First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII – and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realised it’s a brochure.” – Douglas Adams

I was once fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Kevin Warwick, where he assured the audience somewhat contentiously that “in the future, blind people will drive cars”. His point was that it’s impossible to accurately predict the future, because our imagination is so tied to the present. He illustrated this by saying that, in a future where miniature robotics or genetic survey means that no one need be blind, and where self-driving cars mean that no one need drive, the statement would be irrelevant. This lecture was some twenty years ago, which has lessened the impact of the statement somewhat – as both of these things are now close to reality.

Which gets me around to something I’m currently raising with clients: “How do you prepare for a Web without either websites or browsers?”

While this may seem unthinkable, strong foundations are already in place for this to happen. It’s really not a matter of if but when.

Consider Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri. These are all (with varying degrees of success) able to search and find information on the Web, then speak it back to you, all without using a browser to visit a website.

At the moment, these conversations are short and lack one thing: continuity. You can ask what the latest news is, but can’t then follow up the first question with a second requested in-depth coverage on one story (without restating ‘tell me the latest news about…’). You can ask what’s on at the cinema, but can’t then ask to book a film, or for more information about an actor, without providing the original query for context.

Human conversations don’t need this. “What’s on at the cinema tonight?” “Mission Impossible.” “What times?” “7:30 and 8:30.” “Book me two tickets for 8:30 please.” Humans understand continuity of conversation.

Compare this with a current digital assistant conversation: “What’s on at the cinema tonight?” “Mission Impossible.” “What times are Mission Impossible on at the cinema tonight?” “7:30 and 8:30.” “Book me two tickets for 8:30 for Mission Impossible at the cinema tonight please.” Unwieldy and unnatural.

But this human-like level of conversational continuity is coming, and with it comes a more natural way to request and obtain information.

“Call a local plumber who has five-star reviews on TrustPilot please.”

Enquiry to conversion, all without a website. (And your digital assistant will make the call to the plumber, chat with her/him, request a visit and book it into your diary.) Sounds far-fetched? Check this out.

A key element in making this magic happen can already be built into your website: structured data.

To Google, all website pages are the same. There’s no inherent difference between a page describing a film, a book, a person, a restaurant and so on. Yet, when you Google ‘Mission Impossible’, it comes back, without asking, with film times at your local cinema (if there’s a current release) or with film information such as casting. Google knows this because it’s being given structured data, which tells it that Mission Impossible is a film, along with where and when it’s showing. (The structured data may be aggregated from more than one source.) Google then presents this information in a different way to normal search results – to stand out from the rest.

This structured data is presented in a tightly defined way, known as a schema. There are schemas for hundreds of things, including jobs, books, films, companies, videos… the list goes on. For search engines and digital assistants, structured data takes the guesswork out of search results.

Just as radio didn’t replace television, so digital assistants likely won’t obliterate websites – but they will cease to be the sole, or even primary, source of enquiries. Need a new job? Ask Google. Book a table for a meal? Ask Alexa. This future is so close that it’s almost now.

OK, this may be the future, but what does it matter now? Can’t we deal with it when it happens?

Well, that’s the point. It’s already happening. Google is already using structured data to help with website searches now (even those using browsers). Google likes to provide contextual results, so when people search for a job, a service, a restaurant or a film, you need to make sure that your jobs, services, restaurant or films come up in the search results.

The implications for this are far-reaching. Search optimisation used to be a battle for the first page, but many people won’t see a page. They’ll just get answers. When people are asking for advice or help solving a problem, content marketing is vital to lead people to you.

As I said at the start, it’s impossible to predict the future because our imagination of it can only come from our understanding of the present.

While we can’t predict it, we can prepare for it. Adding structured data to a website now can help with search optimisation now; it can help prepare your business for a world where access to information isn’t via a browser over the Internet.