The business of search has changed radically over the past few years, as users have become more mobile, more sociable and a lot more impatient. In response, the search companies have made dramatic changes to the way they operate and it’s vital, writes Amanda Watlington, that publishers keep abreast of what these big players are up to.
In the early days of the web, less than twenty years ago, web visitors used search engines to navigate and explore the rapidly expanding landscape of the internet’s frontier. Users were not sure of what lay beyond the next mouse click and relied on search engines to help them explore and find their way in a vast new information landscape. At the same time, search engines were themselves exploring the possibilities of how to index and deliver all of mankind’s information at the click of a mouse. There were multiple search engines each actively competing for which one could most rapidly develop a new and more attractive technology for determining the document most relevant for the searcher’s query and deliver it fastest and in the most user-friendly interface. In the ensuing years, much of this landscape has changed, but the basic task of search has not changed. Search is still a quest – a hunt for information.
The quest now takes place over an altered landscape. The search engines have changed, evolved and consolidated; the technologies that are used by the searcher have also changed as search has moved from the desktop to the phone and tablet. What has changed the most is the searcher. Today’s typical searcher is no longer a digital pioneer, but may well be a digital native or at least a skilled explorer. The searcher’s expectations have changed, and herein there rests the challenge for how we must approach marketing through search today.
Information Retrieval in an Expanding Information Universe
The volume of information available on the web has exploded, and there is no end in sight. The number of documents continues to grow at exponential rates. The continuing information explosion has greatly complicated the task for search engines and searchers. The advent and growth of social media has further fuelled the explosion and altered how web users interact and expect to interact on the web. With the proliferation of mobile devices and tablets, the available access and speed of connectedness has increased for web users. Searchers are bombarded and inundated with information. In addition to the familiar channel of email, there is a steady stream of tweets on Twitter, Facebook updates and images on Pinterest to keep the user constantly updated on new information that is personally relevant. There is an expectation at the user level of continuous connectedness. Users assume that they will find and receive immediately, personally relevant information from their chosen information sources.
These constantly connected individuals use search to help them cut through the clutter to find desired information and products instantly. They have grown impatient and expect to find their desired result on the first page of search results. If they are searching from a mobile device, they want the specific information displayed in a format that is easy-to-read on the mobile device. Someone using an iPad to check out a restaurant and its menu cannot read a Flash presentation about the restaurant. The user unfamiliar with the restaurant is highly likely to look for another restaurant. Searchers are no longer willing to bother with hard to find and difficult to use sites and search pages. The searcher does not even want to have to navigate to the restaurant’s website to get an address and phone number, but expects to find it directly in the search result. The searcher also wants to be able to access the wisdom of the crowd through a series of reviews or similar information for determining whether to visit or take their business elsewhere. Searchers are less and less willing to page through multiple pages of search results just to get to the information that they want. Gone is the searcher who will read much beyond page one of the search results. There is an expectation of instant satisfaction. To address this demand for broader and faster results, Google invested in an infrastructure technology overhaul, dubbed Caffeine, to speed up its ability to rapidly index content and deliver fresher search results. Launched in 2010, this new infrastructure also allows Google to more rapidly bring in news and other real time results increasing its ability to respond to the growing volume of social and consumer generated content. News is immediately available. For information providers such as publishers, the challenge is to package the information, whether digitally or in print (or in both media), in a compelling manner. If a large volume of consumers are using tablets to access your site, and you do not have a tablet app, then you are risking losing your audience.
Personal Relevancy – The Next Frontier
In the past, search has largely been a text matching exercise with various additional processing added for determining the relative value of the result. Natural language and semantic search have been topics of discussion and interest in the search industry, but the key determinant of relevancy is the user – did the user find the exact information desired. When a searcher puts the word “seal” in the query box, the search engine does not know if the searcher is looking for an animal, a means of preventing leaks, or a celebrity. Search originally addressed the problem by providing diverse results and letting the user decide which “seal” was their search target. This was at best a poor solution.
Introduced in 2010, Google’s Instant was a search enhancement that made a significant step in addressing this issue. As the searcher types, suggestions appear to help disambiguate the searcher’s query. For example, a search for “Albert Einstein” presents a list of options. The searcher can refine the query on the fly.
In 2012, Google added a new feature to the search page, the Knowledge Graph, which is designed to help the user find information even more quickly by presenting an array of available information on the topic immediately at hand. This new feature is currently available in the United States and a global rollout is anticipated. Microsoft has been working on a similar project, Satori, to interconnect the huge volumes of information that can be indexed, stored and retrieved with current technologies. Google’s Knowledge Graph presents on the actual search page an array of information: books, images, video and basic information. By processing their huge database of user information, Google can readily provide information about other people and topics that relate directly to the search. The query “Albert Einstein” yields a broad smorgasbord of information on the famous physicist – birth and death dates, images, family data, and books about Einstein as well as related searches.
A search for a place “Buckingham Palace” produces a map, an address, phone and other factual information. The searcher needs go no further than the search page to find a wealth of related information. This is a huge step in changing the knowledge retrieval process. Instead of just navigating the web, the search engine has shifted roles to providing the actual information in a readily accessible format. The search engine moves from being a passive guide of possible sources to an active tour director. The computing power to do this level of processing is staggering, and yet it is delivered in a millisecond.
Social and Personal – The Privacy Conflict
The explosion of social media content has greatly complicated the task of the search engines. Search engines are struggling with how to access and include social information. Personalised search has been much discussed in search circles for several years, but now social and personalised search are becoming a reality. How to index and access the information presents a special set of problems. Some highly relevant and interesting social media content is behind password protected walled gardens and is unavailable to public search engines.
A large portion of social media includes private information that individuals do not want shared on the open web. There is a huge and continuing debate about privacy and search. We can expect this to continue even in the face of recent agreements on how to treat this information. The move to ensure user privacy is not entirely the unmixed good that it appears at first. In November 2011, Google announced that it would no longer be providing search term referral data in Google Analytics if the user is signed in to a Google account. This was touted as a move to protect the individual’s privacy. At the time, Google estimated that it would impact about 10% of searches. As they say in the automotive industry – mileage has been found to vary. Some sites have a much larger percentage of their search referral information unavailable today. Although the data is still available to those who buy keyword advertising, this move to hide the referrer has strong impacts for publishers that use their search analytics to guide content creation and for understanding how to develop keyword-rich, search reactive content. It also makes it more difficult to look for changing patterns of language usage.
The search engines are currently using a variety of strategies for integrating users’ social information into their search results. In June 2012, Microsoft, the owner of Bing, unveiled how it is integrating data from Facebook, the social networking leader, into its search functionality. Bing allows users to post a question and get help from Facebook friends while they search. The searcher’s friends can easily see and reply to the questions on Facebook or Bing. Users can also follow a feed to see their friends’ queries and posts in real time, without leaving the search engine. This new functionality is currently only available in the United States. A regional/global rollout is planned. The response from search giant Google has been to build their own social network Google+ with its Circles.
Today, search is the province of a few giant corporations each with a keen interest in retaining and expanding advertising revenues whether through search on the desktop or a mobile unit. Users’ interests have shifted to social media and a reliance on the wisdom of their friends and social networks instead of traditional advertising. The crosscurrent of these forces will continue to drive change in the future. Digital marketers must keep their eye on the changes that the giant corporations dominating search and mobile make, while developing our own responses to the new impatient always connected reader. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out in the future.