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Posted by on Jan 31, 2017 in All Matters SEO |

The Rise of Chatbots: Will They Replace Humans?

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Unless you have been avoiding social media or technology news these days, you will likely have heard of the current enthusiasm around Bots, in particular Chatbots.

While this is not new technology – the first ever Chatbot, Eliza, was created in 1966, Chatbots have been gaining momentum lately, especially in the travel industry. They are given names by their creators – Taylor, Lola, Alisson, Ana, Julie, or Sofia – but don’t be fooled, you are not talking to an actual human, you are talking to something powered by Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) that was only coded by a human.

Let’s have a (human) conversation about this new breed of personal assistants and travel agents.

Chatbots

(Image Source: Christos)

Chatbots? What are you even talking about!?

“Artificial intelligence platforms that use instant messaging as an application interface” …users can “add these bots to friends lists and send messages to bots just like they’d message one of their friends. But with bots, consumers are talking to a database or program and not actually communicating with a human.” -Skift

But Bots are not reserved for the most tech savvy customers; Bots are actually destined to be more user-friendly than any other system. Think of it: they allow you to have a conversation about your research, not to think about how to ask a search engine about what you are looking for.

Most major digital behemoths are investing in Bots. Personal assistants Alexa (Amazon), Siri (Apple), Google’s Allo or Cortana (Microsoft) are commonly known and vastly used nowadays. Instant messaging systems such as Microsoft’s Skype, Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp apps, and Kik are part of our day-to-day lives and the backbone of Chatbots’ development.

The latest Chatbots scrape the web for the information you are asking them, and return it to you in a chat-like interface. Most Bots use A.I. and databases to become smarter and evolve over time so that they can respond quicker (rather than searching each query for the first time each time), potentially anticipate your questions, and learn about your preferences. Earlier Bots were designed to answer only specific questions in a specific way, and if the user was not using the right command the Bot would not understand. But these days are (mostly) over as Bot technology has advanced.

Wait a second, actual brands and humans use bots? Get out of here!

 Yes, and many larger brands in the travel industry have jumped on the train:

  • Kayak: Has a Bot for Slack (a team communication tool which has gained major momentum with many companies and teams, including Digital Services)
  • Expedia, Skyscanner and CheapFlights: Each have a Bot for Facebook Messenger
  • Hipmunk: Launched Hello, available on both Slack and Facebook Messenger
  • United, KLM and TAP Airlines: Launched some form of Bot assistant for instant messaging

Other industries are also creating Bots to help you buy stuff, such as: Tacobot from Taco Bell, allowing you to order your favorite Taco from Slack, H&M’s Chatbot on Kik providing you complete outfit recommendations, or StubHub allowing you to discuss your dinner order with a machine. Before many others, in 2005, Ikea launched their Bot Anna to help you find that one piece of furniture you are missing. For the more galactic readers, check out SPOCK which allows you to converse with the Starship Enterprise.

Even globally? That must be a nightmare to localize!

You said it! When figuring out how to teach the Bot to answer “natural language” queries (typing in what you want, not a command) in English is already extremely complicated, imagine doing this for every language and variation of each.

Add this to the different ways of searching (tapping on a prompted option, using voice search, typing the query), some slang or variation of words, formal and informal ways of addressing people and you have a highly complex problem to solve.

It is not impossible though. KLM delivers information in various languages through their Facebook Messenger Chatbot (including flight details, boarding passes, and other straight forward or relatively easy queries). WeChat emerges as the platform to develop such things in Chinese, offering organizations similar options as Skype, Messenger and Kik, to develop Chatbots for their ecosystem. They most recently launched mini-programs – their version of apps which don’t require download on your smartphone, beating Google at the game of instant apps, and opening a world of possibilities for developers.

OK, now, are these things a good or a bad thing?

From a marketer and brand standpoint, Chatbots are a great tool to automate parts of customer service and customer acquisition. There are for now some limitations, such as the lack of empathy when consumers are experiencing issues or the true understanding of potential consumers’ needs. Chatbots allow you to talk to potential clients in apps they use anyway, rather than trying to take them somewhere else. With the current trend of downloading fewer apps, and spending less time in them, it is particularly important for brands to integrate seamlessly into the lives of their consumers.

On the downside, Chatbots owned by metasearch and OTA sites (or simply companies starting out as a Chatbot,) pose the risk of hospitality and travel brands losing a true connection with customers. This is worrisome for established travel brands, as we see an emergence of Chatbots in the travel industry The Bots also put a lot of strain on travel websites as they constantly  retailers sites to answer user queries (looking up for information on hundreds of sites at once and providing a digestible answer to the user of the Chatbot); some say traffic generated by bots scraping retailers websites can represent up to 30% of total traffic to a website. It is also worrisome to note that some bloggers and influencers confirm they would not interact with an app or a website in future, but use a bot (see article by John Brandon at VentureBeat ).

From a user perspective, Chatbots allow you to search faster (save time) for the best option (save money), and have a fun playing with them (at least I do.) While the response time of a Chatbot is slightly slower than a Google search (a few seconds vs. milliseconds), they save you the effort of clicking through many sites to compare options.

Chatbots are not perfect though and the technology is not yet there to have truly perfect, human-like conversational exchanges. The personalization is still relatively limited and sometimes it is still just better to confirm with a human to make sure everything is in order.

I want in! I want in! What’s coming?

Customers are getting groomed to use Chatbots by the largest brands they use every day (Amazon, Google, Apple, and more.)

KLM has human-aided bots on Messenger as said above, so does Booking.com, Uber and Lyft. These brands are all reportedly looking into developing Chatbots powered by A.I. I would not be surprised to see Snapchat figure out a way to allow for Chatbots to be developed specifically for their platform, or even on Line (Japan’s leading social platform with a heavy footprint in South East Asia.)

As related by VentureBeat, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that Chatbots will “fundamentally revolutionize how computing is experienced by everybody.” Nadella explained that for now, bots will augment apps, but in time, human language will be taught to all computers and become “the new interface.”

Based on my research, I believe that while Chatbots are not yet a make or break decision, given the right technological advancement they are highly likely to become the norm for researching and purchasing (travel or other) from mobile in the future.

That said, I strongly believe nothing can replace the human touch and related emotions. We see younger generations wanting to get back to local, genuine experiences and connecting with other humans in the world. The research and purchase phases might happen with the Bots, but ultimately humans will still take you through the experience.

I would like to leave you with this quote from an important person in this industry:

“In the long run bots won’t only answer questions they will anticipate them” – Erwin van Lun, Chatbots.org’s CEO and founder (source)

Further Resources

  • Medium: Read the extensive review of the most important travel Bots. You’ll also find a recap of just over 20 Chatbots in this article.
  • Chatbot Magazine: Subscribe to Chatbotmagazine.com’s newsletter. To get more technical on Bots, review their Complete Beginner’s Guide to Chatbots.
  • VentureBeat: To learn more about globalizing Bots, read about some of the biggest international hurdles in this research.