Search engines used to be the golden gateways of the online world. Nobody could find anything on the web without previous knowledge of a domain or access to a search engine. Traditional advertising could help you get the name of your business and the URL of your site in the eyes of the public, but the only way to get traffic from web visitors who hadn’t heard of you was to get yourself ranked in a major search engine (i.e. Google).
Now, the availability and diversity of online technology is starting to chip away at the dominance of search engines on online behavior. We still use search engines, obviously, or Google and Bing would have gone under by now, but their influence is starting to wane in response to three important trends and developments.
In a way, digital assistants are just search engines that rely on voice-based queries rather than typed keywords. But they’re growing more complicated, more diverse in functionality, and they’re being used in far different ways.
Take, for example, Siri and Cortana. Released by Apple and Microsoft, respectively, these assistants take semantic search to new heights by deciphering the intent behind a user query, studying past behaviors, and ultimately personalizing their eventual displayed results. These results may come in the form of offline files, online websites, raw information, or some blend of the three. They’re killing the traditional search engine because they can be accessed from almost any device, without a specific web browser, and they can present all kinds of relevant information with a simple query. Once sold on this voice-activated assistant, the average user is hard-pressed to go back to the type-and-find method.
Other forms of digital assistants are threatening search engines due to their sheer efficiency; instant answer applications like Google’s Knowledge Graph take a user query and algorithmically find the most relevant information immediately. For example, if you run a Google search for a movie, the Knowledge Graph will instantly generate basic information on that movie such as its debut year, principle actors, and any awards it may have won. With this information, users have less reason to click through to actual websites, limiting the potential traffic a site can generate by ranking high for a given query. In this way, Google is gradually shaping user behavior toward a new kind of search—and a new expectation of results.
Facebook has done for social media platforms what Google did for search engines—it’s the undisputed king, and nearly everyone with a reliable Internet connection has a profile they log into at least occasionally. Facebook advertising has grown similar to Google advertising, but Facebook is starting to decrease the need for search engines in general in a handful of key ways.
First, consider Facebook’s Instant Articles, which allow certain publishers to post full-length versions of their articles for Facebook users to read, without ever posting it to an external site first. This idea came from the fact that more people see certain articles on Facebook than they see them on the original publisher’s site. This isn’t the only functionality that Facebook has added recently, with new aggregated messenger functionality, “buy” buttons for advertisers, and auto-play videos just scratching the surface of what it’s introduced.
Facebook’s goal here is to present an all-in-one online experience for its users, preventing the need for a search engine to find articles or display content. It’s even planning the release of a digital assistant and search engine of its own, accessible entirely within the app itself. Other social media platforms will likely take notice of Facebook’s shift, adopting new features and add-ons of their own until virtually every social media site becomes an all-in-one online experience unto itself.
Finally, consider how the average user’s online experience has changed over the course of the past decade. Wireless Internet is available almost everywhere, and mobile devices represent the majority of all online activities. Users are no longer reliant on dedicated devices, wired connections, and web browsers to find the information or functionality they need in any given situation. If they need a ride somewhere, they can use the Uber app. If they want to identify a song, they can use the Shazam app.
Imagine for a moment that you had an app in your phone for every piece of information or every functionality you could ever need from the Internet. At that point, would you ever return to traditional websites or search engines? Chances are slim. Apps are slowly killing off the “traditional” online experience, including search engines, though there are still opportunities for search to survive in the context of those apps (or in the process of finding them to download).
Search itself isn’t dying: instead, the way we use search is starting to change. The conventional form of a type-based single entry that generates pages of potential links is starting to disappear in favor of more complex algorithms, more general forms of search that blend online and offline, new types of online experiences, and new platforms that can do everything we need in one location. If you’ve invested the last few years of your life to a killer SEO campaign, you don’t necessarily have a reason to worry—just be on your toes for the changes that come, and be willing to adapt to this new environment.