The nature of search is changing. In an increasingly mobile world, typing search strings into little boxes fits less and less comfortably with our lifestyles and how we want to interact with technology.
But perhaps more importantly, Google’s getting smarter. Its vision is to be less reactive, less keyword-driven, more science fiction made fact – with so much knowledge about you and the world around you that it can anticipate what you’re looking for before you’re even aware of it yourself. And as Will Critchlow from Distilled demonstrated in his excellent presentation at the recent Econsultancy Future of Digital Marketing conference in London, it’s closer to achieving those ambitions than you might think.
What does the evolution of search mean for marketers? And how willing should we be to trade our privacy and a world filtered by the search giant for clever, personalised search?
The future of search is… intelligent
Search is moving far beyond simply indexing and matching the strings of letters that we type into a search engine page. With the launch of Knowledge Graph, Google’s gaining an understanding of the people, places and things we’re looking for, or “entities”, and how they connect to other people, places and things.
So for example, when you search on ‘Doctor Who’, instead of just presenting you with a list of blue links that match the text string ‘Doctor Who’, Google understands that you’re interested in the ‘Doctor Who’ entity stored in its database. It’s able to pull together all relevant information, including images, writers, recent posts, cast members and other similar TV shows, and present them to you within the Google search screen.
And Google’s also getting smarter at understanding and interpreting our searches, even when we’re not too sure what it is that we’re looking for. You’ll already be familiar with Google autocomplete, which attempts to guess your query before you’ve even finished it, based on what other users have searched for. But now it can even make sense of incredibly fuzzy descriptions, such as ‘that film about oil with that guy in’.
There’s a whole Reddit thread dedicated to searches based on vague movie plots that shouldn’t work… but do.
The future of search is… conversational
With growing use of mobile devices and the need for information on the move, we’re increasingly likely to interact and ask queries using voice search rather than via text. You can now converse with Google via Chrome on desktop, Android and iPhone. And conversing doesn’t just mean speaking your query instead of inputting it via a keypad. You can actually have a conversation (of sorts).
For example, if I do a voice search for today’s weather in Taunton on my mobile, I get a nice summary. If I then ask ‘how about Bristol?’, Google understands that the searches are linked, and brings up information on the weather in Bristol. Clever.
While it’s still early days for voice search, the technology is clearly evolving and could play a significant role in future search, particularly in scenarios where using a keypad isn’t convenient or safe.
The future of search is… anticipatory
As Google gains a deeper understanding of us and the world around us, it’s increasingly taking into account not just our queries, but the context of those queries, in order to better interpret the result we need.
Search for ‘Liberty’, and Google uses not just my explicit query, but the implicit data that I’m searching on my mobile, in Central London, to guess that I’m more interested in the department store than the New York landmark.
With Google Now, Google aims to take this one step further, learning about you and your behaviour so it can serve up relevant information before you even know you need it, whether that’s calendar alerts, travel data or breaking news.
The future of search is… social
And of course, as search becomes more user-focused, social will play an increasingly important role too. Already, social signals such as +1s, likes, comments, and shares influence search rankings, and Google prioritises relevant posts from your Google+ connections in the results it presents to you.
Now, Google has also indicated that it will take customer experience into account when ranking businesses in the future, penalising those that attract complaints and bad reviews. How it will police this, to factor out fake reviews and competitor-bashing, is yet to be seen.
What does the future of search mean for marketers?
What can marketers do to prepare for the new evolution of search?
Feed the Knowledge Graph and Google Now
Helping Google better understand what you’re publishing enables it to present your content more accurately and attractively, and feeds into the Knowledge Graph and Google Now. With the launch of new Webmaster tools in May, it’s got a whole lot easier to provide Google with data.
And if you haven’t set up a Google+ profile or verified authorship of your content with Google, now is probably a good time to get started.
Search plus social is a powerful combination. Being active on social networks doesn’t just feed search engine rankings. It also provides an alternative channel to Google for driving traffic, finding relevant audiences and sharing good content.
And while the ‘Bad Merchant’ update will hopefully hold no terrors, regularly monitoring online reviews and ratings is always a good strategy.
Focus on quality content that’s useful
With its Panda and Penguin updates, Google’s struck a massive blow against ‘bad’ SEO marketing practices, such as keyword stuffing, poorly written or duplicated content, and link spamming.
As search evolves to be driven less by keywords and more by the user, a focus on creating quality content that informs, entertains, meets a need, is a far more sustainable strategy than trying to ‘write for SEO’.
Have a Plan B?
It’s still early days for the Knowledge Graph and Google Now but the implications for marketers and website owners are huge. If the information I need from your business is presented to me within the Google search page or via Google Now, where’s the incentive to click through to your website? If you’re reliant on search for web traffic, what does that do to your business model? What does the future hold for Wikipedia?
And final thoughts…
Google’s vision is beguiling. There’s no doubt that we need help in navigating through the rising flood of online content to the information that’s relevant for us. And my own digital assistant, warning me of trouble ahead and steering me around it? Nice idea.
But how comfortable am I with Google sitting on my shoulder, collecting data about my life? The truth is, not much. With the furore over governments tapping in to our conversations and online activity, it’s surprising there’s not a bigger debate about how commercial companies are collecting, storing and using our personal data.
And it’s not just privacy that concerns me. As Google increasingly filters data based on what it knows about me, I can’t help feeling that I’m losing something. Much as I love my friends, they’re not me and their recommendations don’t necessarily match what I want and need.
Our natural tendency is to seek out information that validates our view of the world – is there a danger that Google will just serve up content that feeds my prejudices, and avoids challenging me? And will my world view get narrower as a result?
Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I miss the random serendipity of the early Web – the sense of browsing a second hand bookstore and discovering hidden delights. Yes, Google’s future promises speed and relevance, but it feels a lot less fun.