Change your expectations of search

Search certainly isn’t what it used to be. After watching the search space for more than a decade, I’ve seen more signs of change in the last 12 months than I have in the previous nine years. These changes mark fundamental shifts in user expectations. More importantly, these recent shifts give us a glimpse of a search picture that looks significantly different than the one we’re used to: different platforms, different behaviors, different players and different revenue models.

For the sake of this column, I’ve tried to tie all these changes together with one common theme, and this theme seems to be a shift from relevancy to functionality. It used to be that we searched to find information, and if the information we found was what we expected to find, we were happy.

But information itself is almost never our end goal. We do things with information. We book trips, buy stuff, make reservations, prepare a presentation or watch a video. Information is often just an intermediate step. When you look at it that way, usefulness becomes a much better measure of success than relevance.

Our current search paradigm is built around relevancy. But increasingly, that’s giving way to functionality. There are now more searches launched on YouTube than on Yahoo. Facebook isn’t far behind. The days of the universal search destination — the one size fits all query box — are numbered.

It all comes down to expectations. We’re happy with the current solution only as long as it meets our expectations. When our expectations get ratcheted up a notch, suddenly the “same old” isn’t good enough. And that’s what’s happening to search, thanks in large part to Apple and the iPhone.

The iPhone (and the iPad) are changing the way we interact with the virtual world. More and more, we launch our searches from a specific location. Perhaps we’ve scanned a bar code, or taken a picture. We can even record the ambient sound of our environment and use that to help refine our query. Devices are becoming better able to understand where we are and what we’re doing. And that changes everything.

The acquisition of the rather amazing technology behind Siri by Apple is hugely significant if we consider where search is going. It isn’t so much what Siri can do today that’s important. It’s what it could allow us to do in the future. When search becomes more functional, it, by necessity, stretches beyond the bounds of a single search interface. This raises our expectations of what online search should be, pushing us to demand more. Suddenly, the generic search interface looks rather anemic and hopelessly static.

In this scenario, no single site, including Google, owns the massive number of eyeballs they currently enjoy. Instead, search touch-points splinter across multiple devices and a massive number of applications. Search is no longer a destination; it becomes a utility that retreats “under the hood.”

Gord Hotchkiss is president and CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing agency headquartered in British Columbia.

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