Future Trends 2022: The Evolution of Search
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We’ve been tracking changes in the world’s online search behaviours for some time as part of our Global Digital Reports series, but recent trends indicate that these changes will have even more of an impact on brand and content discovery over the coming months.
In particular, search success will increasingly depend on an understanding of how people:
use voice assistants to find information;
harness image recognition tools to find ‘lookalike’ products and content; and
research brands and products on social media platforms.
Each of these trends offers exciting new marketing opportunities, but each one also requires marketers to adopt new approaches, develop new skills, and publish new kinds of content.
That means there’s lots to learn, but the good news is that we’ll cover all of the essentials within this article.
We’ve got quite a lot to cover though, so you might want to grab a coffee before digging in.
Additions, not alternatives
Before we explore how to tap into people’s new search behaviours, it’s critical to stress that all of these activities should be additions to your existing search strategy – not replacements.
GWI reports that more than 4 in 5 internet users still visit ‘conventional’ text-based search engines every week, and Semrush reports that Google.com continues to be the world’s most visited web domain, attracting tens of billions of visitors every month.
As a result, investments in search-friendly web content and paid search ads on platforms like Google should still form a central pillar of your overall search strategy.
However, with so many people adding new search behaviours to their everyday connected activities, it makes sense to tap into these valuable new opportunities as well.
But what are those new behaviours, and how can you take advantage of them?
GWI reports that roughly a quarter of all internet users aged 16 to 64 now use voice assistants like Siri and Alexa to find information on a weekly basis.
The use of voice search is particularly high in China and India, where more than 3 in 10 internet users say they’ve used a voice assistant to find information in just the past 7 days.
However, adoption remains lower in Western European countries, as well as in Japan and South Korea.
Some of these differences in adoption rates may relate to language issues, especially in English-speaking vs. non-English-speaking countries.
However, cultural considerations may also play an important role in shaping local adoption.
For example, talking on the phone is actively discouraged on public transport in Japan, where signs encouraging the use of ‘manner mode’ (i.e. silent mode) are ubiquitous.
Such societal norms may limit the degree to which people are comfortable speaking search queries into their phones – especially in public places – resulting in fewer opportunities to make these tools part of everyday habits.
And as with many other digital behaviours, age also plays an important role in shaping the adoption of voice search tools.
GWI’s data shows that roughly 1 in 4 internet users aged 16 to 44 uses a voice assistant to search for information each week, but that figure drops below 1 in 5 for users aged 55 to 64.
However, as we’ll explore below, the benefits of voice search should – at least in theory – be particularly appealing to older generations, so we might expect to see this ‘age gap’ close over time.
Voice search is particularly useful in situations where interacting with a screen may not provide the ideal user experience, such as while driving, cooking, or walking.
Voice assistants may also make it easier for people with physical disabilities to interact with their devices.
For example, voice assistants make online search far more accessible to blind people, as well as to older people who may find it difficult to read small text on a smartphone screen.
Similarly, voice interfaces may be preferable for people with conditions such as arthritis, where reduced dexterity can make it harder to type.
Voice interfaces also bring benefits in contexts where literacy poses challenges.
For context, data indicates that more than 1 in 3 women aged 15 and above across Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa is currently unable to read and write.
However, the majority of these women are still able to communicate via speech, which means they should also be able to interact with connected devices via voice interfaces.
But on a more general level, many people may simply find it easier or more convenient to use a voice interface, instead of fiddling with a keypad on their smartphone.
This is particularly pertinent to people who speak languages with extended character sets (e.g. Mandarin), or languages that are not widely supported by smartphone keypads.
Voice is a commercial opportunity
Because of all these things, voice interfaces make digital devices more accessible to a wider audience than text interfaces alone.
So, it’s perhaps no surprise that many of the biggest brands in the digital world are embracing voice.
For example, Google’s Chrome browser now includes a shortcut to activate voice search within the default search bar that appears whenever a user opens a new window or tab.
Clicking the microphone icon – visible at the right-hand side of the search bar in the image below – activates the computer’s microphone, enabling users to search via voice commands.
The same microphone icon is also visible in the main search bar on google.com.
Amazon has also included a shortcut to voice search in its mobile app in a number of countries, although this tool isn’t currently available everywhere.
So, from both a platform and a user perspective, it’s easy to see why voice search might become increasingly important in our everyday activities.
However, voice search presents a number of challenges for brands and content creators.
For instance, voice assistants typically deliver search results in the form of a spoken answer, and in many cases, the assistant will only offer one result for any given search query.
Consequently, ranking first becomes even more important in voice search than it already is in text-based search.
And when it comes to voice searches related to shopping, things get even more challenging, because many shoppers still think – and talk – in terms of category generics, rather than specific brands.
This isn’t a new phenomenon of course; indeed, it’s already evident in people’s text-based search behaviours.
For example, Google Trends data reveals that generic searches for ‘beer’ outnumber branded searches for both Heineken and Budweiser by a factor of 20 to 1.
However, when combined with the additional challenges associated with single-answer voice search results, it’s easy to understand why marketers need to pay even closer attention to how their brands and products rank for category-generic queries in voice search environments.
What’s in a name?
For similar reasons, voice search poses a variety of new challenges when it comes to brand and product naming.
For example, over the past couple of decades, numerous brands have adopted names that are specifically designed to ensure that they can secure the simplest web domain (e.g. the “.com” version of their brand name), and secure the top spot in organic search results.
Some companies have even gone so far as to change their brand name in order to ensure better SEM visibility.
A recent example of this is Abrdn, which was formerly known as Standard Life Aberdeen.
When explaining the brand’s name change, the company’s CEO specifically highlighted the need to make the company’s name “more searchable,” recognising that Aberdeen is also the name of a city, a football club, and a university.
And from some perspectives, the company’s renaming strategy has worked: a Google text search for “abrdn” now returns the company’s website as the top search result.
However, the second result on that same Google results page highlights an important downside to this approach.
At the time of writing, Google places a “People also ask” snippet directly under the link to the brand’s website that reads, “How do you pronounce Abrdn?”
And therein lies the conundrum for brands.
If people don’t know how to pronounce the brand or product name, they’ll find it very difficult to search for it using voice assistants like Siri.
This has particular relevance in the consumer healthcare industry, where bizarre and complex brand names have become commonplace over the past few years.
Meanwhile, a similar challenge applies to brand names that sound similar.
Sounds like a challenge
For example, when spoken aloud, the brand names “Audi” and “Aldi” may sound almost identical (depending on your accent, of course).
This ‘homophone’ challenge may result in voice assistants misinterpreting spoken queries, resulting in undesired search results.
This may in turn lead to user frustration, which could potentially drive them to search for an entirely different brand.
Even the subtleties of local accents and pronunciation norms can lead to complexity that isn’t present in text-based search.
For example, depending on where you are in the world, the brand name Nike may be pronounced either “nighk” or “nigh-kee,” while Adidas might become either “addy-das” or “ah-deedas.”
As a result, marketers may need to optimise for multiple variations in spoken ‘keywords’, even if those keywords are all simply variations in pronunciation of the same brand name.
So, it’s clear that people’s increasing use of voice search may pose numerous problems for marketers.
However, it’s also worth noting that such challenges may also bring new opportunities, especially in categories where it’s difficult to influence the established ranking of text-based search results.
New behaviours often mean new rules, and – potentially – new opportunities for the underdogs.
And this doesn’t just apply to voice search.
The use of image recognition tools like Google Lens and Pinterest Lens has also been increasing around the world, with adoption already widespread across Latin America and Southeast Asia.
More than half of all internet users aged 16 to 64 in Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico say that they make use of these tools on their smartphone every month, and image search is also gaining popularity across Southeast Asia.
At a global level, roughly 3 in 10 working-age internet users say that they used image recognition tools in the past 30 days, but – as we saw above with voice search – adoption tends to be lower amongst Western European countries, as well as in Japan.
Aside: it may only be a coincidence, but it’s interesting to note that image recognition tools seem to be less popular in English-speaking countries than they are elsewhere.
Use of search ‘lenses’ also varies meaningfully by age, with women aged 18 to 24 almost twice as likely to have used these tools in the past week as women aged 55 to 64.
However, these generational differences may in part be driven by common use cases for image recognition tools.
I’d like a lookalike…
As you might expect, search ‘lenses’ are particularly important in contexts when aesthetics play an elevated role.
A good example is searching for a ‘look’, or particular fashion style, especially because it’s often very difficult to describe such aesthetics in words.
This may be one of the reasons why Pinterest’s Lens tool has grown in popularity.
Pinterest was already popular amongst people trying to collect and organise visual inspiration, but the platform’s increasingly sophisticated visual search tools have enabled these users to go one step further, identifying content and products that look similar to an existing image.
Google’s search lens has also gained momentum, partly because the service’s activation icon – a camera symbol – now appears in the default search bar within Google’s mobile app.
However, one of the most interesting developments in the promotion of image search appeared in recent updates to Amazon’s mobile app.
The search bar in Amazon’s mobile app already offered shortcuts to the phone’s camera, enabling shoppers to search for specific products by taking a picture of them, or scanning a barcode.
However, in some countries, the app now includes a specific button that enables shoppers to ‘Find the look’ – i.e. to search for a broader aesthetic – alongside the ability to search for specific products.
Moreover, in a number of countries, tapping on the app’s camera search shortcut now takes users to an interface that promotes StyleSnap, Amazon’s ‘lens’ equivalent.
StyleSnap enables shoppers to search for lookalike items that complement a specific style, rather than being restricted to searching for specific items.
The experience of using this tool is very different to trying to type descriptive text, and the results are also quite impressive, so it’s well worth exploring it for yourself, especially if your brand relies on aesthetics as part of its appeal.
Is image search right for your brand?
Image recognition tools offer clear opportunities for fashion brands, but they’re equally relevant in other aesthetic categories like furniture, home improvement, gardening, and even consumer electronics.
Merchant-independent image recognition tools like Pinterest Lens also offer small brands and retailers a way to achieve greater visibility, especially amongst overseas shoppers.
This opportunity has particular relevance as cross-border shopping continues to rise, and as style-savvy shoppers broaden their horizons in search of fresh, new looks.
There’s a good chance that image recognition tools will gain importance in location-specific search too.
For example, enabling passersby to access a menu simply by snapping a photo of the outside of a café offers clear convenience, as well as added user value.
It may be worth exploring unusual use cases for image search too.
For example, if you’re a packaged goods company, how might you take advantage of image recognition tools to deliver innovative content when someone snaps a picture of your product or packaging?
Taking people to a brand website or an ecommerce platform could be an ‘easy win’, but what else might you promote as an image search result that could add tangible audience value?
The latest research from GWI shows that the typical social media user now spends roughly 2½ hours per day using social media platforms.
For context, that adds up to more than 37 days per year, or 15 percent of our waking lives.
So, given how much time we spend on social media, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that people turn to social platforms for an increasing variety of everyday activities.
As you might expect, staying in touch with friends and family remains the top motivation for social media use, but increasing numbers of people are also turning to these channels to look for information.
More than a quarter of the world’s internet users aged 16 to 64 say that they use social media to find inspiration for things to do and buy, while 26 percent say that they go to social media specifically to look for products to purchase.
Indeed, social networks are now the second-top channel for online brand research after search engines, and amongst internet users aged 16 to 24, they’re already the top channel.
Overall, more than 7 in 10 internet users between the ages of 16 and 64 say that they use some kind of social media platform to research brands and products.
Social networks are the top social destination for brand research, used by 43.2 percent of this cohort.
However, Q&A sites like Quora are also relatively popular, with more than 1 in 5 working-age internet users saying that they use these socially powered platforms for shopping-related research.
Returning our focus to social networks, more than half of all internet users aged 16 to 24 say that they visit these platforms when they’re looking for information about products that they’re interested in buying.
That figure drops to roughly 1 in 3 internet users between the ages of 55 and 64, but that’s still enough of a share to make social search a compelling opportunity across all age groups.
However, achieving success in social search is quite different to achieving success in a more conventional SEO environment.
For starters, the search algorithms on most social platforms work quite differently to those that search-focused companies like Google use to index and rank web pages.
And to make matters more complex, each social media platform seems to have adopted its own, unique approach to search.
For example, Facebook’s search functionality is relatively sophisticated, and the underlying algorithm appears to adopt a holistic approach to the keywords contained in a user’s search query.
As a consequence, Facebook’s search results include a variety of content, including posts that friends have published, references to brand pages and groups, and even sponsored search results.
But search works quite differently on Instagram, despite the two platforms being owned by the same company.
For example, a search query on Instagram typically surfaces three kinds of results:
Account names and bios that include the search keyword(s)
Places that include keywords in the place name or description
Posts that include keywords as hashtag
Towards the end of 2020, Instagram announced that it had updated its algorithm to include more ‘general’ results in users’ searches, but this update doesn’t appear to have had a significant impact on how Instagram’s search algorithm prioritises these three kinds of results.
Instagram’s search results may vary depending on where you are in the world, and how you use the platform as an individual, but on the whole, Instagram’s search results tend to be more ‘focused’ than the results that a user might find on Facebook.
This makes some sense, of course; the experience that people expect on Instagram is quite different to the one that they might expect on Facebook.
However, from a marketer’s perspective, these differences make things a lot more difficult.
Optimising for social search
Frustratingly, there’s still very little guidance available for marketers hoping to improve their social search results, especially in terms of guidance from the platforms themselves.
Furthermore, different algorithms mean that search approaches that work on one social platform may not work on any other.
As a result, ‘test and learn’ should be a core component of your social search strategy, with added emphasis on ‘learn’.
So, if you want to get serious about experimenting with social search, here are 8 things you’ll want to consider.
1. Focus on objectives and outcomes
As with everything else in marketing, your first step should be to identify what you want to achieve.
Specifically, which audiences are you hoping to reach, and what do you want those people to do once they find your account and your content?
These objectives will vary from brand to brand, and even from time to time, so be sure to identify the outcomes that actually matter to you.
For example, some marketers may want to drive immediate sales; others may simply want to increase their social media following or influence.
The results you’re aiming for should be a key consideration when determining the kinds of content that you’ll publish, and the social search ‘keywords’ you want to target.
Furthermore, remember that some product categories won’t be immediate candidates for social search, so it may be better to invest your resources elsewhere.
Remember that opportunity cost is a critical consideration in marketing, and even if everyone else is excited about a new platform or tactic, it may not be the right answer for your brand.
2. Account visibility vs content visibility
Success in social search isn’t just about getting your content (i.e. your posts) to rank in search results.
You’ll also want to ensure that your account or ‘page’ ranks highly for pertinent searches.
And remember that there may be other kinds of results to consider as well.
For example, Instagram has a whole search tab dedicated to location-based results, so if your brand has some form of physical presence, you may want to explore how to improve your results visibility in this environment too.
3. Recency vs. relevance
How much emphasis does the search algorithm place on when a piece of content is published to the platform?
The ‘visibility half-life’ of posts in social feeds is already something that most social media managers will be familiar with, but how does this phenomenon impact social search results?
Critically, does the platform prioritise newer posts in its search results, or will it place older but more relevant posts closer to the top of its results ranking?
This has important implications for how frequently you’ll need to post search-optimised content.
It’s also worth investigating whether user engagement (e.g likes, comments, and shares) has any impact on how individual posts rank in search results.
4. What gets indexed?
How does the platform’s search algorithm interpret users’ search queries, and what kinds of things does it match them to?
For example, at the time of writing, Instagram’s search interface emphasises accounts over individual posts in its search results.
However, search on TikTok appears to work quite differently to search on Instagram, with the platform seemingly placing greater emphasis on content (i.e. individual posts) than it does on accounts.
Meanwhile, when indexing individual posts in its search results, Instagram currently appears to prioritise hashtags that a publisher has actively added to a post, while more general (non-tagged) text seems to play a less influential role in shaping Instagram’s search results.
Compared to both Instagram and TikTok, searches on Facebook return a much broader range of results, including people, pages, posts, marketplace listings, events, videos, and various other ‘categories’.
Moreover, the second result in Facebook’s search results is typically a sponsored placement, so if you’re keen to rank highly in Facebook search, you may want to consider ‘Facebook SEM’, as well as working to improve your organic search results.
LinkedIn’s search results also take a different approach, catering to the specific role that the platform plays in its users’ lives.
Where relevant, people’s profiles tend to top LinkedIn search results, followed by company pages.
However, individual posts, groups, events, educational courses, and job postings may also appear in search results, with each of these categories having its own ‘tab’ at the top of the search results page.
As a result, you may want to think carefully about which kinds of search results you want to rank for, and not just which keywords you want to prioritise.
Note that all platforms make constant tweaks to their algorithms though, so – by the time you read this post – things may have already changed.
Even more frustratingly, the factors that determine success may change just as you start to make sense of what’s working for you.
Because of this, you’ll need to constantly review and update your social search approaches, to ensure they’re always fully optimised.
5. How do users search?
Another critical consideration when preparing for social search is how users search for brands and products in your category.
For example, do category-generic terms (e.g. coffee) tend to dominate, or do brand names (e.g. Starbucks) account for a greater share of users’ search activity?
Related to this, what can you learn about what users are actually looking for when they conduct a search?
For example, if a user searches for “coffee”, are they looking for coffee beans, a nearby café, beautiful photographs of coffee, or something else entirely?
Compared with conventional search engine SEO, there are far fewer resources to help marketers make sense of social search behaviours and trends, so you may need to start by testing some hypotheses, and work to build your own expertise over time.
6. Top keywords vs. the long tail
This mirrors a consideration in conventional SEO: do you want to compete for the top 1 or 2 keywords in your category (e.g. ‘head terms’ like “dress” or “coffee”), or might it be better to focus on a broader range of ‘long-tail’ keywords that perhaps attract a smaller volume of searches, but are more specific, with less ‘crowded’ search results?
You can experiment with a mix of both of course, but it’s well worth taking the time to identify which approaches are delivering the best results for your specific objectives.
7. Get technical
Remember that social search algorithms don’t just look at explicit post or account content when indexing potential results.
In some instances, search algorithms may also rely on metadata and other ‘non-visible’ elements as part of their ranking, and these factors may have a meaningful impact on your social search performance.
For example, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn all allow users to add ‘alt text’ to images.
These elements help to improve content accessibility, but they may also have additional benefits when it comes to social search indexing.
Like many aspects of social search, the specific role that these elements play in determining search results is relatively opaque, and likely changes on a regular basis, so – once again – you may want to conduct regular experiments to find out what works best for you.
Which brings us neatly to the final point…
8. Measure and maximise
How will you identify what’s actually working for you when it comes to social search?
Tracking the impact of your social media search activities can be a lot more difficult than tracking the impact of your SEO activities on Google.
Some social platforms will help you understand how many new impressions or clicks came via search, but – in many cases – you’ll need to identify (or even devise) your own metrics and KPIs in order to measure success.
However you measure success though, be sure that your metrics and KPIs are directly tied to your objectives and outcomes.
For example, there’s very little point in delivering huge numbers of additional impressions if none of those new impressions translate into sales or an uplift in tangible brand value.
People’s online search behaviours are evolving all the time, especially as new tools and interfaces become more widely available.
This increased diversity and complexity can make search seem overwhelming, but the associated opportunities can quickly justify the necessary investments of time, effort, and money.
Ultimately, making your digital activities as visible as possible increases the chances that those activities will achieve their intended objectives, so approach new search opportunities with the same level of enthusiasm that you’d approach a new social media platform that offers huge new reach.
And if you’d like any help making sense of which opportunities are most relevant to your brand – and how to seize those opportunities – be sure to check out our custom advisory services.