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Google, Bing and social media bling – taking bets on the content currency exchange

Henry Elliss
Henry Elliss
Managing Director
16 June 2010

As you will know from Neil’s blog, the world of search has changed massively in the past 15 years. Heck, it’s changed massively in the past 15 weeks – so looking forward 15 years in the future might be a bit of an exercise in futility. So rather than supply you with a list of pie-in-the-sky predictions which will doubtless come back to haunt me many times in the future, I thought I’d take a look at some of the changes that will affect Search in the next… well, the next big chunk of time! Is that vague enough to get by in a court of law? Hmm, maybe not… Anyway, here goes:

The search journey

I doubt anybody at Google would subscribe this view, but user behaviour definitely seems to be moving away from people using search engines as the start of all their online journeys. Whilst Google have the search engine market seemingly sewn-up, and Microsoft and Google both have significant stakes in the address-bar-based journey start-point, more and more people will start search journeys through sites like Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, or through aggregation services like CoTweet, Hootsuite, Plaxo and many more.

Sites like the BBC and big newspaper sites regularly include search boxes from Google or Microsoft, but as these services develop their social ideal, I’m pretty sure we’ll start seeing more sophisticated services that pull in content from a much more diverse network.

As well as changing the way they start the journey, natural-language processing will inevitably catch-up with what we’ve been hoping it would be in the next few years, meaning not only will content indexing be a lot easier for the search engines, but search queries will become a lot more human-sounding and natural.

This will almost definitely lead to recommendations also becoming more intuitive – Google Mail already makes a reasonable stab at context-related advertising, so REAL natural language processing could lead to some really interesting movements in recommendations based on conversations you’re having and other sites you’re browsing / posting on. There may come a point in the not too distant future when you don’t even NEED to do a search, the results will just come to you.

The evolution of the engines

As Neil demonstrated in his round-up, the search engines have evolved massively since the early days of search – it’s no longer just about ten, textual blue links on a dull white page. As with all progress, this is bound to increase even more in the coming years – with competition from the less-obvious but still powerful search ‘engines’ on Facebook et al, Google will have to evolve more and more in order to keep up.

Whilst add-ons like real-time search results and the Google Labs ‘social search’ experiment show signs of Google moving even further in to the social space, it’s inevitable that within the next 12-18 months the search results from Google in particular will become MUCH more ‘real-time’.

Whilst a page full of Twitter and blog-based results might not provide a great result for the research-focused user, ensuring the pages that are being returned have been recently updated (no more dead websites!) and massively ‘current’ will provide a much more useful experience to the user.

Content is king

In the five years that I’ve been working in and around search, we’ve always scoffed a little bit at the mantra ‘content is king’ – mainly because it’s usually trumpeted by people who don’t get great results, or even build links. But the rise of social sites (or should I say take-over?) means that content really IS important to your site – albeit not just onsite content.

The content around your brand is already out there, and more and more it’ll become a factor in how you rank – and we’re not just talking Google of course. Content is essentially your social currency – what’s being said, when and how will have a massive effect on not only your ROI on any activity, but also the influence you hold.

Google have already hinted at how sentiment may be ‘becoming’ a factor in your rankings – the personalised web means that it won’t be long before companies with shocking reputations find their rankings dropping like a stone. After all, Google don’t want to be returning results that are contrary to public opinion, do they? Future iterations of the Google algorithms will doubtless factor in sentiment, volume of ‘noice’, influence and legitimacy – though what they base these criteria on is anybody’s guess…

At the end of the day, whilst we can have a good stab at guessing the future of search, a quick browse through Google for articles on “The future of search” will show you hundreds of wild stabs that fell flat on their faces. If I’ve learnt one thing in my 5+ years in search though, it’s that whatever happens, it’s going to be an exhilarating ride!

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