Bing recently unveiled a new feature of its surprisingly-competitive search engine for English-language customers: the ability to search using emoji. While traditional searches have relied on typed (or at least spoken) full words, the new emoji-based search function surpasses that limitation, allowing users to make queries using what are—essentially—modern, glorified hieroglyphics.
While it seems like a gimmick on the surface, the new feature could turn out to be somewhat useful, and if it doesn’t, it could mark the beginning of a new trend in search. If nothing else, it’s at least an indicator of the state of linguistic evolution and the preferences of modern communicators.
Emoji are an evolution of the traditional emoticon, which required the use of traditional keyboard strokes to form abstract images. Instead, emoji are standalone and more detailed characters that originated in Japan and have been rapidly spreading to countries around the world. Used primarily in the form of text messages or other digital media, emoji are currently available on iPhones, Windows Phones, and several online services like Gmail chat.
There are many reasons for emoji’s radical and widespread success, but one of the most notable might seem strange to someone unfamiliar with regular emoji use. It’s a concise and accurate form of communication. In text-only communications, like emails, chats, and SMS messages, there’s a lack of body language or facial expression that can sometimes lead to miscommunications (sometimes to an embarrassing degree). Emoji don’t convey an idea with great specificity or elaboration, but they can convey a feeling quite concisely.
As a result, people—especially youngsters—have found that it’s easier to send an emoji that perfectly encapsulates a feeling than it is to try and describe that feeling in words. To an outsider, deciphering the meaning of these emoji might be difficult, but to someone familiar with them, it’s a language all on its own.
The concept is actually quite simple. English users of Bing, whether on desktop or mobile, can type emoji into the search bar and perform a search just like they would be able to with traditional text. In fact, you can even hybridize your searches, featuring both emoji and text in order to find whatever it is you’re looking for. There are two primary applications for this feature.
In traditional searches, emoji will theoretically replace whatever text they represent. For example, if you were going to search for “cheap donut shop,” you could instead type “cheap (donut emoji) shop” and get the same results. Allegedly, the Bing search algorithm has a pretty good idea of what each emoji represents, so if you type a phrase like “cheap (donut emoji) shop,” it will be able to semantically decipher your intention, and compile a list of cheap donut shops in the area. As for less specific emoji, such as complex facial expressions, that meaning may be less straightforward.
It’s also possible to search for emoji by themselves in an effort to decipher their meaning. While the traditional use of emoji is to convey a simple idea, such as an emotion, several emoji can be strung together in a way that complicates their individual meanings. For someone unfamiliar with the emoji “language,” these strings of hieroglyphs will be confusing, if not indecipherable. Bing would allow users to type emoji into the search bar and find results that explain the meaning behind the symbolic phrase.
To a user accustomed to searching with full words and phrases, emoji search seems ridiculous. But believe it or not, there is an audience out there that is becoming used to communicating with emoji as much as written words. Emoji have, in a sense, replaced the semantic vocabulary of some younger audiences, at least partially. To a user who intuitively finds an emoji instead of processing a word letter-by-letter, the search function is actually quite efficient. It’s just a way of the search engine adapting to the needs of newer users with different linguistic needs.
On the flip side, the tool is actually useful for non-emoji users. With a large portion of the population unfamiliar with how to use emoji in a natural conversation and a smaller portion of the population using it readily and often, there are bound to be gaps in communication. Bing’s search function could be especially useful for, say, a parent trying to figure out the meaning behind their young teen’s recent text. Copying the emoji into a search bar directly is certainly easier than trying to describe the emoji in text and hoping for the best.
What does this mean for search marketers? It’s a little unclear at this time, especially since emoji aren’t in popular use on websites and Google has yet to make a move that crawls text for present emoji. Of the two main uses for emoji search, only one is relevant to search marketers.
When emoji are used as enhancers or substitutes for a traditional search, search marketers don’t need to do anything differently. Bing will essentially decipher the meaning behind the emoji, and use that to formulate traditional text-based search results. For example, if you’re a cheap donut shop, someone searching for “cheap (donut emoji) shop” will find you regardless of whether you use emoji on your website or as part of your SEO campaign.
As for deciphering the meaning behind emoji, the presence of emoji on your site would likely play a factor in your rank. However, depending on what type of business you’re running, it’s highly unlikely that this type of traffic would benefit your brand in any way.
To put it simply, unless your brand is dedicated specifically to translating or deciphering emoji messages, you don’t need to adjust your strategy to make room for Bing’s new emoji search feature.
Even though Bing’s emoji search function isn’t likely to turn the search world on its head, it does make an interesting suggestion about the future of search queries and results. Emoji seem like simplistic, playful, unnecessary trinkets in a smartphone user’s arsenal, but they do represent a more concise (if seemingly juvenile) way of communicating. Reducing linguistic expression to a more descriptive and more concise pictorial form is, in some ways, a more specific way of communicating. If you can take a picture of exactly what you’re looking for, you might find more relevant results than a word-based expression of the same target.
It’s unlikely that any world-changing linguistic or algorithmic progression could occur in the near future, but it is reasonable to think that word-based searches may one day become obsolete. Spoken searches are already becoming more popular and more advanced than their typed-word counterparts, and if visual or symbolic searches can advance in both communication and interpretation, there’s no reason to expect word-based searches to last forever.
For now, search marketers can look at this new feature for what it is on the surface: a simple gimmick that might be useful to a small percentage of the population. But it opens the door to a different world of search, driven by a more abstract form of expression.