Remember when your mother used to yell at you for sitting too close to the television screen?

You should only hope that you will never encounter her reaction to the current onslaught of virtual reality headsets bursting onto the tech scene. The Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear are just a few of the virtual reality consoles jamming players faces right into a digital screen presenting a world other to their own. Unfortunately, Mums around the world are simply going to have to face the fact that the next generation of devices will only further enhance digital proximity.

People’s livelihoods are increasingly dominated by the screens that surround them. Advancements in virtual and augmented reality only bring humanity one step closer to viewing life through the interfaces of these screens.

So why does any of this matter and how is it relevant to search marketing? We’ll start by covering the change in search capabilities over the years, then look at the rise of augmented reality and its influence within search. When you’re done reading this article, you will understand the potential for augmented reality search marketing to become ubiquitous in our very near future.

Semantic Search

For years now, semantic search has been a core focus of search engines. The semantic aspect of the term here refers to the idea of providing a searcher with the most relevant answers to their search queries. To break it down simplistically, in the past when you searched for something in Google, it would return results that were directly and singularly related to the keywords you had entered. Nowadays there are far more factors at play such as consideration of a users’ search history, location, interests, etc. When I type in ‘Perth’ into Google, the search engine returns content for Perth, Western Australia. If I lived in the Scotland city of the same name, because of semantic search, I’d expect to see a very different set of results.

The Hummingbird algorithm implemented by Google in August 2013, very much focused on improving this notion of semantic accuracy. Hummingbird fixated on paying more attention to the context of the searcher in a bid to better understand their query intent. Applications like Google Now, Siri and S Voice have been an extension of this, operating to deliver results based on voice command.

Even the recent introduction of Google Home is a step towards the semantic search direction. The voice activated speaker for the home can speak to users and has the ability to learn about them specifically to relay back personalised answers, not just generic ones pulled from the web. Admittedly it’s a little creepy, but Google Home’s operative ability is certainly reflective of the heavily customised path that search is taking.

The Rise of Virtual and Augmented Reality

Augmented reality is where we can say, semantic search will truly succeed. Given that user interactions are based on their surroundings, there is no better way to match individuals’ queries with their context.

Futuristic television shows and movies have titillated audiences with the prospect of digital utopias cultivated from virtual technologies. Well folks, the future is here. Augmented and virtual reality are no longer experiences reserved for technological evangelists. Instead they begin to hit the mainstream public as apps utilising features of integrating the virtual with reality begin to rise to popularity.

So what exactly is the difference between VR and AR? The former refers to entirely replacing the real world with a simulated version. The latter on the other hand, largely maintains the background of the real world but embeds aspects of virtuality within it through graphics, GPS data, video, etc.

Pokemon Go, a location-based augmented reality game launched in July 2016, has been downloaded more than 500 million times worldwide. The use of this kind of technology is certainly not the first in the realm of online gaming but it has been the first to have such a colossal reach within general society.

And now we’re beginning to see the wave of virtual reality headsets hitting our store shelves ready for mass consumer consumption. So far these devices have been primarily marketed for entertainment purposes in the form of gaming but there lies a lot of potential for other applications.

Perhaps the greatest path for opportunity comes in the form of marketing and we’ve definitely already seen big moves in this space. With the launch of their XC90 SUV for example, Volvo released an app where users could test drive the vehicle in a virtual setting via their phones on headsets. On top of this, consider the realm of digital marketing possibilities for car brands when vehicles transition to becoming autonomous. What makes virtual reality so different is its ability to give consumers an experience much more immersive than any form of television or rich media advertising ever could. Given this move towards experiential marketing, what if VR headsets became AR wearable devices? What then are the possibilities for search marketing?

Who and What’s Getting Funded?

Firstly, it’s important to know what exactly is going on in the industry. Particularly within recent years, investors have gained a keen interest in funding R&D within the field. These are just a few of the organisations currently leading the way:

• Blippar, a visual discovery app, announced the close of a $54 million funding round in March of this year. The software utilises the abilities of image recognition, computerisation and augmented reality to translate real life objects into digital entities. Users are able to ‘scan’ real world items to unlock more information about them.
• Magic Leap announced that it had raised $793.5 million in a Series C round of funding for its wearable augmented reality eyewear that allows users to interact with virtual 3D objects.
• Mindmaze, an entity playing in the healthcare and virtual reality fields, raised $100 million to fund the vision of developing a virtual reality experience that could be used across multiple platforms and within services including brain imaging and neuroscience.

Undoubtedly this investment behaviour means that the next steps forward will be one integral to consumers around the globe – search within the real world.

Search Engine Augmented Reality Marketing

With the augmentation of real-world settings via digital mechanisms, the opportunities for search marketing are endless. Augmented reality companies such as Blippar, Magic Leap and Mindmaze have the potential to provide an ‘encyclopaedia’ of the physical world. Ambarish Mitra, CEO of Blippar, recognises that occasionally text-based search is the most practical tool for search but ultimately a lot of people’s inspiration for queries is sourced from their 3D world. Consider if you were out for dinner one night and had walked past a restaurant you hadn’t been to before. Now imagine if you could scan that restaurant on your phone or other wearable device and immediately receive important real-time information including wait times, pricing, reviews, etc.

The return of search results through AR devices all ties back into semantic search. Sure, this sort of information can be easily found via a text-based search but in a world where consumers increasingly expect their demands to be met in the most accurate, appealing and timely means possible, technology such as this will be revolutionary.

Augmented reality therefore puts a particular amount of onus on the local. People will be searching in their immediate settings. Already local SEO is something leading digital marketers have recognised as vitally important in most businesses’ marketing campaigns. With augmented reality, the focus becomes ever more important as many AR apps use GPS technology to provide information on the environment that surrounds users.

So how would AR work for search? First let’s take a look at it from the brand side of things. As a local business, you’ll want your brand to jump in front of the consumer, grasp their attention and drive their feet straight to your store. With AR, you can literally accomplish this. A customer looking for a nearby cafe can scan their surroundings on an app or wearable device to reveal branded messaging from metres away, all achieved from geo-targeting capabilities. Here are just a few ideas of what local businesses could achieve:

Looking for a new dress? A nearby clothing retailer advertises a 20% sale by having virtual balloons and sale signs overlay the store when ‘scanned’ by wearable AR eyewear.

Augmented Reality Retail Store FINAL

A coffee shop could send notifications to AR app users when in store. Upon opening the app an animated drink of coffee is thrown onto the screen. The coffee splatter reveals a loyalty program offer.

Agumented Reality Coffee Shop

A book store gamifies it’s AR search marketing through having fluttering books encircle mobile app users approaching its store. Catch enough books and you receive a free bookmark with your purchase.

Augmented Reality Bookstore

Now let’s flip to a user-generated perspective. A significant part of organic search for many online businesses is the ratings and rankings they receive from consumers of their products and services. You can undoubtebly expect to see these reviews in a first page return of results for a brand name. How would this work in a virtual context? Consider, that if upon finishing a meal at a restaurant, you could rate the experience and this would immediately contribute to the restaurant’s average rating hovering front and centre above their building on an AR app. People could watch in real time as the score rises and falls with each and every vote cast. Local SEO will be more important than ever as search marketers race to optimise review and rating signals for their clients.

PPC Comes to Life

AdWords on AR. It’s likely that if augmented search becomes mainstream (and it will), search engines won’t hesitate to try and reap reward from it. Depending on the platform, businesses may have to pay to have specific messaging or promotions show up in the virtual context of their nearby vicinity. With most shopping hubs and retail districts being lined with hundreds of stores, it could become a matter of the highest bidder receiving most prominent display of their ‘ad’.

Augmented reality within search marketing will also extend beyond the local. An interesting aspect of Magic Leap’s funding was that it was led by the mega Chinese ecommerce company Alibaba. A major barrier to shopping online compared to the offline experience, is the inability to actually engage with a physical product. Now consider the implications of AR for ecommerce. Customers would have the potential to ‘handle’ products in 3D via their smartphones, tablets, wearable devices, etc. Google Shopping campaigns, for example, could turn into interactive engagements. No longer are product results static 2D images but transformational 3D experiences. Imagine what a Rolex would look like on your wrist or how an Ikea couch would appear in your living room!

So what Does the Future Hold?

So far everything I have discussed is in its early stages. However, it would be unwise to dismiss the idea that the proliferation of AR apps is right around the corner. There will definitely soon be a market to tap into with early adopters already beginning to pick up on the impressiveness and versatility of augmented reality technology. It’s going to be an exciting time for digital marketers as we can harness the power of a digitised modern world to reach an audience like never before. Moving forward, search marketers need to capitalise on the prospect of intensified local and physicalized marketing to sell goods and services. The user engagement model will be transformed and it could only be a matter of time before augmented reality forms the new predominant medium of digital marketing.