Will Facebook Messenger replace mobile apps and (gasp!) Google?

Facebook has big plans for its Messenger service. So big, in fact, that it’s aiming to replace texting, mobile web and apps.

Facebook has more than one billion users and its app ranks in the top three for time spent for 80 percent of its users. In other words, there are a lot of people using Facebook all the time, both at home and while they are away. The company is trying to leverage that dominance to make the Internet a more seamless experience for its users.

Right now, you probably have a bunch of apps on your phone that you don’t use, and quite frankly, have probably forgotten you even have. If you need information about something, you go to Google, look up a company’s contact information and either email them, place an order via their website or get a question answered about your bill. In some cases, this might require the download of an app before you can proceed using your smartphone.

So if you’re keeping score, you’ve accessed a browser, gone to Google, typed in some information, gotten a list of contact information, decided what you needed, then took additional steps to complete whatever it was you were trying to do in the first place.

Facebook Messenger wants to condense all of that into a much better -- and quicker -- experience using bots. In Messenger’s worldview, you’ll already have Messenger open on your phone because you use it all the time. A company will have an easy- to-remember username, similar to a URL or Twitter handle. You can directly chat with the company’s bot right from messenger to ask about a reservation change or the status of a return. So in between sending text messages via Messenger to your spouse, you can directly chat with the equivalent of a customer service rep that happens to be a highly sophisticated piece of software known as a bot.


What’s a bot?

Messenger recently opened up its development shed to share the tools companies need to build their own bots, making it easier for them to join the Messenger ecosystem. But what is a bot?

A bot is software programmed to converse with people in a natural way, mimicking the interaction they might have with a human. Currently, what bots can do is limited, and anything beyond a simple transaction can exceed its abilities, requiring a human to provide backup. However, bot technology is rapidly evolving and the sophistication is expected to continue to grow, meaning bots will understand and properly respond to your requests (even the ones your phone auto-corrected into something else.)

The way the people running Messenger see it, eventually every company will have one of these bots, allowing you to send them a message whenever you want directly from an application (they hope) you already have open.

If people buy into this idea, it means that apps aren’t needed any more, because all the things you would use the app for are now handled via the equivalent of a direct text message to the company that is responded to by a bot. Think of it like a chatroom where everyone -- and every company -- is available. Need to order a pizza, for example? Send Pizza Hut a message and place your order through its bot, which will act just like someone over the phone. Need to know whether your car is still under warranty? Send a message to General Motors and the bot will respond with an answer.

Because Facebook already knows who you are, it is hoping to eliminate all the log-ins and such from the process. GM will know who is asking and where you are located, allowing them to not only tell you your car is still under warranty, but could recommend nearby dealers.


What could all of this mean?

If Facebook Messenger gains enough users who embrace using this one application for all their needs -- and the bots continue to improve -- Messenger stands to become the dominant player in the mobile web. If people are searching via Messenger and communicating to friends, family and businesses through the service, then there is little need for specialty apps nor is there really much need for search engines. If bots provide an instant gateway into companies and Messenger has a built-in search engine, why go outside the system to use something else to search? This assumes, of course, that Messenger’s search capabilities meet your needs.

After all, search is a means of gathering information. If another service can get you the information quicker and easier, then the way we search for information may fundamentally shift. This moves the balance of power away from Google to Facebook Messenger. Search engine optimization would become Messenger optimization, and could possibly focus more on generating positive Facebook posts and creating Facebook-related content. That’s just speculation at this point, but seems logical.

Keep in mind that the biggest “if” in this equation is if Facebook Messenger can gain enough traction. Just because people use it now doesn’t mean they want it to be the primary application they use. And while Facebook commands a dominant market position, there’s a big difference in finding out what your friends are doing and being interested in using the platform for all your interactions.

And there is also the demographic problem. Facebook users tend to skew older -- with the average age being 40+. Younger users tend to use other social media and the group chat function on the iPhone is particularly important to them. Will they abandon it for something else? Right now, probably not. But if the value proposition is great enough, behaviors change.

After all, at one time, AltaVista and Yahoo were the dominant search engines. The former is out of business and the latter only has a small share of the overall search market. AOL used to dominate the Internet, but is mostly a niche player now. The point is, while it may be hard to picture people abandoning Google or their favorite apps now, the Internet can rapidly change, turning today’s titans into yesterday’s news.

So hedge your bets. Pay attention to what’s happening with Facebook Messenger and the bot movement and see if it keeps growing. Ramp up your business participation on Facebook to make sure you have solid posts in place as a foundation to build on -- and if you’re linking to your website or blog, it’s good for your SEO anyway.

A lot needs to happen for this scale of change to take place, but when it’s backed by the goliath that is Facebook, it’s worth watching.


Todd Shryock is the director of content for Emerge. If you have questions about your content strategy, reach him at tshryock@EmergeInc.com.

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