The Next Generation Of Search Is Here (And We Didn’t Even Notice Its Arrival)
There’s an interesting phenomenon that unfolds with the integration and acceptance of new technologies. When new tech emerges, it usually takes customers some time to adopt it. It gradually improves over several years, attracting increased adoption rates, and once it hits a peak, we look back and tend to believe that the technology has been popular all along.
Technology develops as an evolution, rather than in major steps of straightforward improvement. While search engine optimizers like myself frequently talk about the “next big revolution” in search, it’s unlikely that we’ll see such a leap forward. Instead, we’ll see transitions so gradual we barely even notice them, until one day, the world of search is fundamentally different, and we never noticed the change. It’s the frog-in-boiling-water effect.
I believe this “next generation” of search is already here, developing in a slow evolution, and one day—maybe a decade from now—we’ll look back at this time as the period when everything changed.
The Smart Speaker Boom
Smart speakers, including products like Amazon Echo and Google Home, have been surprisingly popular. Since the rise of the smartphone in 2007, consumers have been eager for the next revolution in mobile hardware, yet developments like Google Glass, smart watches, and even tablets have been relative failures.
Sales for smart speakers are impressive—not revolutionary, but impressive—and the success of these products leads analysts to believe they’ll be here to stay (especially since they’ll be pivotal in consolidating the world of IoT).
Why is this important? Because smart speakers are the latest step toward this “new era” of search, and they embody or influence most of the changes I believe we’re about to see.
So what are the features of this new generation of search, and how are smart speakers guiding us to that future?
- Voice search. The number of voice searches has risen dramatically, year over year, ever since the popularization of mobile devices (even though voice search actually predates mobile devices). But now, voice search is becoming less of a novelty and more like a new standard. Users are comfortable searching for things with a basic conversational phrase, and rarely any longer even consider which keywords to include when speaking a query. The result is an enormous push for semantic search capabilities, the reduction of value in traditional keyword strategies, and an open door for long-tail phrase optimization. This isn’t unique to smart speakers, but their voice-activated capabilities are making voice searches even more commonplace.
- Casual searching. Mobile devices made searches much more convenient, enabling users to access Google on the go. We cut cords out of the equation. Now, we’re cutting fingers out of the equation; with smart speakers within earshot, we can search for things without even reaching into our pockets. That level of convenience is going to increase search volume, and drastically change what people search for; just as mobile searches saw a corresponding increase in local search results, on-demand searches will address even more immediate customer needs.
- Screenless searches. With few exceptions, today’s smart speakers don’t use a traditional screen interface. They don’t need to; they can provide most results you need purely with conversation from a digital assistant. As you can imagine, this is going to dramatically change the traditional search engine results page (SERP), and may force us to rethink how we think about concepts like visibility and rankings.
- IoT interactions. We’re also seeing the emergence of more tightly interconnected devices, and search engines capable of fetching more data than ever. Windows’s Cortana, for example, was a breakthrough in allowing users to search their local machines and the internet simultaneously. Tomorrow’s smart speakers could allow users to search on—and interact with—any connected device in their home, instantaneously. That opens up many new channels of potential visibility.
- Personalization. Finally, smart speakers will be able to collect more data on users than ever before, tapping into multiple devices, multiple accounts, and high-volume, home-based search habits. That’s going to an era of even more in-depth search personalization and customization. For consumers, that means getting even better, tailor-made results for every search. For businesses, it’s a whole new layer of complexity to consider.
Is It Time to Prepare?
After reading these potential developments, you might get the impression that the doomsday for traditional SEO is here—that optimizing for a spot on the SERPs isn’t going to matter, because traditional SERPs now have an expiration date.
However, there are two big reasons not to panic, and not to change your existing strategies too much:
- Change is slow. If you compare any one year of marketing trends to the year before it, you aren’t going to see much of a difference. You might see small shifts in spending or emphasis, but the broad-strokes image is going to be the same. Compare that year to trends from 15 years ago, and you’ll see some substantial differences. That’s because, as enthralled as we are with new tactics and new technologies, big changes in consumer behavior are almost imperceptibly slow.
- Change is hard to predict. My predictions are just that—predictions—and changes in technology tend to unfold based on dozens of different variables, both seen and unseen. That means the next generation we get could differ significantly from the generation we think we’ll get—or it might be decades away from development.
Still, it pays to remain cognizant of the rapidly developing technologies that could affect your business. Adjust your strategies slowly, in response to the slow-changing user behaviors that these technologies are dictating, and try to be as adaptable as possible, to accommodate the unexpected.