Are We on the Verge of the Next Great Search Disruption?
Okay, so we all know that the search world is constantly evolving. It’s changed, radically, in many different ways since its general inception in the mid-1990s. Most of these changes, however, have been slow and gradual improvements to the core, original search engine algorithm. Search experts and marketers were quick to note when these things happened; for example, when Panda was released, 11 percent of queries were affected, and marketers couldn’t help noticing this extreme volatility because they were watching their ranks closely.
(Image Source: Search Engine Land)
But users didn’t really notice this volatility—to the average user, the changes and improvements in search are so gradual they’re barely noticeable, the same way it’s hard to tell when a child is growing when you see him/her every day.
What Constitutes a Disruption?
Because of this incremental phenomenon, it’s tough to categorize what might count as a search engine “disruption.” Usually, a tech disruption happens all at once—when a new product is released, a new trend takes off, or a new company emerges to challenge the norm. Now that all the norms of search are pretty much in place, the minor “disruptions” we’ve had so far (usually in the form of Google updates) can’t really claim to have that much impact. User search behavior has changed much in the past 20 years, but again, it’s done so incrementally.
Still, knowing that, the search world may be on the verge of a major disruption in the truest sense—a new set of phenomena that may turn the nature of online search on its head. And it’s already starting to take place.
Artificial Intelligence on Two Fronts
Disruption is coming in the form of artificial intelligence (AI), and in two distinct modes of operation, it’s already here:
- AI is powering diverse new types of virtual assistants. These include programs like Siri, Cortana, and Google Now, and are becoming more popular modes of search at an astounding rate.
- AI is beginning to handle more search engine updates. Machine learning algorithms like RankBrain are finally starting to emerge as the future of search engine updating.
So on one hand, you have AI interfering with the way users are searching, and on the other, you have AI taking over the updating process for search engines.
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and how they could be considered disruptive.
Chances are, you’ve used a virtual assistant at least once in your life, and in the near future, you’ll find yourself using them even more. Consider how these programs could cause the next major search disruption:
- Voice search popularity. First, it’s important to address the rising popularity of voice search in general. By some estimates, voice-based searches have gone from zero to over 50 billion searches per month. That’s a huge jump, and it’s only going to get bigger. That means more people are using colloquial phrases and forgoing traditional search engines entirely.
(Image Source: LSA Insider)
- Cross-realm search. It’s also important to realize that most virtual assistants aren’t limited to one realm of search. For example, Cortana and Siri will search the Internet, your local device, your online accounts, and even files within your local device for your search queries. Search is no longer exclusively online, and the lines between online and offline are starting to blur.
- User intent and semantic capabilities. Virtual assistants are also becoming more adept at recognizing natural language and user intent, which means it’s going to be harder than ever to “optimize” anything in specific ways, and users will have hyper-focused intentions when looking for solutions or content.
- On-the-go searching. Virtual assistants are also driving more mobile and on-the-go searches, which is changing the way people form queries. They need more immediate, location-based answers, rather than the products of premeditated keyword-based research queries of old.
Machine Learning in Search
On the other front of AI development, you have new machine learning algorithms working to replace the previously manual job of improving search engines. This has started out small, with a modification to Hummingbird known as RankBrain, but we can expect to see bigger, better versions of these machine learning algorithms in place in the near future. There are three key ways it could be a disruptor:
- Micro-updates. RankBrain doesn’t come up with major changes and then push them to a live environment. It runs through tons of micro-updates on a constant basis, meaning that incremental improvement is going to happen on an even more transformative level.
- Unpredictable paths of development. Since human beings won’t be in control of algorithm updates forever, machine learning algorithms could take searches down new, unfamiliar paths of development—some of which may look very different to today’s average user. Entire constructs and norms may be fundamentally overwritten.
- Rate of change. Perhaps what’s most scary about the idea of machine learning is the sheer pace at which it can develop. With algorithms perfecting themselves and perfecting how to perfect themselves, the pace of development may skyrocket, leaving us marketers in the dust.
Since these technologies are still being developed, it’s hard to estimate to what degree they’ll be able to redefine the norms of user searches. However, early indications show these two forms of AI to be powerful, popular, and for lack of a less clichéd phrase, game-changing. As a marketer, you can’t prepare for the future in any concrete way, since even the technology developers aren’t sure where it’s going to go from here, but you can prepare yourself by remaining flexible. Hedge your bets with lots of long-term strategies, try to jump on new trends before your competitors can, and always be willing to adapt.
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