The Search Agency As We Know It Is Dead
What happens when Alexa and Siri take over search? Search will never be the same again.
Our lives are filled with choices—what to buy, where to eat, how to get there. “Search” is a guide, a shortcut, a directory that surfaces information to help us make these decisions—and it’s a channel, unlike almost all other channels, where the user is in control.
Search marketing, at its core, has always been about optimizing brands’ search results for visibility to consumers. Since the late 1990s, search agencies have served brands in this regard, triggering paid search ads based on keywords and building organic experiences to please ranking algorithms.
But what happens when consumers no longer use keywords and engines no longer use algorithms? When consumers abandon traditional search engines or block search ads altogether? When data from Internet-connected “things” and wearables power new search marketplaces that enable consumers to completely circumvent the old way of deciding? In other words, what happens when Alexa and Siri take over search?
Search will never be the same again. And the search agency, as we know it, is dead.
We’re moving to a world where search results aren’t triggered by keywords, but by context. And context is interpreted from consumer intent and the way people interact with a world that is becoming increasingly connected.
In the near future, we’ll see more searchers leave behind simple search language in favor of more complex queries, using a variety of inputs, based not on what they enter into a search field but on what their behavior warrants. The tech companies are increasingly enabling this. Of late, Amazon’s portable speaker products—like Echo and Tap—allow users to tell Alexa to play music, put something in their Amazon shopping carts, or order a pizza. AYTM Market Research in 2015 shows that 64% of people have used digital voice assistants. As Alexa, Siri, Google Now, and Cortana continually acquire more skills and get better at understanding intent, consumers will no longer need to key queries into search engines.
Furthermore, Google (Nest), Amazon (Echo), and Apple (CarPlay) are battling for Internet of Things (IoT) supremacy in the home and car. Samsung (SmarThings) has vowed to connect 100% of its products to the Web by 2020. When consumer adoption of these “things” hits critical mass, the data and context gained will transform search. No longer will Google or Bing see a slow erosion of share to vertical search. They will see a mass migration. Data collected by people’s interactions with their things—as well as their wearables—will be as valuable as the first- and third-party data that search marketers currently use to target and personalize ads.
In the short-term, brands should focus on optimizing their content for visual- and speech-based (vs. keyword) queries. Ensure that content (e.g. product info, address, hours, phone, etc.) is discoverable by personal assistants, as well as by emerging discovery outlets like visual search (e.g. Pinterest), in-store product scanning apps, wearables, and connected car dashboards.
In the longer-term, the ability to help consumers decide will be inherently embedded in the connected products that help us manage our everyday lives. Search becomes a passive and preemptive pursuit, not a constant process of search and refine. Search marketing becomes about leveraging the data collected from consumers’ interactions with their products and devices—within privacy constraints—to uncover consumer intent and create more predictive experiences across a complete consumer journey, rather than individual queries. In fact, consumers may not even need to search at all; information/products will be automatically delivered to them based on need (e.g. when something runs out).
It’s no secret that consumers are resistant to content that doesn’t align with their needs. Long before iOS 9 content/ad blockers, consumers were curating the Web to short-circuit the need to search for—and sift through—everything. This is strikingly apparent in the move from Web to app. By 2017, mobile users will spend three hours and 23 minutes per day in-app versus only 52 minutes on the mobile Web, according to 2015 data from eMarketer. This is because apps enable consumers to curate personal, relevant content and ignore the rest.
In organic search, gone are the days of solely creating, structuring, and optimizing site content; waiting for Google to index it; and collecting tons of traffic as searchers enter queries. Among hyper-personalization, search marketers must now become content marketers, developing curated versions of unique content and making that content easily consumable through distribution to information/commerce hubs (e.g. Amazon, Yelp, YouTube, etc.) and apps.
Artificial intelligence will also play a role in surfacing highly personalized and relevant content in a world of overwhelming content clutter. Google is already using AI (RankBrain) in organic search to help deliver more relevant results, even when searchers don’t use the right words in their queries. In contrast to traditional search algorithms, machine learning systems can continually teach themselves, getting smarter and more accurate as they’re exposed to more information—keywords, voice commands, images.
Although AI in search is in a very early stage, it requires search marketers to completely shift their mindsets. Today, search agencies focus on understanding and catering toward algorithms. Going forward, we must focus on understanding and catering to consumer intent and continually learning over time to adjust experiences, just as AI systems do.
The agency of the future isn’t a “search agency.” It’s focused on much more than keywords, copy, bids, and landing pages; much more than indexation, optimization, link building, and distribution. It’s focused on much more than search. Among new data sets, emerging marketplaces, ad resistance, and evolving ranking factors, it’s still rooted in intent, helping consumers decide—just not the way they used to.
No matter what’s on the horizon, as long as brands and agencies focus on consumer intent, they will perform.