Search Is No Longer a Destination – It’s an Activity

Search used to be a destination. When you wanted to find the answer to a question, you typed in the address of a search engine or just opened up your browser to your homepage (if you clicked “Yes” to the ever-present popup that appeared any time you downloaded and installed an application). You then typed in your query, hit enter, and perused the results the search engine returned.

However, the concept of search as a jumping-off point is becoming obsolete. Instead, search is an ever-present process integrated into every user’s digital activities – and this seamless integration means that users are not only searching more, but they’re also expecting more from their search experience…and this same integration also drastically changes several key opportunities for marketers.

Just Google It or Just Bing It?

Search engines have always had a hard time differentiating themselves to the masses. While digital marketers love analyzing the differences between algorithms, targeting methods, and result page layouts, the average person can’t tell much of a difference. That’s why for years “Google.com” was one of the top searches on Yahoo. That’s why despite some very clever (in my opinion) “Bing It On” TV commercials and some great case studies, Bing has had a very difficult time winning search traffic away from Google. As long as users aren’t dissatisfied with the results, they’ll keep searching wherever is convenient – often without even realizing what search engine they’re using.

Here’s a fun experiment: Ask an iPhone user what search engine Siri uses. Chances are they won’t know unless they’re a power-user that dives deep into menus to tweak all of their settings. (If you don’t remember, as of the iOS 7 update last year, the default Siri search engine is Bing!)

Search Is an Activity, Not a Portal

The idea of search being a discrete activity can be even more clearly seen by looking at browsers themselves. Several years ago Apple did away with separate inputs for search and navigation in their Safari iPhone browser, simplifying user interaction and removing clutter from the small mobile screen. Likewise, Google Chrome has just one input bar for both navigation and search.

The search providers are also encouraging this behavior with more tightly knit ecosystems. Yahoo is leveraging data across their properties to allow advertisers to more specifically target audiences on platforms such as Tumblr, and with the upcoming release of Windows 9 Microsoft aims to connect users across devices with Cortana becoming a hub that unifies a user’s experience across devices. And even better, Cortana learns you as a user better and better over time – leading to more relevant answers.

Then there’s Google Now, which leverages information about your activity throughout the Google ecosystem and across devices to proactively surface useful information before you even perform a search. From package shipping status to flight information to articles about topics you’re interested in, Google’s aim is to put answers at your fingertips by tapping into context instead of keywords.
Context is the key element that powers these new search experiences. While some still contain a box where you can enter a query, their core functionality is around understanding and anticipating the searcher’s needs in the moment based on secondary signals like location, history, and other personal data the user chooses to share. And should the user need answers outside of this proactive information, voice search is the primary point of interaction.

Breaking the Keyword Model

This change has led some digital marketers to predict the eventual “death of the keyword.” While I think there will always be significant opportunity for keyword-driven advertising, there’s little doubt that context and voice search are rapidly becoming just as important as the basic query.

Success in this new search paradigm hinges on two key elements:

  1. Providing data that’s valuable to the customer
  2. …in a format that the engines can understand.

No matter what format search marketing may take in the future, brands that build their strategy around providing valuable answers to their customers’ questions will continue to drive success in search – regardless of how the consumer searches, or if they even know what engine they’re using.

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