The evolution of search

by James Francis
A googol is a huge number: one with one hundred zeros. To express a number in that range, you would need to display the width of the universe in kilometres. And when Larry Page and Sergey Brin started a project to search the internet, a colleague suggested that word. One spelling mistake later, and we have one of the largest companies to have ever existed.

Google changed search. Initially named ‘Backrub’, the search engine ranked pages based on their popularity, tracking how many other pages linked to them. It would be a revolution; today, the search company faces a trademark crisis as its name has become synonymous with finding information online.

Yet perhaps not for much longer. A 2019 post on Social Media Examiner sounded the alarm that Google searches might be becoming less effective. Anecdotally, there is a suspicion that Google is losing ground to other search types, specifically Amazon Alexa’s ‘one answer’ voice search.

Search today

Nailing down such claims is tough: Google’s market dominance of 90%+ has hardly moved since 2009. Alexa and pro-privacy contender DuckDuckGo both use Bing, which sits below 3% market share, reports Statcounter. Yet Google does face an existential threat: it gives many answers to a query while voice search such as Alexa, Siri, and OK Google provide one. Since roughly 40% of US internet users engage with voice search at some point, it’s clear that the traditional search-of-a-million-answers is no longer the only game in town.

Numbers, though, can deceive. A switch to voice and other channels, such as social media discovery (effectively automated search), might not mean a loss for Google’s numbers, says Bryan Casson, owner of SEO and search consultancy company Casson Media. “I wouldn’t say that Google has lost market share to single search or the likes of Facebook or TikTok. Yes, there’s an audience shift. But that audience never existed previously in the first place, so you can’t really compare.”

What’s under threat is Google’s attempt to be all search for everyone, a mission it’s never fully succeeded at, especially in terms of retail search. It’s here that the competitors are in ascent. Today’s search market can be categorised into two groups: convenience and privacy. While services such as DuckDuckGo and Startpage promise not to track users and use their data, alternatives like Alexa and Facebook/Meta focus heavily on personalisation for the best results. The latter shapes the market, says Bryan Turner, data analyst at World Wide Worx. “Convenience will always win. When we talk about the users who are concerned about privacy, we’re talking about a small minority. The majority of users are reaping the benefits. And most don’t really mind, because they view their data being processed as paying for the service.”

Yet privacy is still a big deal, if not for most users, then for privacy laws. Search engines and social media would love to reduce the ‘stalker’ factor that makes their results more relevant, not to mention their ads that pay for most of their bills. To do this, some companies are looking at ‘federated’ learning, where users are placed into cohorts of similar search histories.

“Google is trying to launch FLOC (federated learning of cohorts),” Turner says. “That’s basically a group of people who are kind of the same, and then Google will sell that cohort profile to an advertiser. It’s more personalised, but it’s less focused on the person. You can get really good targeting, because no one is actually really unique. People are generally going to fall into a Venn diagram that fits them best, and then it’s what advertisers are going to be targeting.”

As ads dominate search results, it’s becoming harder to get users’ attention. Forget the front page ? if you’re not in the top five results, you are unlikely to be noticed. Yet being ‘first’ is not attainable, says Casson.

“Almost all clients will say, ‘I just want to be first’. Back in the day, 10 years ago, first was the thing that you could do. These days, there’s no such thing as being first. Being first is irrelevant because if you do a Google search, and I do a Google search, we’re probably going to get different results (due to personalisation).”

From search to discovery

Anyone wanting to appear naturally in high search spots needs to create a content footprint that reflects value to search: blogs, podcasts, videos, and such. Yet those require commitment and focus, and often a long-term timeline for success. When securing space in a single answer search, most companies have no chance. The alternatives are ads, and this is where things become interesting.

Meta (née Facebook) doesn’t call itself a search engine, even though others do. The company doesn’t publish search figures, but analysts note it likely generates more search queries a month than all the formal search engines (other than Google) combined. If you account for an ‘automated’ search that generates user feeds, it’s a behemoth for content discovery.

The social media market inspires a type of passive search, says Elizma Nolte, regional marketing manager for Meta Africa.

“Social media supports a discovery and exploration mindset. I happen to see an ad from one of my favourite brands, or I listen to a video from an influencer and she’s talking about this new fashion item. There’s a tag on there and I click on it ? minutes later, I bought something that I wasn’t even aware I’d needed or desired.”

Passive content discovery and conduits such as influencers are becoming key factors in how people ‘search’. Meta responded by launching a service called Discovery Commerce. This takes a similar approach to one-answer search by leveraging data profiles and machine learning to deliver targeted but non-intrusive results.

Some companies use this to try to break out of their reliance on ads. Twitter’s Blue subscription service promises an ad-free experience. Instead, it creates close partnerships with brands and helps promote their content on its feeds. If you click on a partner content link, your ad-free experience extends to that site. Though it’s not quite the same as search, it goes after the same audience and business model.

“The advertising space is becoming less popular for advertisers to exist in,” says Turner. “They would prefer to exist within a social media group rather than outside of it and present themselves like a billboard or an ad in a timeline.”

Aggregator sites

Discovery is rewiring search, and advertisers seem to prefer that trend. Still, not all spaces and audiences are suitable for all products. As Casson points out, if you sell products such as a car, that’s something people want to share on social media and through influencers. But if you’re selling, say, X-ray machines, that’s a better fit for Google or using aggregator sites such as bidorbuy that can get highly visible search positions.

Discovery isn’t the future, notes Nolte, it’s already here. “We might not be in a search mindset at all. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not actually searching all the time. Netflix does it. Spotify does it.”

And increasingly, so do services like Google. You can even use its voice search on feature phones powered by KaiOS. Yet traditional search isn’t going anywhere, nor is it shrinking. There’s still plenty of space in a googol. Instead, we search more without realising: small business ads on Facebook, tags on an influencer’s Snapchat post, the auto-scroll on TikTok or You- Tube, your next Netflix binge ? the future of search is already here.

Getting better search results

Ensuring your brand appears at the top of a search query requires some strategy. Casson Media provides the following tips:
  • Engage a search consultant who demonstrably understands the current search world.
  • Don’t use an agency that does everything; they will likely focus on on-selling services instead of specialising in certain areas.
  • Decide which platforms best fit your product.
  • Put in the resources and effort to create a content footprint.
  • If appropriate, use influencers who can reach large audiences.
Republished with permission from ITWeb Limited
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