Search is now most definitely mobile, with more than half of all searches globally on Google’s platform performed on mobile devices.
It’s a similar story across other search engines, such as Bing and Yahoo, and product development and search engine ranking and indexing are changing accordingly.
Initiatives such as Google’s new Accelerated Mobile Pages, searching and streaming apps, and improvements in the accuracy of semantic search have profound implications for publishers, advertisers and agencies.
So too does Google’s recent decision to scrap the right-hand page of ads on its desktop site – a sign some in the industry see as a mark of quality over quantity and something that will drive competition and price for those few placements still shown. “We’re looking at all our clients and what impact that might have,” says Paul Mead, chairman of VCCP Media.
Further upstream, all eyes are on the rise of the machines and how ‘narrow’ artificial intelligence will change search marketing – particularly around the potential for voice search and digital personal assistants.
Microsoft’s Bing-powered Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Google Now may still be in their infancy, but they are growing up fast, powered by machine learning, and taking ‘search’ beyond the blue links.
“Search is like electricity; it’s all around us, we never see it, it just lights everything up,” says Ravleen Beeston, Bing Ads UK sales director. “2016 will see marketers recognise the ubiquitous nature of search, where it will truly go ‘beyond the box’.”
So what are the key search trends that should be on your radar this year?
Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages
Last month, Google began promoting web-based news articles that comply with its guidelines to make pages load quicker on mobile devices.
It has been working with technology companies, ad-tech businesses and publishers on the open-source Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative in a “joint mission to improve the web for everyone”.
It says web pages built with AMP load on average four times faster and use 10 times less data than equivalent non-AMP pages. Certain ad types, such as interstitials, are not allowed under the scheme.
VCCP Media’s Paul Mead sees it as a stand against the rise of ad blocking, which consumers are doing because of “intrusive” mobile ads and, crucially, the easy availability of ad blockers. “Millennials in particular have worked out that some of their data package is being taken up by ads on their phone, and that can affect battery life or what they pay for their data. It’s no surprise there’s a rush to block ads.”
AMP’s scope is beyond that of Facebook Instant Articles or Apple News, which also aim to make news on mobile more accessible, says Dan Calladine, Carat’s global head of media futures. “It is important to stress it’s not like what Facebook is doing. This is potentially for all websites to be accessed through mobile. It goes beyond publishing.”
Google certainly thinks so. David Besbris, vice-president engineering, search, said last month: “Given the potential AMP holds for other types of content, we’re excited about what the future holds.”
Calladine says every brand should look at how AMP could affect them, particularly if it improves a page’s ranking. He predicts Google will soon start penalising non-compliant pages.
Or, as David Sosnowski, head of SEO and inbound at digital agency Huge, warns: “Mobile speed enhancement should have been on your roadmap in 2014, and must be in 2016.”
The biggest search marketing game-changer in 2016, according to Carat’s Dan Calladine, will be search within apps. And while he explains how this is “quite speculative, as Google is only doing tests,” he predicts that “suddenly, you’ll start to see content in your search results that wasn’t there before.”
Google started indexing the content of apps over two years ago, so that when people searched they could find results whether in an app or on the web. But up until last year, it only showed information from apps that had matching web content.
It has partnered with a small group of companies including HotelTonight, Chimani and New York MTA Subway Map to showcase “app-first” content in search. It means that, if a consumer needs a hotel for a spur-of-the-moment trip to Chicago, search results will include results from the HotelTonight app. There is also an option to “stream” those apps directly from Google Search so that customers can complete a booking even outside the app itself or one-click to download it to their phone.
Calladine says that this is indicative of a trend for companies to launch app-only content and points to the power of app-only players such as WhatsApp, the first to reach a billion users. “There’s a rising number of things that exist only on an app and Google knows it has to be searching in this.”
It means a potentially new area of search specialism – that of app SEO. Shenda Loughnane, iProspect’s global strategy director, is unsurprised that search engines are investing heavily in the mobile app search space.
“If successful and rolled out globally, this will have significant implications for how app content is optimised to ensure it ranks for mobile searches. As a result, we can expect ‘app SEO’ to become a new area of search engine advertising for brands to consider in the future.”
Additionally, she continues, this will pose new challenges such as whether to focus on app SEO or downloads, and what specific content to produce as a result.
The rise of the machines
Tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook are investing big in ‘narrow’ or ‘soft’ artificial intelligence (AI), moving from text-based search algorithms to more semantic systems that deliver results a person really wants, even before they’ve finished talking or typing.
Google’s AI initiative, RankBrain, helps it deal with about 15 per cent of daily queries, according to reports, particularly unique new queries its systems have never seen before and complex questions such as ‘Who was US president when the Angels won the World Series?’. Sosnowski says machine learning will “bridge the past to the future, opening up our ability to use voice over type”.
Apple’s Bing-powered Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now point to the future of search, he believes – if they can get it right. Certainly, Microsoft is putting enormous weight behind its digital personal assistant, which it sees working seamlessly across its entire ecosystem, from search to Office.
Says Ravleen Beeston, UK sales director at Bing Ads: “Search will only truly become intelligent when the engine can anticipate what the person using it needs, even before intent has been revealed.”
Paired with machine-learning, technology can anticipate a user’s needs, nudging them to leave for an appointment for instance, making sense of their location and traffic conditions. It also changes the way consumers search; Google says it gets 30 times as many action queries by voice as by typing.
Beeston sees it as a trend from which “new search behaviours will emerge, focused on the conversational nature voice search supports”. Digital assistants use search engines to listen, learn and serve relevant experiences and Beeston says the technology can ultimately empower marketers to open up to new opportunities and behavioural data. Watch this space.
This feature was first published in The Drum's 9 March issue.