The world of online search is always evolving, and as marketers, we’re often paying attention to the changing technology of systems as an indication of where our strategies should go. Whenever Google makes a new announcement or rolls out a new update, we scramble to try and learn the effects of the change and try to adapt our tactics accordingly. But what we often miss is the fact that search evolution is a process with multiple participants; Google is the decision maker in many of these changes, but we also must remember that users are equally responsible for driving and supporting these changes.
In some cases, user search behavior changes, so Google comes up with an update to respond to it—for example, when the popularity of local review queries increased, Google came out with its unofficially nicknamed Pigeon update to rank sites with high-quality reviews higher in standard searches. In other cases, Google makes an update and directly causes a change in user search behavior—for example, when predictive search began to emerge, users were more open to ambiguous queries. Search became an exploration as much as a specific hunt.
Ultimately, SEO is about being the company that users find when they’re searching for a specific need. In order to achieve that goal, we need to understand how our users are searching—and a lot has changed in the past five years.
Keywords were once the dominant force in search, both from a search engine perspective and from a user perspective. Google produced results based on a one-to-one association of keywords in a query to keywords on existing pages, but today this process is much more semantic. Google analyzes the intent behind a user query, with sophisticated language analysis, and produces the most relevant results based on contextual clues on sites. As users have grown more used to this search approach, queries have started drifting away from keyword-based entries and started becoming longer. For example, let’s say a user is interested in finding out why gas prices have spiked recently. In an older search, a user might type in something like “gas price change reason.” Today, that query might look something more like “why did gas prices rise last week?”
The trend of longer phrases has led to a different search query phenomenon: users are becoming much more specific about what it is they’re searching for. The motivation for this change is partially attributable to the new capabilities of semantic search, but it’s also attributable to the sheer increase in information available on the web. Every minute, Facebook sees 2.5 million new pieces of content, and WordPress sees the birth of more than 80 million sites a year. That’s a lot of new data available to crawl, giving users far more potential answers to highly specific questions. Let’s take the example above, of a user trying to understand a gas price increase. An older query might read “why did gas prices rise?” but a newer, more specific query might dig into the gritty details: “why did gas prices in Ohio rise but not in Michigan?”
There are two main reasons why people consult search engines: they’re either looking for information, such as an answer to a question, or they’re looking for a function, such as a solution to a problem. In some cases, there is overlap between these two motivations, but lately, the line between these queries has been sharper. With information databases like the Knowledge Graph, Wikipedia, and IMDB, users have learned exactly what to search for when they’re in need of quick answers—and these queries usually have a concise, specific structure. On the other hand, queries looking for a functional solution are more fluid, looking for general keywords related to a problem.
Mobile devices keep getting smaller and harder to type on, and the increase in digital personal assistant popularity and sophistication has allowed for more voice-based searches. Users still prefer typed searches, but voice-based searches have seen a tremendous rise in the past five years. This increase in voice queries has been accompanied by a rise in more colloquial searches, which ignores the conventional search format in favor of a more conversational way of searching.
Because Google has made such a major commitment to providing better, more geographically specific search results, users have become more reliant on local search results. The phrase “near me” is often tacked on to queries, thanks in part to Google’s predictive search, and users are beginning to place more local queries simply because they’re starting to see better and better local results.
Much has changed in the past five years, but the pace of these changes is only likely to increase as new technologies continue to roll out at a shocking rate. Since many of these changes are hard to predict, it’s best to stay informed of them as they occur and try to anticipate your users’ needs whenever possible. Staying one step ahead of the competition can give you just the edge you need for a boost in interested customers, and if the history of search has taught us anything—it’s that Google rewards the companies who think ahead for their customers’ needs.