When Bell Laboratories designed the "Audrey" system to recognize the numbers 1 to 10 when spoken by one (and only one) voice in 1952, it was a big deal — one that no doubt resulted in an unknown number of champagne corks hitting the ceiling. It took another decade, however, before more complex language entered the picture, this time in the form of IBM's "Shoebox" machine, which debuted at the 1962 World's Fair to show off its ability to understand 16 words in English.
Complexity is relative, of course, and today, Audrey's and Shoebox's progeny — Siri, Alexa, Google, Cortana, and other digital assistants — have a great many more than 16 words at their disposal. Thanks to natural language processing (NLP), in fact, they are able to listen to, process and understand human language exactly as it's spoken. Until recently, we have been interacting with computers in a way that they understand. We learned "their language," as the business analytics software company Sisense puts it. "But now they're learning ours."
It's the difference between a voice assistant like Siri or Alexa allowing you to ask for something in a variety of ways using natural (even messy) language, and an automated phone menu system that, as the Harvard Business Review notes, performs only when "you use the specific set of non-negotiable words that they were programmed to understand."
In short, NLP is what enables you to interact with a machine the way you would with a human. It's also the key to having your company — the entity on the other side of search — come across as more human.
Why is it so important to paint your company with a human brush?
"Most people view companies like faceless enemies; they're just out to make money; they're just telling us what we want to hear," according to Syed Balkhi. "So, if your company wants to win over more customers, you've got to get them to trust you." Show people the human side of your brand. It will "inspire more trust from consumers and boost your conversions."
Enter the idea of search as a secret weapon. Efficient, dynamic search is an instrument that offers incredible bang for your buck when it comes to humanizing interactions with customers — particularly where Audrey's descendants come in. As WIRED puts it, "Instead of accessing a website to find information or a mobile app to complete tasks, we're talking to the AI, making decisions with it, and getting what we need and want through it."
TechCrunch reports that there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023, up from 2.5 billion at the end of 2018. And according to Forbes, some 50 million U.S. adults own a smart speaker, "A platform wholly dependent on NLP for survival by intaking a user's commands and applying algorithms to decipher language and formulate responses." What's more, some 65% of people aged 25 to 49 speak to their smart devices at least once a day, and the average person has more conversations with bots than with their spouse.
The evolution of search has set new standards for companies to be human and show themselves as trustworthy. Search is no longer mechanical. It is no longer dependent on the specific text strings that engines once required to query data. Instead, technology has brought us to a place where customers feel like they want to have a conversation with you.
This shift is good news for the consumer/brand relationship — or at least, it can be. If your brand can show up in the digital arena ready to engage with a sophisticated degree of human responsiveness, you stand positioned to yield the benefits of an amazing customer experience — beyond what used to even be possible. But if you can't deliver on that expectation, even the most loyal consumers will be disappointed. And if they are disappointed, they won't trust you.
That loss of trust, of course, is a huge problem. According to PwC's 2018 Global Consumer Insights Survey, "more than one in three consumers surveyed ranked 'trust in brand' among the top three factors, other than price, influencing their decision to shop at a particular retailer." The report further notes that trust "was only slightly less important to respondents than being able to find items they wanted in stock."
For most companies, that means significant revenue is dependent on trust, which itself is dependent on providing correct answers to every question asked — no matter how messy or complex. In essence, providing a malleable, intuitive search experience serves as a powerful weapon when it comes to providing information and answers to customers.
And through precise listening to customer questions, a well-managed site search experience creates an opportunity even when your brand doesn'thave the answer to a question. A big part of managing an exceptional search experience (using, say, Yext Answers) is carefully watching what questions customers are asking, and how they're asking them, so you can update your answers accordingly. It's not just about providing the right answers, it's also about understanding how NLP enables people to use real language when they search and still get what they want. Their expectations have increased. The bar has been raised, and consumers have a new standard for how well their queries are understood and how specifically they're answered.
And given the number of people who perhaps choose to interact more with bots than with their spouses, this is a bar that will only continue to rise.