Insights

The Future of Search Engines.

Recently, Google secured a patent for a new ambitious feature for their search engine. Known as the ‘Methods, systems, and media for presenting content organized by category’, the patent reveals the ambitious growth plans for Google in the near future. The buzzwords around the technology is ‘queryless searches’, i.e. giving their search engine the power to give users results they’re looking for without the need for the user to provide any search queries.

Let’s quickly look at the patent abstract:

Methods, systems, and media for presenting content organized by category.

Methods, systems, and media for presenting content organized by category are provided. In some embodiments, the method comprises: receiving a request to present a page indicating content related to a first entity; identifying a first group of entities related to the first entity based at least in part on user interaction information; identifying a group of properties corresponding to the first entity; identifying, for each property, a second group of entities corresponding to the property; calculating, for each property, a score for the property; determining a subset of the properties in the group of properties based on the score of each property; identifying, for each property in the subset of properties, a group of content items corresponding to the property; determining a subset of content items from the group of content items; and causing a user interface indicating the subset of content items to be presented.

There are quite a few takeaways from this.

Firstly, we should celebrate the ambition and gaze towards the future of how A.I. and big data can help provide premium user experiences.

Secondly, we should reflect on how the changes to search engines will potentially impact businesses.

And thirdly, it is worth noting the exclusivity a patent gives. As such, will Google become ‘untouchable’, with other providers unlikely to catch up to or have the ability to provide similar services in a timely manner?

In this insight, we’ll be reflecting on all three points, particularly on what the new technology could mean for your business, and your opportunities.

The Patent.

To begin, let’s really dissect what the Google patent is trying to achieve.

Google Discover is an existing service that attempts to suggest web pages that may be of interest to the user. It operates by examining your browsing history and user data to make some general assumptions based on your behaviours, and identifies related trends that you may be interested in. For example, if you were to search for a football score, then the next day Google Discover may suggest you read a news story about one of the teams from the match you searched for.

While the current functionality of Google Discover already provides a high level of potential, the new patent seeks to further optimise user experiences and automate the process of finding relevant information.

The patent suggests that it is difficult to be able to succinctly identify, organise, and curate relevant content for a user. At the moment, we can identify that a user has searched for ‘A’, and then continue to show content about ‘A’ to that user...but this isn’t how people tend to behave.

Let’s use a real example.

Imagine you search for a particular movie.

Having displayed interest in that movie, common sense might dictate that you’d be interested in learning about similar movies within the same genre, other tv shows that involve the leading actors, behind the scenes content of that movie, books relating to the movie franchise, or any number of closely (yet not absolutely direct) related items.

The new patent would attempt to find new ways for content to be organised into logical categories for the user.

Here is how the patent outlines the ways to present content by category:

  • A search engine receives a request for a page with content about a first entity.
  • A first group of related entities is identified based on searcher interaction information.
  • A number of properties regarding the first entity are identified.
  • A second group of entities is identified for each of those properties.
  • Each of those properties receives a score based in part on the first group of entities (identified based on the searcher interaction information) and the second group of related entities for the property.
  • The score indicates a likelihood that a searcher of the searching device will be interested in content about the property.
  • The search engine determines a subset of the properties in the group of properties based on the score of each one.
  • It identifies a group of content items for each of the properties.
  • A subset of content items from the group of content items is determined.
  • The content items are shown on the computing device.

From this, we can begin to imagine that Search Engines with such technology could intelligently keep user interest (and retention) by hand selecting relevant content that the user had not directly asked for...but would be interested in.

If this can be displayed in a useful way—rather than the clickbait spam we’re all well-versed in ignoring by now—then Google will win, as the continued gold standard of search engines.

But how would this really work?

Search Engine Page Results (SERPs) are currently organised by taking the user search queries (collection of key words) and scanning the internet for the most related results. The practice of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) refers to websites that structure their pages/content in a way that will ensure that Search Engines can find and display their content ideally within the first page of the SERPs.

With the ambition of the new patent, the content would be looked at in a more robust manner. Rather than focusing purely on the keywords that the user searched for, every other ‘keyword’ would be identified as an object, and each object would then need to be analysed for its relatability to other objects…

In other words, Google would need to find a way to determine logical links between each keyword. For example, it would need to determine that someone viewing ‘The Lord of The Rings’ content wouldn’t necessarily be interested in jewellery, despite the detailed descriptions of a master crafted ring throughout the web page; However, the technology would be aiming to identify the leading objects such as the book’s author, or the leading actors, or indeed the genre or fantasy world of ‘Middle Earth’ in general.

We could theorise that there are a few obvious sources of information that Google would begin with—to determine likely related topics.

The first route is to simply analyse previous search queries from the user, and look for trends or patterns. Secondly, Google could check how similar users behave...i.e. If multiple people have visited the same website(s), what other searches do they then perform? Thirdly, returning to ‘big data’, there may be some fascinating links deep within the webs of searcher behaviours and demographics that can be carefully analysed to find useful guiding algorithms.

Trying to dissect the inner workings of how this technology will work is an essay in itself, and although it’s fascinating, the purpose of this insight is to look forward at potential impact.

With that being said, let’s move on to a vision of this technology in action...and how it may change the future of the internet.

The Future of Search Engines.

Let’s dive into what Google is trying to achieve, and imagine what the ‘Search Engine of Tomorrow’ might be able to do:

Imagine you load up their search engine, but instead of the clean, minimal interface—purely displaying a search bar—you’re also greeted with a selection of curated results.  

Your favourite sports team has signed a new player, and there’s an article waiting to tell you about the news. A video clip of a movie teaser is embedded on the page, and it just so happens it’s a sequel to a film you particularly enjoy. There may be a suggestion or two of some business insights relating to your job or hobby, interesting information that could help your career and self development. Finally, there may be some curious icons that are simply labelled with some of your general (or recent) interests such as ‘skydiving’, ‘Exploring Hawaii’, or ‘Emerging Cryptocurrencies’.

With a neat screen, carefully curated with ideal content for you, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll abandon your original intention for visiting the search engine (you know...to search for something) and instead click on one of the suggested pieces of content.

If the Search Engine can continue to provide such engaging, relevant content for you...then eventually you’ll be visiting Search Engines without the aim of searching—instead you’ll be visiting to discover.

Again, this thought process brings us back to the Google Discover service, and makes us wonder if the future will have such automation at the forefront of the Search Engine services.  

The power of data, marketing, and targeted digital advertising has been shown to be incredible. Elections have been majorly influenced, and won, by clever advertising campaigns with strong behaviour change strategies. Countries have been polarised, and third parties have been found to have been meddling in virtual campaigns that used user behaviour and demographic data in a dastardly way.  So what have we learned from this?

Humans are incredibly suggestable.

We’re also typically quite lazy, and will opt for the easy choice when possible.

So, a new service that gives us everything we want—before we know we want it? Surely the Search Engine of tomorrow will be a roaring success.

The future is Search-less searching… or at least, someone else is searching on our behalf without having been asked—and that ‘someone’ is algorithms, and probably some form of accompanying artificial intelligence bot to interact with eventually!

Business Impact.

Preparing for the hypothetical can feel risky, purely as your predicted scenario may never come to be. Yet, when a company as big (and financially robust) as Google paves a roadmap, it is wise to think of the ramifications.

Should queryless searches become the norm, how might this affect the average business?

We can’t help but turn our attention to SEO.

In theory SEO, as it currently exists, will be obliterated. If people aren’t ‘searching’, then there will be no advantage to having set up a page to be discovered and displayed for particular keywords.

Of course, SEO won’t then diminish in importance...but the focus will be shifted. Websites will have to consider how they can ensure their content is discovered by automation. At the moment there are many ‘hacks’ to make low-quality websites and pieces of content appear to be highly relevant on SERPs. We believe the future of SEO will be dominated by one thing and one thing only: Quality.

Content will be judged on user retention, and how adequately it addresses niche interests and categorised ‘objects’. Therefore, brands and businesses will have to focus on authenticity and proving their relevancy...rather than hiring top marketing professionals to sneak them up the SERPs.

There is no substitute for highly focused quality, as a brand or company with a thoroughly defined audience can ensure they’re speaking directly to those that matter—and search engines will help drive your audience to your website even when the users are in a ‘passive’ state, rather than actively looking for you.

Moving Offline.

Another train of thought for businesses is to consider the alternative to search engines. Should the likes of Google (and perhaps others) become more automated and less easy to mould with SEO, then the need to explore other options for driving traffic shall grow.

By ‘moving offline’, we’re not suggesting you ignore your website...actually we’re advocating the opposite. Driving traffic to your website from offline marketing is still a highly powerful strategy. Again, if we’re predicting that search engines will play less of a function in our website traffic strategy, then we should dedicate time and resources to other areas that can bring our audience to our website.

Hypothetically, we can envisage more brands being formed or rebranded to include their domain extension in their name. Some companies already do this extremely well, such as the UK company ‘FunkyPigeon.com’. This brand uses a clever jingle to reinforce their web address in all communications, it prompts their audience to remember them as ‘funkypigeon.com’ rather than simply ‘funkypigeon’...meaning they reiterate that they’re a virtual company, and exactly where to find them.

Aside from funkypigeon.com, other brands do this equally effectively such as webuyanycar.com or booking.com—whereby the ‘.com’ is just as important as the rest of the brand name.

The domain extension choices have exploded, peppering our palettes with a wide array of fun, frivolous, or pinpointed options. Brands can have a website ending in ‘.health’ or ‘.bingo’ or even ‘.whoswho’ and ‘.gripe’! This selection of possibilities surely sets the stage for some extremely memorable brands that can drive their marketing through traditional efforts and have users skip the ‘search’ stage of their online search.  

Yet, the method of making a brand’s website address memorable still involves a removable step...entering the url. There are clever ways in which brands can instantly transport customers to their website, bypassing the need for a search engine. One such idea is to capitalise on QR codes.

As an example, we worked with HungryApp™ to create and launch their delivery application. Luckily, their team already had a vast amount of restaurants in the city that were taking part in their new delivery service...which gave us great opportunities. By placing scannable QR codes on menus, flyers, tables, windows, and pop up banners, we were able to drive users to the website of our choice—in this case the ‘coming soon’ website, before later updating the same QRs to redirect to the Google Play Store or Apple App Store (on our HungryApp™ download page).

Perhaps half of the battle is finding the ideal opportunity to direct users to your website, whether through offline communications or online campaigns. And, if the biggest organic channel is to change (SERPs) then businesses indeed should consider how else they may be discovered.

As actionable advice, we recommend creating a customer journey. This activity will plot out all the ways potential customers can discover your brand, and interact with it at each stage.

When thinking of discoverability we should assume a potential customer has not yet heard of our brand. Then, we should ask the question ‘How could we be discovered?’ and list down every possibility. Such answers may include: Recommended by a friend, noticed on a TV advert, passed by a brick-and-mortar store, saw our brand sponsoring a local sports team, read about us in a local news article, and so on.  

We’d then take all the possible discoverable routes, and write down optimised tactics, opportunities, and threats for each option. For example, if your brand was to be discovered by a sponsoring a local sports team...you should discuss how this may influence your audience. Perhaps bad performance, or off the field behaviour from the team could negatively associate your brand perception...or perhaps a team member could publicly condemn the design of your brand logo on their sports shirt, which could be a PR disaster! By identifying hypothetical threats, you can then brainstorm contingency plans to ensure brand protection and a hopefully positive first impression to new potential customers.

In this hypothetical example, we may ensure the team we sponsor is relevant to our potential target market—a team with strong TV and press coverage, moral players, and a colour palette for their team that matches our own brand. We’d then ensure that the sponsorship agreement includes clauses prohibiting the team from negatively commenting about our brand. Finally, we might even consider some events we could sponsor or organise for the team that would get our brand name associated with their audience in a positive manner.

Although our example may seem niche, it’s one of many, many stones that your brand should uncover. The customer journey map is a valuable visual tool that can be referenced and updated throughout your brand’s progression.

Returning to the topic at hand, we always include organic keyword searches via search engines in our discovery phase of the customer journey. Our tactic is, as expected, to ensure our website is peppered with relevant keywords and best SEO practices—and to ensure that our landing page experiences create strong first impressions.

However, if the future of search engines becomes more...automated, then a new section may need added to our customer journeys: Discovered by automated suggestion. We’d need to explore how we can ensure this traffic source receives the best first impression of our brand, although in theory we may assume our content will only show if already deemed extremely relevant and of quality. Perhaps the battle will then be for improving all content, and reducing ‘quantity’ of content pieces targeting different SEO keywords, and instead focusing on the quality of the core brand material.

Competing with Google.

It is easy to focus on the excitement behind new technology, and be carried along by the hype of better features and services. Yet as Google grows, we have to wonder if such clever patents will give them an unchallengeable monopoly and what implications that could have.

When we think of the true powerhouses of the internet, it’d be remiss not to mention the usual suspects of Google, Amazon, and Facebook. There are certainly arguments for other powerful companies, but those three in particular represent a particular virtual space.

Google has become so popular that the brand name has become a verb. When we want information, or directed to a particular website, we ‘google’ it.

Amazon is the online e-Commerce giant that operates globally and has hoovered up all sorts of sellers. It’s a one-stop-shop for absolutely everything, with an impressive workforce and operations strategy to allow hyper quick deliveries and almost unparalleled service.

Facebook is the giant of social media, and in some countries (such as here in Cambodia), it is almost synonymous with ‘the internet’ itself.  Most marketers would argue that social media is now unignorable for businesses, and having a Facebook page is core for any aspirational brand. As such, many consumers use Facebook to gather information, shop, and engage with businesses.

Each of our three examples showcase brands with ambition and innovation. Constantly evolving, we’ve watched as Google, Amazon, and Facebook not only adapt to trends—but also pioneer new internet technology for their advantage.

The problem with patents is the exclusivity clause. Google’s new patent will seek to stop competitors developing their idea, and potentially will look to profit or control how others can use their technology.  

To compete with Google, other Search Engines will need to find alternative or improved routes to mimic or surpass the user experience offered.

So, where are the opportunities?

Well, firstly one business strategy is to simply run in the opposite direction from your competitors. Sure, there is so much exciting potential behind automated search engines, but there are negatives to be considered.  Earlier we touched on the idea of humans taking the ‘easy’ option when it’s presented to them, but this can make us lazy. By relying on computers to entertain us, or tell us what content to view, we become low-energy and potentially less productive.  

Procrastination almost seems inevitable when most people carry a device able to give them access to any piece of information ever, at any time, at speed. The internet can be brilliant, but it can equally steal our time and focus with the alluring appeal of quick entertainment and distractions. Recent documentaries have doubled down on the rising risk of social media, and the dangerous impact it’s having on society and mental health...with the automation of Search Engines, a similar pattern could emerge.

Therefore, competitors may find solace in pushing away from automation, suggestions, and adverts. To compete with Google, perhaps Search Engines may aim to provide a humble yet accurate service. A Search Engine that only focuses on finding you what you say you want. Essentially, ensuring the user is in control of the experience rather than the service dictating which moves you’ll take next.

Less cynically, the other route is to use your rivals as inspiration. Whilst a patent secures exclusivity on a particular piece of technology, it is not exactly absolute. For example, the first company to put a patent on mobile phone technology didn’t stop other companies from making mobiles, or even stop other companies from using similar features, or even designs. Patents protect a very individual item—but they don’t stop others from taking the concept and tweaking it, improving it, developing it to something new that suits their own brand.

Perhaps Google’s mission to provide such an innovative, automated experience will inspire other Search Engines to create similarly pioneering technology and features.

Closing Thoughts.

The news of Google’s patent is not shocking by any means. The logical enhancement and exploration of Google Discovery functionality and possibilities seems to point towards a more human-centric queryless search engine.

If we were to continue gazing to the future, we’d assume that such automated solutions will be further bolstered with handy A.I. bots that can engage with the user and readjust suggestions based on user input.

Some companies already have powerful algorithms helping their bottom line. For example, ASOS explores both user buying and viewing behaviour to handpick and suggest likely items the user will want to buy. Additionally, ASOS lets users ‘thumbs down’ or ‘heart’ suggestions and items, to help the ASOS algorithms improve their suggestions. The better the suggestions, the more likely the brand is to make further sales, and the more satisfied the user is as they’re able to discover great clothes in little to no time.

Should your own brand be able to harness clever algorithms, you may be able to dramatically increase profit yet decrease the amount of time and resources spent on sales and support staff. Once again, we’re watching Google’s developments with a close eye for inspiration on game-changing UX and automation strategies.

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