What Will Google Search Look Like In The Future?
This blog post is a bit longer than normal, but I recently pulled together some thoughts about where Google seems to be headed. These thoughts are based on the changes that they have made over the past few years, and what I see as the main themes in these changes.
The Google search algorithm changes almost on a daily basis. Most of the changes they make are minor, and nothing to worry too much about. But some are larger, and these are given names – like Penguin, Panda, or Hummingbird – and can have a significant impact on search results.
Earlier this month, they announced a change that is coming soon – separating their mobile and desktop search indexes. At this point, it’s only a pre-change announcement, but right now Google often has to make compromises on the search results they display, trying to accommodate both mobile and desktop as best they can. This removes a barrier for them.
But where is Google going with this change and all the others? By looking at the accumulated changes that they have made over the years, putting these changes in the context of their corporate objectives and projecting out a bit, we can maybe see what is to come.
Projection 1: More integration of “user experience” into search results
Google (or, technically, Alphabet Inc.) is a private company. Their objective is to make profits. In fact they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to make profits. However, they recognize, and have always recognized, that they make the bulk of their profits by matching advertisements to interested customers. And that means luring interested customers to their search results.
They sell customers attention to their advertisers, so they need to attract those customers. And the only way they have to do that is by delivering search results that are better than those of anyone else.
So, what does that have to do with “user experience”? Like news organizations and politicians, Google has long realized that pure content is not what most searchers are looking for. The majority of searches fall into two general categories – those that are looking for quick answers to a question, or those that are looking for entertainment along with their information.
It is not enough to provide just the facts anymore. They have to be packaged in a way that keeps someone’s attention.
That is what users want, and that is the user experience Google is trying to deliver. Other search engines (and even Google) originally were very heavily weighted to towards the first group, and the ability to deliver quick answers. That is changing, and Google is changing with the times. The user experience is becoming more of a factor as Google (and other search engines) gather and analyze the data that allows them to measure just what goes into user experience, and adjust the results accordingly. In time, the content will just be one other component of the larger concept of user experience.
Is that a good thing, potentially sacrificing pure content for the more general user experience? As we’ve seen with the same debate over entertainment encroaching into the delivery of news broadcasts, there are positives and negatives, with very few options now available for viewers that prefer the traditional “talking head” type of news broadcast. But Google and other search engines have an advantage over widespread broadcasts, because of the next projection.
Projection 2: Increased Personalization
Every time you do a search on Google, you are giving them a bit more information. When you use their search results to go to a website, then come back and use those results to go to another website, you are giving them a little bit of information about yourself.
And Google is a master of making use of that personal information.
Google can learn about you and your preferences. As user experience becomes more important in the future, personalizing your user experience will become more prevalent.
For years, Google search results have been individualized. They have been customized based on your location, based on your history, and based on whatever else Google knows about you. But the impact has generally been relatively minor. While you and your neighbour may see slightly different results by doing the same search, there has still been a very high correlation between them with only small differences. Expect that to change.
As Google and other search engines become better at determining user experience, this will become more and more a personalized user experience. So, if I like to look at detailed scientific papers while my neighbour likes a more entertaining, popularized form of delivery, we can expect to see very different results in the future when we search for the latest medical research.
The latest announcement about separating the mobile index from the desktop index is just a continuation of this trend. Up to now, although there was some personalization, the search results were based off one master list. Now there will be two master lists. Google has recognized that the user experience for mobile users is quite different than that for desktop users. So they are responding by using a different master index for mobile than for desktop. Now, things that are so important for mobile, such as small file sizes and responsive design, can carry much more weight, but only on devices where it is important. For desktops, where those factors are somewhat less important, the weight can be minimized. The result is more personalization, based on the device you are using. This is only one step in a broader trend.
Localization is already a large factor in search result delivery, where a searcher in one city will see a very different result than a search in another city, particularly for local searches like “restaurants near me”. Right now, it can be argued that localization is the major factor in why different search results are delivered to different searchers. In the future, this will just one more factor out of many, as extreme personalization becomes even more prevalent.
Projection 3: Increased Advertisements
This is one trend that gets very few thumbs up, but it is a fact of life. Google profits by selling advertisements. They carefully balance the delivery of paid advertisements with their non-paid (or as it is generally termed, organic) search results. We can expect the balance between the two to shift gradually towards more advertisements, for a couple of reasons.
First, Google works just as hard on delivering appropriate advertising as they do on delivering appropriate organic searches. After all, they make their money by delivering visitors through advertisements to websites. But it is a balancing act, as most visitors don’t want to feel like their attention is being influenced simply by someone paying for it.
However, as personalization of organic search results becomes more prevalent, the same happens with paid results. As a consequence, paid search results match better and better with the intent of the searcher, and provide better results. Essentially, as time goes on, paid search results will continue to provide a better and better user experience to visitors. If paid results make visitors happy, there is more flexibility to increase the quantity of paid advertisement, thereby increasing Google’s bottom line.
Secondly, Google experiments constantly and works hard at trying to find the best balance between paid results and organic results. They need to optimize the ability of their results to attract visitors (mostly by organic results), and balance that with their ability to use paid advertisements to maximize their income. Too much paid advertisement and they will lose visitors and revenue. Too little paid advertisement and their number of revenue streams are reduced. So there is an optimal balance.
But, over time, that optimal balance point shifts. And it normally shifts in favour of the paid advertisements. We’ve already seen these shifts – paid ads were once pushed off to the side. Then they were put on top, but with a bright yellow background to distinguish them from organic results. Now they are almost indistinguishable from organic results. These changes are mostly the result of visitors becoming more accepting of paid advertisements over time. As attitudes and tolerances change, so too does the balance of paid and organic results. And that change is normally in favour of the paid advertisements.
Projection 4: Interpreting User Intent
This is one area in which enormous strides have been made in the past few years. The exact language you use in the search box now matters very little exactly, but instead what matters is what you intend to say. Google and other search engines have gotten very good at parsing language and interpreting what you actually mean and delivering search results that match, no matter how it is stated.
Not so long ago, search engine optimization meant discovering exact phrases that people used and using those exact phrases. Not anymore. Now it is a matter of discovering the ideas that people are searching for and delivering content around those ideas, in a format that optimizes user experience. Targeting a specific idea requires clarity and focus, but the precise wording is not nearly as important.
Interpreting user intent is the one area where the most progress has been made up to now, but we can expect this to increase more and more in the future. Google and the search engines will care less and less about the actual words used, but will just get better and better at inferring the intent of the user, regardless of how they actually express themselves. And when this is combined with the personalization trend, the search engines will not only be able to interpret user intent, but adjust it for your own personal intent, and how it may differ from someone else that conducts the exact same search.
If history is a guide, Google and the other search engines will continue to innovators. While mostly transparent to the typical users, they have pushed modern knowledge in fields such as big data, machine learning, and even individual areas such as psychology and behavioural studies. While these may be some trends to watch, exactly how this gets implemented for the typical user remains to be seen.