We’re experiencing a disruptive transformation in how people find information and get their questions answered.

Google still dominates search with over 80% of the market share, Amazon reigns king in ecommerce, while the battle for a dominant virtual assistant continues. Over the last several years, we’ve seen more platforms support natural language interfaces and an explosion of rule-based chatbots, but little to suggest that search was about to undergo a monumental paradigm shift.

Search, conversational AI, and other generative AIs are dominating the headlines. In just two short months, ChatGPT has over 100 million active users. We’re using the technology to write blog posts, answer detailed questions, develop code, compose travel itineraries, and more. People are mesmerized, spooked, and excited – three emotions that rarely happen simultaneously – even though there are questions about ChatGPT (and now ChatGPT 4) getting its facts right and how it should legally attribute its sources.

There’s no turning back to keyword searching as Microsoft is embedding ChatGPT in Bing and Office 365 while Google’s Bard is launching. People’s expectations and interest in using natural language search to find information, solve problems, or generate summaries are setting a new bar for customer expectations.

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Customers Will Expect Better Search Experiences

People don’t have boundaries regarding technology. When an emerging tech capability goes viral, people quickly develop higher expectations when interacting with B2B and B2C digital products. Here are three examples of natural language and personalized search experiences that are becoming more commonplace:   

  • I want to ask ecommerce sites, “What should I buy for my wife for mother’s day so she can spend more time outdoors with our two teenagers,” and expect personalized recommendations based on my previous gift purchases.
  • Banks will need to deliver hyper-personalized experiences and gain people’s trust around data privacy.
  • Healthcare companies must use AI to help support agents because customers want smarter and faster answers to their questions.

Business and technology leaders should reflect on how these consumer expectations impact their businesses. But it’s not just customer experiences that ChatGPT will impact.

Search in the Digital Workplace Will Need a Much-Needed Overhaul

In 2005, Gartner told CIOs to prepare for the consumerization of IT when mobile, video, and social technologies rapidly shifted to mainstream adoption. Today, IT leaders must prepare for the consumerization of search across all enterprise interfaces, including customer experiences, the digital workplace, and customer support. Furthermore, many enterprises will want to open natural language search APIs to their partners.

In October 2022, before ChatGPT was on everyone’s minds, I advised CIOs and IT leaders why AI-search is a digital transformation force multiplier during a recession. I shared three reasons CIOs should invest in AI-search and followed up this year on how AI-search exposes institutional knowledge and how investing in a search platform can reduce costs while improving experiences.

If modernization, experience upgrades, and knowledge centralization were important last year, shift them to critical priorities this year. People’s expectations will grow as ChatGPT and other generative AI improve their capabilities. Customers and employees will have less tolerance for using keyword search boxes, waiting for poor-performing search engines, and reviewing irrelevant results.

Many businesses lost market share when they were too slow in modernizing their digital experiences, and I believe the same threat of disruption is likely with natural language search. Inside the workplace, the last thing employers can afford is frustrating employees when they have to use multiple tools with dated user interfaces to search for information. In Coveo’s 2022 Workplace Relevance Report, more than 31% of respondents said digging for needed information made them feel burned out — with a further 16% said it made them want to quit.

Natural Language Search for Enterprises with Siloed Data and Legacy Search Indexes

The challenge for CIOs of large enterprises is that many don’t have their data, content, experiences, and workflows ready to support natural language search capabilities.

In some cases, search capabilities are treated as point solutions, embedded in specific SaaS and proprietary apps, and can only query the limited scope of the app’s data. CRM, CMS, ecommerce, and collaboration tools all provide siloed search capabilities, and many enterprises don’t have a platform to centralize querying of unstructured data, documents, content, and metadata.

In these organizations, IT leaders should consider a unified or federated approach that can provide a holistic natural language search capability. One approach is to develop a search center of excellence that seeks to develop holistic search capabilities.

In other cases, development teams have taken steps to centralize search with indexes in Apache Solr or another search index engine. Maintaining search index engines is not easy, and dev teams often spend significant effort doing so. In one study, 85% of respondents said manual tuning efforts were significant. The challenge for CIOs in these organizations is to rethink the technical strategy and develop search capabilities without the tech complexities

That little keyword box on the top right of your applications is glowing a warning red. The consumerization of natural language search is just starting, but business leaders should seize the opportunity to develop this capability before their competitors.