Is there a new king of search?
Google is no longer the king of search, and that's their senior managers talking!
In a speech from earlier this year, Prabhakar Raghavan, Google's Vice President of Knowledge & Information organisation, said:
"Something like 40% of young people, when looking for a place for lunch, don't go to Google Maps or Search anymore."
"We keep learning, over and over, that new internet users don't have the expectations and the mindset that we've become accustomed to. The queries they ask are completely different."
So if people aren't going straight to Google, where are they going? Who are the new kings of search? How is Google planning to deal with these usurpers?
And what does the disruption of Google's search model mean for search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimisation (SEO) professionals?
Read on because we've got the answers.
The new kings of search
Google is still the big dog in search; there's no doubting that. It has - or some might say it outright controls - around 80% of the search engine space.
But that high number of users doesn't reflect a high level of user satisfaction.
Bashing Google is in-season and for some justifiable reasons. Tech correspondent Navneet Alang writes:
"If you've tried searching for something on Google lately, it can feel like the digital equivalent of wading through sludge. Results appear less and less helpful, spam is prevalent, and the internet's reliance on ads is making the experience worse."
Michael Seibel, a managing director at Y Combinator, agrees:
"Google is no longer producing high-quality search results in a significant number of important categories," tweeted Seibel. "Health, product reviews, and recipes are three categories I searched today where top results featured clickbait sites riddled with crappy ads. I'm sure there are many more."
This explains why more people prefer platforms like Pinterest and Instagram for fashion and design inspiration. They want to see images, not ads or useless listicle articles.
It explains why searching for holiday accommodation and flights is easier on AirBnB and Booking.com and why Twitter is now the go-to news source for millions of people.
Why wade through ads and cookie consents searching for cooking tips on Google when you can get the same info from a sixty-second TikTok clip?
And why bother typing out your search query when you can ask Siri or Alexa instead?
The problem(s) with Google
Google is one of the biggest, richest, and most influential companies ever created. It has a market valuation of $1 trillion, a monopolistic grip on the search engine market, and (here comes the scary part) the power to decide what information is credible and what defines 'disinformation.'
And Google has never been shy of showing a little flex. A 2020 report from a U.S. government antitrust subcommittee found that Google promoted its own services by positioning them at the top of search results whilst "actively demoting" rivals by manipulating search engine algorithms.
The search engine behemoth is also falling short in other areas, including keeping up to date with our changing search habits.
YouTube, which Google owns, continues to promote longer-form videos to keep users on its platform for as long as possible. But an increasing number of users, especially those under 40, haven't got the time or patience for long-form content. They want bite-sized, quickly consumable content that gets straight to the point. Lisa Montenegro, founder and president of DMX Marketing, calls it 'snackable' content.
Google's recent content update has put more emphasis on quality over quantity. However, a simple 'how-to...' search still brings up lengthy SEO-style articles that run well over a few thousand words until they reach the actual how-to part. Again, few people have the appetite or time to parse through pages of content, especially when searching or scrolling on smartphones, mobile devices, or apps.
And from a simple readability perspective, most of these articles are super dull. And today's digital natives won't tolerate boredom. They want to be entertained and informed and refuse to wait for either.
Google is great at answering a basic question with an objective. Google can tell you many countries there are - and how many people live in them - in a split second. Nothing does it better.
But when it comes to complex queries that require a more subjective analysis, Google needs to improve. Sorry, Google.
As Sari Azout, a tech journalist and digital startup founder, explains, Google's central search problem drastically differs from what it was a decade ago. Rather than figuring out "what to read/buy/eat/watch/etc.," Google is now being asked to figure out the "best thing to read/buy/eat/watch/etc."
So what will the future of search look like?
Sari Azout predicts a rise in boutique search engines. Think Spotify, but for the entire internet. In other words, a search engine that tailors results to your specific interests, concerns, or needs. It could find things you didn't even know you liked or wanted.
'Startupy' is one of the world's first attempts at a boutique search engine. It's a community-based search engine where results are based on what other users are searching for. The idea is to create curated search engines where results feel like recommendations from a friend rather than a bunch of semi-relevant links picked out by an algorithm.
Then there's Bonzamate. It's an Australian search engine that finds links from explicitly Australian websites and news sources.
Both startups are in their early stages. But they're clear indicators of an emerging trend in digital search. Users want search engine results that are more personalised and relevant to them and their specific query, even if that query is shared by millions of other people worldwide.
Building better search engines
Launched in 2019, Neeva is a private, ad-free search engine designed to feel like your "personal corner of the web." It doesn't collect or sell data, and users can customise search preferences based on what kind of information they want to see.
"At our core, Neeva is a company that wants to make technology serve people," said co-founder Sridhar Ramaswamy, a former Senior Vice President of Ads at Google. "I think many other technology companies [Ramaswamy doesn't name any names!] have turned rather exploitative. The ad model exemplifies this. Basically, if I can convince you and get you hooked on my product, I can pretty much do anything."
Neeva, which has over 500,000 monthly users, is one of several new search engine alternatives. They include DuckDuckGo, which emphasises protecting searchers' privacy and avoiding the echo chamber of personalised/manipulated search results, and Brave, an open-source web browser that automatically blocks online advertisements and website trackers.
The empire strikes back
Google isn't going to sit back and watch these upstarts nibble away at its 80% market share; trillion-dollar companies never do. In fact, Google has already launched a series of counter-offences in response to the threat of TikTok and other platforms.
YouTube launched Shorts in September 2020. 'Shorts' is a short-form video-sharing platform that limits content to 60-seconds. YouTube Shorts has accumulated over 5 trillion views, but it wants more. Shorts will soon be eligible for monetisation, with content creators keeping 45% of generated revenue.
Google is exploring ways to gamify its services to attract younger users. For example, Google Maps is incorporating augmented reality to 'position' users inside a 3D virtual environment and then guide them toward their destination. Who's not going to try that?
Google is also leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to increase the specificity of its search results. Google's AI can already scan videos and content, directing users toward the exact piece of information they're looking for. You may have already noticed these Google highlights. And you may have already seen that they're not always that great. But Google is working on improving the experience.
And who knows what else Google's research and development teams are working on? After all, this is a company with an army of engineers where a 'genius-level' IQ is a fundamental job requirement.
Competition equals opportunity
Despite its gigantic market share, there's real competition and alternatives to Google now. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, how Google responds and how the innovators respond to that.
But whatever happens, the disruption of the Google search model presents a massive opportunity for new companies and marketers. There are so many ways to reach a target audience now; harnessing the latest search trends is one of the best ways to get a head start on the competition and develop a brand presence for a fraction of the average marketing budget.
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