation), while conversational search is more like a human conversation. Which is what goes on between digital assistants such as Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri as they chat with zillions of people who are searching for things. So theoretically, conversational search technology takes voice search up a notch. 

Customer service 

A conversational search experience works well in a domain where comforting human interaction is the historical precedent and the customer expects near-perfect support. To conversationally answer customer inquiries in real time, chatbots that utilize NLP to interpret what people want can be integrated in websites and messaging platforms.

Travel 

Conversational search is a great way of helping travelers find and book flights, hotels, and rental cars, plus get quick summaries on local attractions. It’s also proven to work well for people once they’re in transit and need current information. The easy conversational style is well suited to getting on-the-go updates such as weather conditions, bus schedules, restaurant options, and addresses of Airbnbs.  

Medical diagnosis 

Conversational search can help doctors and nurses assess patients’ symptoms, provide general diagnosis details, and suggest next steps. While conversational search technology obviously can’t be a replacement for real-time professional medical advice, it can certainly be a resource for gathering and sharing initial information about potential causes of ailments and treatment options. 

Benefits of conversational search 

Conversational search offers a range of benefits that are driving the revolution to this different way of interacting with our devices.

Convenience

While not everyone would give up typing keywords in a search box for speaking their search queries (for instance, maybe someone’s asleep next to them), much of the time, most of us would admit that simply talking to our phones or home-based digital assistants is the easiest thing in the world. And because this route is so convenient, and you quickly get the information you want, it’s likely to be a positive customer experience. Which breeds on itself, making you start speaking again whenever you need to locate something else. 

Higher efficiency

Thinking of and typing in keywords isn’t a super quick process. With just a single voice command or a few comments, you can often retrieve all of, or exactly, the answers you need so you can move on to the next thing on your to-do list. 

More universal accessibility 

By eliminating the need for physical interaction with a keyboard, conversational search allows individuals with disabilities and those who struggle with typing to search effectively, ultimately providing wider access to the wealth of information available on the Internet.

Good user engagement  

The natural conversational nature of this search method encourages people to increasingly interact with their devices. When they can dialog with Google or a generative AI program such as ChatGPT and then get a spoken answer, they’re likely to find the experience more rewarding than with a standard search. They may find the level of engagement so enjoyable that they could even gain a better understanding of the information retrieved.

More-accurate search results 

Thanks to improvements in NLP algorithms, conversational search boasts better comprehension of speech and correspondingly better accuracy with search results. By analyzing the context and user’s intent behind queries, the search algorithms can better identify needs and provide more-on-target, relevant information.  Plus, with precise, well-tailored search results pages, people don’t have to waste time sifting through irrelevant content.

Challenges of conversational search 

While conversational search certainly opens up a world of new possibilities, it’s not without a few notable drawbacks. To fully assess the pros and cons of this technology, it helps to factor in these caveats: 

Misinterpretation of queries

Natural language sometimes has nuances and multiple meanings, which can lead to queries being misunderstood by the search algorithm, which can result in the provision of inaccurate search results…which is frustrating when people expect accurate information. Overcoming this problem will require further advancement in natural language processing and context analysis. 

Privacy and security concerns 

As with other forms of search, this technology often relies on accessing personal data. That means searchers may have reservations about their privacy and the security of their personal information. Striking a balance between serving up personalized search results and safeguarding user data is crucial in building trust and confidence in conversational search. 

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Voice-recognition limitations 

While conversational search technology has certainly come a long way, there are still instances in which complicated queries and queries spoken using thick accents may not be accurately interpreted. Continuing research and development in voice recognition is needed to improve the accuracy and reliability of conversational search results. 

Lack of standardization  

As a new phenomenon, conversational search has no unified standards for how it functions across platforms and devices and with different datasets. That means there may be inconsistencies in the user experience. With a variety of different types of interfaces that don’t necessarily act the same way, people may not be completely satisfied. Establishing industry standards and best practices for this technology would help resolve any discrepancies.

The future of conversational search

As search technology moves ahead, so do people’s expectations. With recent developments, we expect access to more personalized, conversational searching experiences. What can we expect with conversational search next?

Improved personalization 

As with any type of search, when conversational search engines gather and process more user data, they can better track and analyze individual preferences, behavior patterns, and search history. That allows for delivery of more highly personalized search results and recommendations. 

Integration with IoT devices 

Integration of conversational search with Internet of Things (IoT) devices opens up another world of computer-science possibilities, allowing people to interact with their smart homes, cars, and other connected devices using natural language. For example, instead of manually adjusting the thermostat, a homeowner or renter can ask their device to set the temperature, and even do it remotely. Conversational search is also facilitating tasks like controlling lighting, playing music, and ordering groceries. Who knows what new conveniences the future holds?

Advances in voice recognition and NLP 

As voice-recognition and NLP technologies continue to evolve, the accuracy and efficiency of conversational search is expected to improve. Voice-recognition algorithms will become better at understanding accents, speech nuances, and even emotional cues to appropriately meet user needs for information. NLP developments will enable search engines to comprehend complex queries and natural-language commands, then respond in a more humanlike manner, creating more engaging, easy interaction between humans and machines. 

Expansion within industries

Conversational search as a means of satisfying information needs has begun taking hold in domains such as ecommerce, education, and entertainment, and that’s probably just the beginning.

  • In ecommerce, shoppers can speak conversationally with virtual shopping assistants that take note of their preferences, provide personalized product recommendations, and assist with purchases
  • In education, conversational search can simultaneously act as a virtual tutor, answering questions, providing explanations, addressing follow-up questions, and guiding students through their learning journeys
  • In entertainment, conversational search can be a friendly virtual butler, offering recommendations for movies, music, and books based on individuals’ preferences

Let’s converse about search 

Connect with us if you’d like to hear about how we’re adding conversational AI to our ecommerce shopper experience. We can help you optimize your user experience and deliver a better return on investment for your online business.

Sign up for early access to our Conversational AI Co-Creation program or request a demo

Hope to talk to you soon!

About the authorVincent Caruana

Vincent Caruana

Senior Digital Marketing Manager, SEO

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