Battle of the Bots: How big a part do search engines have to play in choosing your digital assistant?

Posted by  Derren Nisbet

With just 60million pages indexed in 1998, Google was still in its infancy. Considered more innovative than competitors such as Infoseek, Excite, and Yahoo!, at the height of the dot-com boom, it quickly became internet users’ “first search stop” and still is today. Reports show it is easily the world’s most popular search engine with over 80% of the market share. Google parent Alphabet Inc. is a company with more than $700 billion of market capitalisation, and with a turnover of over $90 billion it’s now neck-and-neck with Apple as the largest company on the planet, depending on how you measure ‘largest’.

As its algorithms have developed and updated over the years, Google’s competitors such as Bing, Yahoo!, and China’s Baidu have struggled to get so much as a look in; but as the popularity of virtual assistants continues to rise, we could potentially be looking at a shift in the market. Market dominance makes other companies envious, eager for a slice of the large pie Google is enjoying. Who might have ambitions to gain a piece? Well, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, all have the appetite, the development dollars, and the ambition to have a good go but how do you beat a monopoly when “google” has become a verb used daily amongst all of us? The answer is via the UI, and this is where the competitors are looking to pounce and, in my opinion, put Google under significant risk of slipping from the top spot.

Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and (until recently) Apple’s Siri all run on Bing’s search engine. When you use any of these devices, there’s no choice in which search engine you’re using - you are governed by the device in this respect. But do consumers really care anyway? They are fickle rather than loyal - so does this spell the end of Google’s reign?

Google’s advertising revenue totals $74 billion, more than 80% of their annual turnover. If 50% of us move away from the traditional web browser as a UI toward Alexa, Cortana, or Siri, then that advertising revenue falls away instantly. The potential for revenues to drop massively and incredibly quickly is significant.

So how is this battle playing out?

Chatting with Googlebot

In terms of conversation, Google Assistant is seen as the superior chatterbox, handling follow up questions most eloquently:

Me: Hey, Google. What’s the temperature going to be today?

Google Home: Today in Vancouver, the high temperature is forecasted to be 37 degrees.

Me: “Hey, Google. What about tomorrow?

Google Home: Tomorrow’s high in Vancouver will be 34 degrees.

- via

Google understands that the follow up question pertains to the question preceding it. Its AI has studied the discourse in almost 3,000 romance novels to help improve its conversation, adopting speaking habits and nuances to use in voice search programming, and interpret context. The advances really are astounding as well as clever - and pretty cool!

Bing’s Babble

Alexa and Cortana both run using Microsoft’s own search engine, Bing. Alexa is known to handle home automation well, and there are so many integrations from music and lighting, to home security, energy, and even gardening, that it can be difficult to keep up. We’ve already established that Bing is a distant second in the race for the top spot in search engines, and given the number of articles online that instruct users how to switch out Cortana’s Bing/Edge default, it’s likely to stay that way for some time. But if users are swayed by the convenience of Alexa’s ecosystem, there could be change in the future - potentially leading to a battle that will only benefit the consumer in the long run.

When Apple Turned Over

In September 2017, Apple confirmed that Siri will switch to using Google instead of Bing for searches, although Bing will still be used for Image Search functionality. The official statement around this move is one regarding user experience, and the consistency between Safari and Siri results. Apple’s HomePod, controlled by Siri, was due for release in December 2017, but has recently been pushed back to early 2018. Siri was revealed to be lagging behind in its accuracy of answers to search queries, but integration with Google could change all that and would be a major blow to Microsoft and Bing.

2018 and beyond...

Whether people choose to invite Alexa or Google Home to dinner this year is likely down to the users’ current setup. Right now, Amazon’s Alexa dominates in terms of third party support and sheer volume of integrations, but not only is Google sure to catch up, it’s ready-made market dominance could mean it will surpass Amazon in the not-too-distant future. The prize is huge, therefore and everyone will invest.

Bots, on the whole, are becoming ever more sophisticated. Their roles in everyday life are that of encyclopedias or DJs, but more and more they resemble our digital assistants through supporting us with home automation and with routine tasks in the workplace. Apple’s Siri, once a pioneer in digital assistance, may have dropped behind Google and Alexa, but this integration with Google could spell major advances (maybe this is the real reason they have switched?). The level of effort being put into this technology by the tech giants - including hiring writers to create likeable characters in chatbots backed by cutting edge AI - is to help us, the users, move from scepticism through to dependency. If all goes to plan, we will get to the stage where we can’t imagine life without them!

It’s this integration that will play the biggest part in AI adoption. Generally speaking, Amazon has moved in at home, Apple handles mobile search well, and Google is managing to do both simultaneously, but it’s the potential partnerships that will really enable these technologies. Not just Apple and Google, but Alexa and Cortana are working together too.

What I am confident of is the level of interaction that the younger generation will have with bots. I have a two year old daughter and she sees no issue with asking Alexa to sing her a song, and my six year old son is comfortable with a tablet rather than a laptop. The UI is changing rapidly, and the youth will accelerate the adoption of this technology over the next couple of years.

These devices are already great, but they are set to keep getting better and better.

Derren Nisbet

Derren Nisbet is Managing Director for Unit4 in the UK and Ireland. He joined Unit4 from GT Nexus, a cloud based supply chain provider where he spent two years as Senior Vice President of EMEA. Prior to this Derren held a number of senior management positions at Oracle, with the most recent being European Vice President Edge applications.