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Purna Virji: “Chatbots are not new, only with us in the west”

19 December 2017

Purna Virji has worked over 15 years in search and is currently Senior Manager of Global Engagement at Microsoft. She specializes in all things Bing Ads related, Voice Search and SEO. Purna is one of the world’s top thought leaders when it comes to the Future of Search. An interview about her vision on the future.

 What was the most fun thing you did within your profession in the last year?

I think the most fun thing I got to do was to travel to so many amazing cities around the world. I was in Amsterdam in May for The Next Web conference, so I already got to hang out in your city. My fav part was talking a boat ride through the canals and seeing all the beautiful sights from the water. I also got to go to Australia where I hugged a koala bear – very cute but not so friendly.

I love that my role as Senior Manager of Global Engagement allows me to do a lot of research and then go help different business and people by sharing the research and knowledge. I love a-ha moments, so if I can share any a-ha moments with others to help make them more successful or make their life easier, then that brings me absolute joy.

At Microsoft, you work a lot with Artificial Intelligence and the future of search. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

At Microsoft, I get to work with a few different areas. I’m personally really passionate about AI and how it can help all of us as humans, and as well as marketers. AI is also a huge focus for us at Microsoft, and Bing is one of the biggest AI resources because that is where we get a lot of the knowledge from. The intelligence gets to pull information that comes search queries.

What I’ve been talking about a lot over the past year is how search is evolving – as a result of advances in AI- and how search is becoming multi-sensory. Right now, if I want to look for something, I can pick up my phone take a picture of something and it will give me more information. So i can do things like image search. This makes it easier for users as they don’t have to type in what they’re looking for.

The second way that we’re talking multi-sensory is through things like voice search and conversational search, where you are using your thumb to chat with people like text messaging or using your actual voice to talk to your computer.

These  are just a few of the ways AI is impacting search in general, but I want to clarify a point about AI that everyone always gets really worried about. Everyone always thinks of these Hollywood movies like Ex Machina where the AI becomes so clever it destroys the human race. But that’s not the case at all!

If you think about intelligent technology, it’s all about making humans more capable, make our lives easier. In PPC, five years ago keyword research or running a report was so much of a pain. Now, things get so much easier and faster because machine learning can help you with your recommended bids or target CPA for example.

AI can even help the blind see. By that, I mean it helps them understand the world around them. It’s actually amazing, I also shared it at The Next Web conference. It’s called the Seeing AI. It’s a pair of glasses and an app on your phone. The machine will look at the world around you and tell you what you’re seeing.

You’ve already mentioned a few ways these technologies will impact PPC. What is going to be the biggest impact?
I think there are 3 different ways that AI is going to impact PPC.

The first one is with audiences and targeting. Because we can use machine learning to  better understand of our audience. We’ll be able to get better at targeting. We can show the right message to the right person at the right time and make advertising feel more relevant. A good example of this that already exists are in-market audiences that Bing Ads has. These are audience lists of people that have shown purchase intent signals within a particular category.   With that you can add a whole additional layer of people to your targeting who are more likely to buy something and you could  see your conversion rate go up as a result.

The second one is making life easier in terms of bid management, reporting etcetera. All the simple, repetitive tasks can be done be machines so that we can spend our time on the more creative tasks.

The third one is that we’ll probably see the type of advertising evolve as the technology is going to get different.

And this is a question I don’t know the answer to: Will we have voice search ads? Will we have image based ads? Who knows. It’s all about how these ads get multi-sensory, so we’ll have to wait and see.

So Microsoft doesn’t have an answer yet?

No one has a definitive answer yet because I think the market isn’t fully ready yet. Adoption of voice and image search is growing very fast but not everybody is using it – yet. Once people use it more and more you can find a way for advertising to fit in.

Is Microsoft developing specific applications of these technologies for Bing, other than things Google is doing?

Yes, Microsoft and Bing have been innovating in so many ways. A few examples:

  • something thing that Bing has (and Google does not), is in-image search. For example, when I go to and look up a picture of Amsterdam, in-image search would allow me to zoom into a certain part of the image, such as a particular building. Bing will then show me other pictures of that building. This is really cool if you think about it in terms of discovery. Say that I’m looking at a photo of Angelina Jolie with a really nice handbag and I’m wondering where I can buy that handbag, I can zoom in on the bag she’s carrying and suddenly I’ll see more results of just that bag. So if you don’t know the words to describe something and you want to find that, then it’s easier to use image search.
  • The second thing we’re doing at Bing and Bing Ads is cooperating chat bots within the search. For example, when you look for ‘Mansoon Seattle’, Bing will show you a chat bot extension right under the local listing.

You can ask the Monsoon chat bot questions like ‘do you have vegetarian food?’ or ‘do you accept credit cards?’. So it’s saving the searcher time. You don’t have to go to their website anymore to find the answer or call them.


Something that is still in early beta now, and I’m going to talk more about this at Friends of Search, is a chat bot extension within Bing Ads. All of this stuff is brand new, and something the other search engines aren’t doing yet.. .
Also we have image extensions that Google doesn’t have yet and we’re testing video extensions as well.

What’s the biggest change the industry will see in 2018?

I think we’re going to start seeing more and more the impact and the positive change from Artificial Intelligence. It will manifest in two ways:

  • We’re going to enjoy more relevant targeting, ie. getting better at reaching the right person at the right time. For advertisers that means fewer wasted impressions, less wasted spend, while conversion rates will be higher.
  • We’ll see the impact of machnines on marketing. We’re already seeing screens, websites and apps become less necessary, so marketers will need to focus on engaging their audience via voice search, digital assistants and chatbots. I’ll share guidance on how to do this at my talk at Friends of Search.

How do you think this will impact businesses or agencies?

I think this is going to give them new ways to better engage with their audience. Whether its with chat bots extensions or serving a more personalised or tailored message to people, it’s going to give them a way to build relationships with their audiences.

Right now, people are growing very resistant to  advertising. You can see this from the number of people using adblockers. But if we change the message of the advertising from ‘Buy Now! Buy Now!’ to ‘Hey, how can I help you?’ we can really make a change and help people instead of annoy them. In that way, people will want to consume that advertising.

 What’s your #1 advice for businesses in 2018?

My number one advice is to embrace the future, because we’re already there.

A lot of people in the West think that things like chat bots are very new, but in Asian countries like China, India and The Philippines chatbots are so common! In fact, 67% of people all over the world already use chat bots for their customer service.

So in a way we should think about bringing that here. It’s not new, just newer for us in the West. Embrace new ways to engage with and delight your audience. Start working to optimize for digital assistants, voice search and chat bots.

Can you share a successful PPC technique that has lots of impact or potential, but is rarely used?

I would say it’s all about not using audiences to their full capacity. Now that you can run Shopping campaigns, you can also run your remarketing audiences on Shopping. Not too many people realise you can layer different audiences on Shopping as well.

The second things is you should layer on some of your different audience lists together. So in the same campaign, whether it’s text ads or shopping campaigns, make sure you’re layering on remarketing audiences, in-market audiences and custom audiences. You can have multiple audience lists in the same ad group or campaign and you can control their bids. Having these makes a huge difference, so please do that.

What will PPC look like in 2020?

That’s something we will have to wait and see. I know the things that will impact it, which would be certainly that interaction with devices is going to be so different. So if we think about the predictions that we know for 2020:

Prediction one: Gartner has predicted that by 2020, 30% of all web browsing sessions will be screenless. Then we know voice search is going to have a much bigger role to play. So will there be monetization from voice by 2020? Maybe there has to be some early form or not, but we don’t know. We’ll wait and see.

Prediction two: 85% of businesses want to implement chatbots by 2020 (Gartner). So it’s a very safe bet to say we’re going to see a much larger role from chat bots in PPC. We’re seeing it take off with the pilot now.

And the third prediction that we know is from Baidu: 50% of all searches is going to be either image or voice. So if we’re going to see image and voice play a bigger role, the again, what can we do in terms of different types of image ads?

Why should no one miss your presentation at Friends of Search?

I’m going to cover conversations beyond voice search, where I’m going to share hands on tactical advice and some in-depth research on how marketers can test out chatbots and skills as part of their marketing plans. It’s your blueprint for the future, so don’t miss it!

What is going to be the most important take-away?

How chatbots can be used across multiple channels to best build a relationship with your audience—and make you lots of revenue!