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The evolution of search – from Archie to sophisticated marketing channel

Ahead of The Drum’s Search Breakfast, we explore the channel’s evolution from the first web engines to today’s sophisticated marketing machine.

Internet users have a lot to thank ‘Archie’ for. Archie was the world’s first search engine, developed by McGill University student Alan Emtage in 1990.

Archie was an index (or archive) of computer files stored on FTP websites in a network of computers but without the natural language keyword capabilities used in modern search engines.

Both web directories and search engines gained popularity in the 90s with search engines soon becoming the preferred method of internet search. The major search engines today originated in development between 1993 and 1998 (Google, by far the world’s biggest engine, was launched in 1997) and have been getting ever more sophisticated since.

The holy grail has been for websites to deliver answers based on fewer and fewer inputs. As Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in 2013: “My vision when we started Google 15 years ago was that eventually you wouldn’t have to have a search query at all.”

It’s an ambition that’s inching closer to reality, with innovations such as voice, location and sensor-based search, together with the uptake of wearables, poised to become mainstream.

Hedley Aylott, chief executive of digital retail agency Summit, believes advances in tech will allow marketers to target consumers at a more personal, granular level.

He says: “Clearly we are being offered new and intuitive ways to search other than typing a query into a search box. Search is certainly becoming more personalised and more predictive based on customer signals such as location, previous behaviour and tracked activity online.”

He believes mobile offers the biggest opportunity for marketers, and estimates that roughly 50 to 60 per cent of traffic to UK retailers’ sites is now from mobile. “This is only going to increase,” says Aylott. “People’s behaviour and circumstances are also different on mobile. For example, one in three smartphone users has purchased from a company or brand other than the one they intended to because of the information provided in the moment they needed it.” He further adds that around 80 per cent of smartphone users consult their phones about purchases they are making in store.

In fact, Google recently announced that mobile search queries have overtaken PC-based ones, while comScore said in July that mobile digital media time (in the States) is now greater than desktop and other media.

For Herbert Knibiehly, vice-president of marketing at Twenga Solutions, a company that offers merchants advanced traffic acquisition solutions, this will mean a change in mindset.

“Mobile has had an impact on search, and voice search is set to further change this course,” he says. “As terms entered through voice search can be very different to those entered though a keyboard, all websites will potentially have to review their SEO to ensure their page content reflects these new ‘natural language’ searches.”

He cites new AdWords features such as adding product reviews to ads, introducing local inventory ads to improve local-intent queries and rolling out buy buttons to advance user experience on mobile.

“E-commerce websites are under more pressure to be extremely mobile-friendly,” continues Knibiehly. “Those that survived ‘mobilegeddon’ may be breathing a sigh of relief, but the reality is that digital is constantly changing and e-retailers need to keep up or risk falling behind.”

He believes there are three key enablers driving the next wave of search: audience segmentation, product level data and real-time bidding. “Leveraging all available data on a real-time basis to combine product-level bidding with hyper audience segmentation is key. Automated marketing platforms are the key enablers to unleash the next wave of search performance.”

Those leading the way include retail and travel giants such as Amazon, eBay, Tesco and Expedia. Knibiehly says they have reached such a scale and efficiency on search that they become very hard to compete with without external partners and agencies that understand the fast-evolving search landscape.

Aylott believes that brands that “get search” have worked hard to understand as a business what they should be spending on it: marketers should have a properly researched and evidence-based forecast and accompanying budget to drive the best possible ROI from search. Argos, a Summit client, has invested in innovation in search, leading to double-digit revenue growth from search each and every year.

He cautions that search should not be planned in isolation: “Most importantly, the best businesses we work with are engaged with search and the insights that come from it across their business.”

For example, the trading team should be fully cognisant of the search campaign, where the money is being spent and the performance of that campaign. “In the best businesses search is used as both a tactical and strategic marketing activity that can have significant impact on day-to-day trading performance and is therefore viewed with importance and given priority,” he says.

Adds Knibiehly: “Search is just one of the channels available to shoppers, so orchestrating an optimal multi-channel, multi-device campaign strategy remains incredibly complex.”

Brin’s ultimate vision may still be some way off, but what’s for sure is that search has changed beyond recognition in the 25 years since Archie.

The Search Breakfast takes place on 12 November at The Drum’s London office in Shoreditch. For more information, contact afrina.hussain@thedrum.com.

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Catherine Turner

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