Search engines have been on a series of constant, rolling changes since their inception and rise to popularity, but the number of “game-changing” updates has been relatively limited. For the most part, Google works much in the same way that it did back in the late 1990s; type in a query, and the engine will return a list of entries in an attempt to get you what you’re looking for. A handful of updates, like Panda and the introduction of the Knowledge Graph, have changed how Google evaluates websites and presents them to users, but there haven’t been many disruptions in the search world.
Now, we may be on the verge of a search disruption. How so?
Consider these six major ways search engines are about to change:
- Blurring the line between online and offline. Search is moving away from online-exclusive engines to focus on a blurry area between online and offline. Largely, this is being driven by digital assistants, like Siri and Cortana, which exist tied to a given device and operating system. Driven mostly by voice-based searches, these platforms take user queries and try to give you exactly what you’re looking for—regardless of whether what you’re looking for is a file on your main system, a bit of basic knowledge or fact, or is hidden in some deep corner of the web. Soon, users will come to expect this multifaceted functionality by default.
- Personalization. Search is already being personalized, and probably in more ways than you even know. There are surface-level factors, which most of us notice; for example, most mobile searches draw in your location to give you geographically specific results. However, digital assistants and some search engines (like Google) are now starting to incorporate your history and behavioral patterns into the types of results you see. In the near future, this personalization factor will multiply, and you may start seeing results based on almost “creepy” factors, such as your friends’ search histories.
- Immediate information. Search engines are trying harder to provide immediate information, whenever possible, to searchers; this simplifies the average user’s experience, but at the same time may draw users away from straightforward organic results. The Knowledge Graph is a perfect example of this, giving users answers in the form of short responses or few-sentence explanations of more complicated queries. Digital assistants, too, are doing more to provide direct, succinct answers to user queries.
- App centrism. Google, in particular, is making great strides in building search engines that can accommodate apps in addition to websites. As first-line measures, the search engines started indexing apps and supporting “deep links” to apps, which take users to interior content pages of apps they already have installed on their devices. Now, Google has rolled out its app streaming functionality, which allows users to view content on apps they don’t even have installed. Expect app-based functionality to increase gradually and significantly in the coming months, possibly to the point where apps begin to replace websites altogether.
- Search diversity. The diversity of search platforms available will start increasing further. Already, Bing is starting to gain on Google’s lead in terms of sheer users, and alternative platforms like DuckDuckGo are starting to appeal to users with niche needs or preferences. Furthermore, digital assistants are starting to form an entirely new type of search engine—one that doesn’t require a specific website or app, and one that fetches or presents results in completely new ways.
- Machine learning. Finally, we have the rise of machine learning in search, which is only now starting to develop. The biggest breakthrough here has been RankBrain, which Google rolled out as a machine-learning modifier to its Hummingbird update. Put simply, RankBrain helps the algorithm “learn” how to better understand complex user queries, iteratively improving the algorithm on its own. On a bigger scale, machine learning could help search engines advance into completely unfamiliar territory, along unfamiliar paths and in iterations far faster than human beings would be able to accomplish through traditional methods.
There may not be any one singular search disruption, but we’re facing major changes on a number of fronts, all of which hold the potential to fundamentally change the way people use search engines. Independently, they’ll force your strategies to change, but together, they may require you to scrap your strategies and start over. Fortunately, they’ll all roll out gradually enough that we’ll have time to update our marketing strategies in response.
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