As search marketers, we have a habit of being too focused on search engines in their traditional form. We use acronyms such as SEO (search engine optimisation) and SEM (search engine marketing) to define our approach to the digital experience.
But, with increasing evidence to suggest that the future of search will contain many different elements, how much longer will the traditional Google search engine be our first port of call? And how much longer will the ‘search engine’ really be necessary in the format it exists today?
Will we drop the ‘E’ from SEO and just have ‘SO’? People are already using the umbrella term ‘search marketing’ to discuss both paid and organic search marketing so perhaps it will all soon fall under one category. Or, will we begin to have more specialist areas, such as ‘VSO’ (voice search optimisation) and ‘ISO’ (image search optimisation)?
With rapid advancements in voice search technology, image recognition technology and artificial intelligence, it could well be time to rethink how we see Google.
According to a report by Mindshare, “we can expect to move towards a world where the search engine becomes increasingly assistive and proactive, meeting people’s needs before they are even expressed as a keyword search”.
You can read the full ‘Future of Search’ report by Mindshare here but below we take a brief look at how the search landscape might change in the future, based on their findings and our own thoughts.
Vertical search refers to a search function which exists within one particular website, rather than search engines such as Google browsing the wider web to return multiple sites. The most famous example is probably Amazon, which is often the first port of call for e-commerce for many consumers. Other big examples would be Asos for fashion, AirBnB for accommodation and Indeed for job listings.
Another commonly used example would be comparison sites like Skyscanner, where people can search for flight details. This is slightly different because it will then send you to external sites to make the purchase. If we’re looking at search patterns, though, people do go straight to a specific website to start their search in many cases.
Increasingly, people are using self-contained search engines for specific purchase decisions, mainly relating to e-commerce. This has happened because the search functions within websites are now much faster and more effective than in previous years. People might still check with Google to confirm they’re getting the cheapest price, but maybe not if they’re short on time.
Will we see more of these in the future? Could every industry develop its own specific ‘Google’, therefore rendering the search engine redundant for product searches? Although this would increase search diversity, it may well limit the potential for smaller brands to compete in a digital marketplace, until they can guarantee listings on the relevant platform.
It remains to be seen, but it’s not entirely crazy to imagine a world beyond Google, at least for e-commerce.
In a similar vein to vertical search, people could increasingly use social platforms to carry out their searches.
A social platform like Twitter, for example, has become a valid source of information for many people (fake news or no fake news). Rather than some typing into google ‘what is happening with brexit’, they may instead choose to go to Twitter and look through the #brexit hashtag to see the latest developments.
Even newspapers are increasingly adapting to the shift to online media, and we could even see individual publishers such as The Guardian, The Times or the BBC developing their own, more sophisticated search functions to bring people news and information.
Developments in the social search area have perhaps been seen most recently with the introduction of Instagram Shopping and the launch of Instagram Checkout. While social has typically been seen as the ‘research’ phase of search behaviour, it is now possible to complete your whole search journey without leaving Instagram. See suggestions, find a product you like and buy it.
Related article: What is Instagram Checkout and is it a Game-Changer?
Image Credit: The Verge
An exciting development in the world of search is visual search. Google is already leading the way on this one with the Google Lens. This is an image recognition technology which allows you to take photos of an item, and Google will return results with similar shapes, patterns, colours or textures.
Visual search may well become a significant part of the exploratory stage for consumers, as they identify items they like or things they want to know more about. At the moment, the technology still needs to be developed to the stage where it can understand user intent, but it will get there eventually.
In the future, we could see visual search become even more sophisticated. Imagine a scenario where you could take a photo of food in your fridge and you can search for a recipe. No more typing ‘what can you cook with leftover chicken’ into the search bar.
Or, you take a photo of a handbag you like, and like a personal shopper, you are provided with a whole outfit to buy. It sounds like the stuff of sci-fi movies, but with visual search technology evolving, it’s not out of the question.
Voice search technology has long had a reputation for being a bit hit and miss. It frequently misrecognises what people are asking, or pipes up even when you’re not asking it anything at all. For that reason, not everyone is completely on board with using it for complex search queries yet.
Instead, people will use voice assistants and devices for very simple queries, perhaps regarding the weather or the traffic. This is what Mindshare refer to in the report as short and sharp ‘voice search moments’. This is likely to remain the same for a while, as people value voice search technology for its simplicity in providing short and sharp responses.
Could this develop in the future to deliver more complex responses? This could well be the case, but it’s uncertain whether people will actually want to listen to longer and more complicated or nuanced responses from a voice search device. If they’re in the mood for information gathering, it seems more likely that they’ll be happier to spend time browsing.
Instead, as voice search technology becomes more advanced, it’s likely that search will become synonymous with taking action.
Siri and Google Assistant increasingly help people manage their day-to-day life, beyond trivial searches like “what is the fastest car in the world”.This is likely to evolve to the point where they become more like a Personal Assistant, and people will be deferring more responsibility onto them.
As cars become smarter, for example, people may use voice commands in the car to navigate to “the nearest coffee shop” or “the best place to stop for food between here and Bristol”. Or, in 20 years time, you might be able to book your holiday with a few simple voice commands:
“Siri, book me a holiday.”
“Somewhere hot and near the sea”.
The responsibility of decision making is given to the voice assistant.
Related article: How Does Google Assistant Work?
We’ve already touched on the idea of assistive search relating to voice commands, but this will expand across all forms of search as well – voice, visual and typed. Artificial intelligence means that increasingly things can be predicted for us, based on identifiers such as location, browser history and recent queries.
Already, voice assistants can help people with daily tasks such as setting reminders, making repeat purchases or typing out emails. Assistive search is all about meeting needs before they are expressed as a keyword search.
As it evolves, we will likely see more cases where it’s helping people find recommendations or inspiration, narrow down their purchase options and instantly understand what they are searching for without having to type out the specifics. It might provide suggested text or email replies and more accurate autofill for search queries.
However, this is the part people are nervous about. According to the Mindshare report, two-thirds of people say “I want to make my own decisions rather than rely on a digital assistant” and just over half say that “using a digital assistant feels like giving up control”. It’s all about the thin line between useful and intrusive.
Whatever your thoughts are on the evolving search landscape, there is no denying that change is coming and it could be a case of adapt or survive. As Mindshare neatly summarise it, “we need to start thinking outside the search box”.