Important changes are happening at Google and, in a world where marketing and algorithms intersect, those changes are largely happening under the radar.
The future of search looks like it will have considerably less search in it, and this isn’t just about the end of the 10 blue links, but about much more fundamental changes.
Let’s talk about some of those changes now, and what they mean for SEO.
Google Discover is a content recommendation engine that suggests content across the web based on a user’s search history and behavior.
Discover isn’t completely new (it was introduced in December of 2016 as Google Feed). But Google made an important change in late October (announced in September) when they added it to the Google homepage.
The revamp and rebranding to Discover added features like:
- Topic headers to categorize feed results.
- More images and videos.
- Evergreen content, as opposed to just fresh content.
- A toggle to tell Google if you want more or less content similar to a recommendation.
- Google claims the recommendations are personalized to your level of expertise with a topic.
Google Discover hardly feels revolutionary at first. In fact, it feels overdue.
Our social media feeds are already dominated by content recommendation engines, and the YouTube content recommendation engine is responsible for 70%of the time spent on the site.
But Discover could have massive implications for the future of how users interact with content of the web.
While it’s unlikely Discover will ever reach the 70% level of YouTube’s content recommendation engine, if it swallows even a relatively small portion of Google search, say 10%, no SEO strategy will be complete without a tactic for earning that kind of traffic, especially since it will allow businesses to reach potential customers who aren’t even searching for the relevant terms yet.
For most users, Google Assistant is a quiet and largely invisible revolution.
Its introduction to Android devices in February 2017 likely left most users feeling like it was little more than an upgraded Google Now, and in a sense that’s exactly what it is.
But as Google Assistant grows, it will increasingly influence how users interact with the web and decrease reliance on search.
Like its predecessor, Assistant can:
- Search the web.
- Schedule events and alarms.
- Show Google account info.
- Adjust device settings.
But the crucial difference is its ability to engage in two-way conversations, allowing users to get answers from the system without ever even looking at a search result.
An incredibly important change for the future of business and the web is the introduction of Google Express, the capability to add products to a shopping cart and order them entirely through Assistant.
But this feature is limited to businesses that are explicitly partnered with Google Express, an incredibly dramatic change from the Google search engine and its crawling of the open web.
Assistant can also identify what some images are. Google Duplex, an upcoming feature, will also allow Assistant to call businesses to schedule appointments and other similar actions on the user’s behalf.
The more users rely on Assistant, the less they will rely on Google search results, and the more businesses who hope to adapt will need to think of other ways to:
- Leverage Assistant’s algorithms and other emerging technologies to fill in the gaps.
- Adjust their SEO strategies to target the kind of behavior that is exclusive to search and search alone.
Google’s Declaration of a New Direction
Circa Google’s 20th anniversary, Google announced that its search product was closing an old chapter and opening a new one, with important new driving principles added.
They started by clarifying that these old principles wouldn’t be going away:
- Focusing on serving the user’s information needs.
- Providing the most relevant, high-quality information as quickly as possible.
- Using an algorithmic approach.
- Rigorously testing every change, including using quality rating guidelines to define search goals.
This means you should continue:
- Putting the user first.
- Being accurate and relevant.
- Having some knowledge of algorithms.
- Meeting Google’s quality rating guidelines.
But the following principles represent a dramatically new direction for Google Search:
Shifting from Answers to Journeys
Google is adding new features that will allow users to “pick up where they left off,” shifting the focus away from short-term answers to bigger, ongoing projects.
This currently already includes activity cards featuring previous pages visited and queries searched, the ability to add content to collections, and tabs that suggest what to learn about next, personalized to the user’s search history.
A new Topic layer has also been added to the Knowledge Graph, allowing Google to surface evergreen content suggestions for users interested in a particular topic.
Shifting from Queries to Queryless Ways to Provide Information
Perhaps the most important change to watch carefully, Google is looking for ways to help users who don’t even make a search query.
Google Discover is central to this effort and the inclusion of evergreen content, not just fresh content, represents an important change in how Google is thinking about the feed. This means more and more traditional search content will become feed content instead.
Shifting from Text to Visual Representation
Google is making important changes in the way information is presented by adding new visual capabilities.
They are introducing algorithmically generated AMP Stories, video compilations with relevant caption text like age and notable events in a person’s life.
New featured videos have been added to search, designed to offer an overview on topics you are interested in.
Image search has also been updated so that images featured on pages with relevant content take priority and pages where the image is central to the content rank better. Captions and suggested searches have been added as well.
Finally, Google Lens allows you to perform visual search based on objects that Google’s AI can detect in the image.
These changes to search are slipping under the radar somewhat for now, since user behavior rarely changes overnight.
But the likelihood that these features and Google’s new direction will have a dramatic impact on how search works is very high.
SEOs who ignore these changes and continue operating with a 2009 mindset will find themselves losing ground to competitors.
SEO After Search
While queries will always be an important part of the way we find information online, we’re now entering a new era of search.
An era that demands we start changing the way we think about SEO soon, while we can capitalize on the changing landscape.
The situation is not unlike when Google first came on the scene in 1998 when new opportunities were on the horizon that most at the time were unaware of and ill-prepared for.
As the technological landscape changes, we will need to alter our strategies and start thinking about questions and ideas like these in our vision for the future of our brands:
- Less focus on queries and more focus on context appears inevitable. Where does our content fit into a user’s journey? What would they have learned before consuming it, and what will they need to know next? Note that this is much more vital than simply a shift from keywords to topics, which has been happening for a very long time already. Discovery without queries is much more fundamental and impacts our strategies in a much more profound way.
- How much can we incorporate our lead generation funnel into that journey as it already exists, and how much can we influence that journey to push it in a different direction?
- How can we create content and resources that users will want to bookmark and add to collections?
- Why would Google recommend our content as a useful evergreen resource in Discover, and for what type of user?
- Can we partner with Google on emerging products? How do we adapt when we can’t?
- How should we incorporate AMP stories and similar visual content into our content strategy?
- What type of content will always be exclusive to query-based search, and should we focus more or less on this type of content?
- What types of content will Google’s AI capacities ultimately be able to replace entirely, and on what timeline? What will Google Assistant and it’s successors never be able to do that only content can?
- To what extent is it possible for SEOs to adopt a “post-content” strategy?
With the future of search having Google itself doing more of the “searching” on the user’s behalf, we will need to get more creative in our thinking.
We must recognize that surfacing content has never been Google’s priority. It has always been focused on providing information.
Bigger Than Google
The changes on the horizon also signal that the SEO industry ought to start thinking bigger than Google.
What does that mean?
It means expanding the scope of SEO from search to the broader world where algorithms and marketing intersect.
It’s time to start thinking more about how our skills apply to:
- Content recommendation engines
- Social media algorithms
- Ecommerce product recommendation engines
- Amazon’s search algorithms
- Smart devices, smart homes, and the internet of things
- Mobile apps
- Augmented reality
As doors on search close, new doors open everywhere users are interacting with algorithms that connect to the web and the broader digital world.
SEO professionals should not see the decline of traditional search as a death knell for the industry.
Instead, we should look at the inexorably increasing role algorithms play in peoples’ lives as a fertile ground full of emerging possibilities.