In the 20 years since it launched its quirky, bare-bones search engine, a lot has changed at Google.
Most notably, the word “Google” has become synonymous with search – just as, to many, “Kleenex” means “tissues” and Xerox means “copies” – and with good reason. At least two-thirds of all web searches worldwide happen on Google.com, with Baidu (prominent mainly in China), Bing, and Yahoo feeding on the remaining scraps.
However, three recent shifts in the way we search are simultaneously challenging Google’s position while also potentially solidifying it. Depending on how Google responds to these factors – and how consumer search habits change – Google could end up either more dominant or struggling to catch up.
- Search is becoming more social. We once used social media almost exclusively to connect with family and friends. Now, social media has gotten significantly more complex, with it becoming – as much as anything else – a problem-solving tool. And as a result, we’re using social media as a kind of search engine. One example is when we ask our connections for recommendations, which could include everything from which restaurant to choose for a dinner date to which pediatrician they’d recommend. Having choices vetted by those we trust adds a dimension that Google, Yahoo, and Bing can’t easily replicate.
- Search is becoming more vocal. Devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home are only the most conspicuous examples of the shift from text-based search to voice search. In 2016, Google reported that 20 percent of searches on their mobile app and Android devices were vocal – and this number is expected to grow to more than 50 percent by 2020.
- Search is striving to be more relevant. Google searches, specifically those for retail locations or services, now factor in proximity and consumer opinion in an attempt to be more useful. For example, when I search “hardware store” from my office in downtown Fort Wayne, I get slightly different results than I do when I conduct the same search from my home near Foster Park. But it’s not just a matter of who’s closest. Another factor is Google Reviews. For the search from my home, none of the businesses have an average Google Review score of less than 4.6. There’s another hardware store that’s closer than the others, but it’s not in the top three Google results because of its comparatively low 3.9 average Review score. And on Google, if you’re not in the “3-pack,” it’s almost as if you don’t exist.
The cumulative impact of these changes is that businesses need to change the way they think about search. A few things to consider:
- Top-of-mind awareness matters more than ever. Word-of-mouth has always been the most powerful marketing method, but as search has gone social, it’s even more critical. When someone asks for a recommendation in your category, what matters most is whom consumers think of first. And the only way to be thought of first is to earn it – by providing a great product or service and making smart, consistent investments in marketing online and elsewhere.
- Keywords matter less than they used to. SEO used to be pretty simple, and it used to be possible to game the system by populating your website with keywords, even when they were irrelevant to your business. Keywords themselves are becoming less important, so deceptive SEO tactics won’t get you very far. The bottom line is that what’s best for your audience is now much more likely to be better for you in terms of search relevance.
- Conversational language matters more than it used to. Because of the growing influence of voice search, more searches are being phrased as questions instead of a string of words. Consider the example I used above: when using voice search, I’d be more likely to say “What’s the closest hardware store?” than just “hardware store.” Accordingly, instead of keywords, think about key phrases that match the searcher’s intent.
One last thing: search has gotten complex enough that you may want to outsource optimization to an expert. While some marketing tactics can be easily executed in-house, this is a case where a little financial investment can lead to significantly better results—and give you more time to focus on your customers. After all, becoming more discoverable is only worthwhile if you make the most of the opportunities that arise once you’re found.