The Future of Search?

Posted on 18. Apr, 2011 by in Digital Marketing, Stats & Trends, Thoughts

Since the start of 2011 a lot has changed in the world of search. Many of these changes are likely to shape SEO and PPC strategies for the next few years, and have already started to impact current strategies. Being part of the bigmouthmedia DNA, I know we continually get asked “where is search heading?” by clients, journalists and many others. As a result, I’d thought I’d put my head on the block and give you my take on the future of Search.

Predicting the future of search is never easy because the market is so fluid, and changes constantly. But by taking facts, figures and opinions from other experienced online campaigners, as well as my own ideas, hopefully I can convince you where the future is heading.

UK Online Ad Spend

UK Online ad spend growth

Let’s start with online ad spend. Over the last 5 years online ad spend has increased by over 100% and now sits at £4.071 billion at the end of 2010, according to the IAB/PwC annual study. PPC makes up 57% of that total, and according to econsultancy, the SEO market is worth £436m of that pie. Based on those trends, it’s probably safe to say that search spend will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

Now let’s dissect that online ad spend foundation, and figure out how that spend could grow.

Search Spend Shifts to Mobile and Tablets

Mobile figures were included in the IAB 2010 full year study for the first time.  Mobile search has become to blossom over the last 2 years, having been nicely nestled within the smartphone boom. I believe there have been three main areas driving this growth in the UK – apps, search (Google) and social (Facebook and Twitter). It’s the latter two areas that I believe will act as the catalysts for not only the future of mobile, but the future as search as a whole. According to Google, mobile search queries have doubled in 2010 and, as smartphone and tablet penetration increases, that rate is accelerating.

Using mobile user data (geo-location, search history etc.), coupled with social preferences,  permits a very targeted ad. You may have noticed I separated mobile and tablets. I don’t class tablets as mobiles. For me they are somewhere in between laptops and mobiles, as payment for goods and services is easier than on smartphones, and media consumption habits differ.

Why is this important? Google announced back in March that they will be releasing a new feature to allow Google Adwords advertisers to target tablet devices. In a recent Nielsen study, they found that iPad owners consume information at different times to iPhone users (no data split for those that own both), and that iPad owners are far more receptive to advertising. So whilst desktop ads may work during the day, tablet targeted ads may be successful in the evening.

The Four Screen Strategy

In 2010, Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker predicted that by 2013, more people will access the Internet through their phones than via their PCs. Based on this notion, they also stated that brands and publishers should adopt a ‘Three Screen Strategy’; consumers use TVs, mobiles and laptops/desktops to consume media, so your advertising strategy should cater for all three. Based on my comments above, I believe tablets should be separated from mobiles, therefore creating a ‘Four Screen Strategy’. Simply put, any device where we consume content differently to other devices should be given distinction, and thus a separate targeting strategy. The same applies to Search. We search differently on mobiles than on desktops/laptops (one third of all mobile search queries are location based according to Google, 53% according to Bing), and users will probably search differently on Google TV, if and when it rises in popularity.

Search and Social Fuse Together

Back in March 2011, Google launched their +1 functionality, which many have stated is Google’s version of the ‘Like’ button. Our Head of PPC gave a good overview of the new social button a few weeks ago. It’s not the first time Google has tried to gather social data from search users. In 2006 Google launched Notepad in an attempt to rival social bookmarking sites at the time. In early 2009 it was announced that Notepad was losing all development resources dedicated to the product. Let’s hope Google’s +1 doesn’t go the same way.

Facebook like button on Google search results

Facebook 'Like' button on Google search results, from Crossrider

Here’s an interesting thought – what if the Google +1 button didn’t take off, and Facebook ‘Like’ buttons were added to each search result instead?

Interesting indeed.

When talking about the integration of Search and Social, the most interesting discussion pertains to SEO. My interest was first heightened when Google announced a deal with Twitter to integrate tweets into its search results back in October 2009. Integration soon followed, and our search strategies changed. Fast forward to December 2010, and Matt Cutts confirmed that Google started using ‘social signals’ as a ranking factor.

This change, coupled with Google’s +1, confirms what I’ve spoken about in pitches for many years – that we’re now looking at a ‘parallel social algorithm’.  At the moment, search results are generated based on a number of factors, but have only just included social signals as one (or more) of these factors. The parallel algorithm? At the moment Google displays results based on what it’s computer based algorithm deems the most relevant. The other algorithm – and one I believe will become more prominent - is based on a human, personal, social algorithm, or what your social circle deems the most relevant answer / webpage / image / video for your search query.

That likely change means SEO strategies will see a dramatic change. SEO strategies will effectively become asset-managed content strategies – is your content social? Is it worth linking too? Can it be shared?

Feeds, Feeds, Feeds

We’ve been playing around with feeds for years. RSS feeds, XML feeds, feed mashups using Yahoo! Pipes…you name it, we’ve used it. Over the last few years though, feeds have become very useful because of the growth of APIs. Using our in-house technology we can take information from any source (feed permitting) and apply rules to that data to serve a very targeted ad. Now imagine we take that data, and combine it with real-time business information. Stock prices, currency exchange rates, weather, inventory, price information….the ability and ways to serve a real-time targeted ad are unprecedented. Moving forward, as more business information becomes available, we expect real-time data, feeds and APIs to have a big impact on the style and type of search and content ads we produce.

Intention vs. Attention

At bigmouthmedia, we have continually pushed the notion of intention vs. attention media when it comes to search. Search marketing is a form of intention media – i.e. there’s an intent behind the users query. Search is unique in that regard. Combine that to TV ads, print ads, radio ads and untargeted Display ads (which carry no user intent), which are all about gaining attention. Howard Gossage, an advertising innovator during the Mad Men era of the 50′s and 60′s once said: “The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interest them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” In the current market, it’s all about balance – getting a users attention so there is some form of intent in their output (be that a search, a sign up or a sale). So what’s the future of search with regards intention vs. attention? Facebook has driven Display advertising spend to 23% of all online ad spend, and with more people spending more time on social sites, this looks set to continue.

Waitrose QR code in TV ad

Waitrose using a QR code in their Xmas TV ad (image credit

With the fuse of social and search, attention media in its simplest form may soon no longer exist. Targeted attention advertising (based on user interests, location etc) is becoming more popular, and even TV ads are beginning to include Facebook addresses and operator phrases such as “Search online for [enter slogan here]“.

It’s no secret that Google has filed several patents for outdoor advertising, both in the real and virtual worlds, so along with the use of QR codes, the convergence between online and offline advertising (and search) is closer than ever.

Search Becomes Even More Transparent

Most brands like the idea of cross channel attribution, but it seems few have actually implemented it, and/or can analyse the data output to then optimise each channel. There are many companies such as Tagman and DC Storm which have attempted to help shift the market out of the ‘last-click wins’ notion, and perhaps their efforts have been made easier by Google’s announcement on 13th April 2011 to introduce Multi-Channel Funnels in Google Analytics. From many PPC strategies we’ve worked on we can tell that brand keyword performance is often artificially inflated because of the default ‘last-click wins’ rule, and the lack of transparency along the user path in a conversion funnel. Hopefully as more brands implement cross channel attribution, a fairer assist funnel will become visible, with search playing an even bigger role in the conversion path.

If you then add QR codes with URLs into Multi-Channel Funnel analysis, then cross channel attribution can become very powerful indeed, as it sows on and offline attribution data together for the first time.

Contextual Search – Search…Without The Keywords

This theory first raised it’s head back in late 2009 after Nick Fox (now VP of product management overseeing the search advertising team at Google) spoke about where Paid Search could be in 5 – 10 years. One of the topics he spoke about was keywords without search terms or phrases. Searchengineland did a good post covering the main points.

The hype around this topic appeared to die down, until December 2010 when a Google employee called Marissa Mayer gave an on stage interview at LeWeb ’10 in Paris. Marissa Mayer has been with Google since 1999, and was roughly Google’s 20th employee. Not a bad shift. If you don’t follow her on Twitter, I recommend doing so - @marissamayer. Marissa took up a new role as VP of Location and Local Services in October 2010, after previously being VP of search products and user experience. That in itself was an interesting move for those that live and breathe search. And in Paris in December that year, Marissa gave an insight into what Google is calling ‘Contextual Discovery’.

This basically took Nick Fox’s idea, and brought it up to date. A searchers personalised web history provides context. A searchers location provides context. A users social circle and preferences provides context. This means being able to take all this information, and serve up interesting ads and content to them without them searching for anything – i.e. Google results without the search. Google are still working on the UI, but with Marissa at the helm of this project it’s certainly one to watch.

In Summary…

  • Search will continue to consume the largest portion of the online ad spend pie, with Display spend on Facebook battling with mobile ad spend (search & display) in the next few years
  • Search strategies should be tailored to specific devices – different content at different times, depending on consumption habits
  • Search will become even more social, with social signals playing an even bigger role in search rankings. Will Google’s +1 define Google’s future strategy? Or will Facebook become a bigger threat to Google’s social movement?
  • Real-time business information combined with other data can provide a very targeted ad. Serving real-time messages into PPC as, Display ads, mobile ads and coupons will have a powerful and successful impact over the next few years.
  • Search will always carry an intent, but will need to work in conjunction with attention media as digital goes mainstream on outdoor billboards, and other traditional media channels
  • Search will become more transparent as cross channel attribution gains traction. Does search play an even bigger part in the conversion funnel than we realise?
  • The future could be based on context – Google and other search players providing results without a search query being conducted

The other topic I haven’t covered is regulation. With the advent of the new CAP ASA rules in April, bigmouthmedia have already released a white paper on the pros and cons, issues and opportunities this may pose for both brands and agencies.

What do you think? Is mobile worth all the hype? Is contextual search a reality? Do you believe the future of search is elsewhere? Leave a comment or come chat with me on Twitter – @bmmSimon

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