2017 was a watershed year for voice-controlled digital assistants like the Amazon Echo, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri. A new report from NPR and Edison finds that one out of six Americans now owns a smart speaker of some kind.
Millions of consumers now use digital assistants to check the weather, answer questions, purchase goods, or call up one of a limitless catalog of awful dad jokes.
But not everyone is jazzed about the digital assistant, and we aren’t just referring to the unlucky parents of a few unsupervised kindergarteners.
On the podcast Domain Name Wire, host Andrew Allemann has wondered if voice search could end up redefine Internet browsing behavior on a broad scale.
The web browser is still the most common starting point for finding information and making purchases online. Most people begin with a search on their preferred search engine and click through the results, or type in a URL that they expect to have the information or product they need.
But with Alexa’s rising popularity, Alleman says this old way of browsing is now competing with a “kind of a new web browser” — one that can predict your needs, and will likely get better at doing so as time goes on.
“If a personal assistant anticipates your needs then you don’t need to go to your web browser to find the information you’re looking for,” Alleman said. That goes for your run-of-the-mill web searches as well as purchases. He adds that the digital assistant’s utility “reduces our need to browse the web, which reduces our need for domain names.”
And any reduced need for domain names could, according to the theory, lead to the devaluation of domain investors’ portfolios.
But Alleman’s concerns reach outside the domain realm as well, into the world of equitable consumer treatment. These assistants, being integrated with Amazon, Google, Apple, and other tech and retail giants, aren’t neutral the way a web browser is. They can, in theory, deliberately funnel their users away from content and products that the company doesn’t want the user to access. Would this undermine the users’ ability to choose what information is most relevant to their needs?
In episode 119 of Domain Name Wire, which focused on the topic of digital assistants, guest Frank Schilling also expressed doubt of there being any threat toward the classic browsing experience.
Schilling drew parallels to similar predictions of doom-and-gloom that later turned out to be false when mobile apps arrived. Because a website provided more utility to users who wanted to access more features or information, contact the business behind the app, users would still be likely to seek out the web page.
He also cited the fact that websites were easier to build and maintain than apps, which gave them more utility than an app.
“If anything, apps drove more domain registrations,” added Schilling. “Because people would create a great app, and then go, ‘Oh, man! We need to get a website for this!’”
We’re of the opinion that the browser experience will not be going away anytime soon, and if it does, it will not be at the hands of digital assistants.
For one thing, the big three digital assistants, only Amazon Echo allows you to order items online, which it does via tight integration with Amazon’s retail operations. The majority of consumers tend like to research purchases before buying, a task for which the voice-controlled speakers come up short. The browser is still king for retrieving in-depth info.
Another roadblock is that digital assistants primarily use audio to communicate with users. It’s good for being able to get some kinds of info from anywhere — like what your commute will look like — but the flip side is you have to wait for the assistant to explain your options, and hope that it’s the information you’re looking for.
Then there’s the fact that most digital assistants are integrated with existing search engines. Alexa pings Bing for queries she doesn’t understand. So does Siri, but it can use Google if you request specifically. Google Assistant uses Bing (we’re kidding, it’s Google. But wouldn’t that be funny?). The point is, if your website would rank well in a web search, the same is likely if that same user made the same query with their digital assistant.
And finally, your brand is at its strongest when it allows you to have a direct relationship with your customers. And of all branches making up a brand’s web presence, the domain and the website are the elements over which a brand has the most control. For now at least, even Amazon can’t compete with that.