As search changes, Google changes

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Everything we know about search is changing fundamentally. An explosion of devices and technologies continues to shape how and where we search.

The notion of jumping onto our laptops and typing search terms on Google.com feels increasingly quaint — something the search giant is sensing and responding to. Advertisers need to, as well.

Search evolves

For many years, the user interface for search remained unchanged. You visited a search engine like Google on your desktop, typed a request for information and got a list of reasonably useful answers in return.

But, seemingly overnight, everything changed. Now, searching means utilizing a wide range of interfaces, including GPS devices, wearables, smart objects such as Amazon Echo and operating systems such as iOS and Android. Oh, and we’re not just lounging on our sofas at home when we search. We’re searching on the go.

Because we want information on the fly, and because we rely on a number of interfaces to find what we want, our search behaviors are changing.

For instance, when we’re behind the wheel of a car or walking down the street wearing an Apple Watch, we’re using our voices more often than our fingertips to find what we want. And when we’re back home, we can order a pizza by talking to our Amazon Echo devices instead of visiting Google.com to find out who delivers.

Recently, a company known as MindMeld, which provides voice search technologies, surveyed US smartphone users and found that 60 percent had started using voice search within the past year. You can also see a rise in search queries that are clearly voice commands when you look at Google Trends for phrases such as “call mom,” which are highly unlikely to be typed into a search box.

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Voice search is no longer coming. It’s here.

These changes do not bode well for Google’s traditional revenue model, which relies on serving up ads while you search on Google.com. The user interface of talking to your mobile phone or wearable device to order a pizza does not leave any room for a paid search ad. So it’s not surprising that display advertising spend is overtaking search ad spend, and the gap between the two will widen over the next few years.

The empire strikes back

Google.com is gradually losing influence. But Google is not. Why? Because Google is well aware of the shift in search behavior that is occurring and has been undertaking a number of changes to keep users and advertisers in its orbit. Here are some of the ways that Google is rolling with the times:

Launching apps and operating systems. Android, Android Auto, Apps, Chrome, Drive, Gmail, Google Fiber and Google Maps: they’re not a collection of technologies, but rather a way for Google to embed itself in the way we search on our own terms.

Google Fiber is the most obvious manifestation of Google literally becoming part of the fabric of our lives, although it’s still a bit early to tell how far and wide Google will go with Fiber. Google Maps is another matter. While Apple Maps was struggling for credibility, Google Maps was establishing itself as the gold standard for wayfinding apps. If you’re a business with a storefront, you don’t exist unless someone can find you on Google Maps

Being findable via Android Auto is rapidly becoming mandatory, as well. Just this month, Google rolled out Android Auto to 18 countries, making Android Auto available in 28 countries. It’s pretty clear that voice search in cars is a two-horse race between Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay.

When combining these with the rest of the products listed above, it’s easy to see how Google is creating an infrastructure that will keep consumers visiting Google whether they do a search or not.

Creating physical products like Android Wear, Google Glass, Chromebooks and driverless cars. It’s easy to think that these products are created as a way for Google to attempt to diversify its revenue, but whether they are immediately successful or not is less important than Google finding new ways to keep consumers requesting and using the data that Google is supplying.

Quickly evolving to a mobile-first UX philosophy. Google itself has reported that since 2011, the number of near me searches has increased 34-fold, and 80 percent of those searches occur on mobile devices.

Accordingly, Google is pushing search to a mobile-first experience. All businesses have felt firsthand the impact of the Google Mobilegeddon algorithm change, the advent of the Snack Pack and the elimination of AdWords on the right side of desktop search results.

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Going “mobile first” perfectly complements the launch of apps and operating systems, which favor a mobile search experience.

Launching products to keep people on Google.com’s servers and to show how awesome Google is. Google isn’t exactly giving up on Google.com — not by a long shot. Google intends to build a self-contained search ecosystem for those of us who still go to Google.com to find what we want.

  • Google AMP does more than make mobile sites load faster — Google AMP also keeps users on an experience controlled by Google, which makes it easier for Google to track and report on them.
  • Google App Streaming, similar to Google AMP, provides a “faster” way for third-party app creators to have their content delivered to consumers, again with the caveat that are you are willing to have the app experience hosted and served by Google.
  • Google’s Physical Web is designed to keep web pages relevant by serving up search results (including Google content) based on feedback it receives from a user’s location and smart objects around them.
  • Google Destinations and other “immersive search experiences” allow Google to use entities to provide an end-to-end shopping experience for travelers on Google.
  • Google is also experimenting with providing a similar experience for consumers looking for service professionals, like plumbers or cleaning services.
plumber

Making entities smarter. Think of an entity as what Google returns in its Knowledge Graph results. When you do a search, Google pulls from a broad pool of information sources to serve up what it believes are the most relevant answers. Search for Domino’s Pizza, and Google will pull from the Domino’s corporate website, Google My Business pages, Yelp reviews, Wikipedia and many other sources to consolidate probable answers through an entity.

Google is making its entities smarter and easier to edit to deliver more relevant answers to searchers and to deliver more value to brands.

Google is also making entities visible in more places and formats via features such as clickable phone numbers in organic results and by allowing entities to directly message consumers in search results via Business Cards. Clickable phone numbers and business cards once again mean that Google will be better able to show the value that Google is delivering to brands and advertisers.

Final thoughts

These are just some of the major ways Google is responding to changing search behaviors. Indeed, Mike Blumenthal has already claimed that the future of local search could be pack-less, while Andrew Shotland recently stated that the future of local search could be “resultless.”

I’d take the speculation a step further and posit that most local searches in the future won’t return any set of local results in the way that we think of them today. Instead, Google will provide a succinct, direct answer to a query that we’ve done by talking to our phones, wearables, automobiles, IoT devices and, to a lesser degree, traditional text-based searches.

Google will tell us, “Your closest restaurant that serves pizza and pasta is five blocks away; turn north at the next street,” instead of producing a list of options.

Responding with an answer instead of a collection of search results (however well-curated) means that Google’s firehose of AdWords revenue is poised to take a severe hit. The bottom line is that Google is going to keep finding ways to drive value to advertisers, whether through a search portal or not.

If you are an advertiser, understand that you need to be thinking like Google is thinking. If Google sees the writing on the wall and is making long-term bets on how search is evolving, so should you. That shift is happening much faster than you know.

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