Search quality slips in people’s perceptions … or is it just that we’ve moved the goalpost?

Recently, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reported that the perceived quality of Google and other search platforms is on a downward trajectory. In particular, Google’s satisfaction score has declined two percentage points to 82 out of a possible high score of 100, according to the ACS Index.

Related to this trend, search advertising ROI is also declining. According to a report published recently by Analytic Partners, the return on investment from paid search dropped by more than 25% between 2010 and 2016.

In all likelihood, a falling ROI can be linked to lower satisfaction with search results.  But let’s look at things a little more closely.

First of all, Google’s customer satisfaction score of 82 is actually better than the 77 score it had received as recently as 2015. In any case, attaining a score of 82 out of 100 isn’t too shabby in such customer satisfaction surveys.

Moreover, Google has been in the business of search for a solid two decades now – an eternity in the world of the Internet. Google has always had a laser-focus on optimizing the quality of its search results, seeing as how search is the biggest “golden egg” revenue-generating product the company has (by far).

Obviously, Google hasn’t been out there with a static product. Far from it:  Google’s search algorithms have been steadily evolving to the degree that search results stand head-and-shoulder above where they were even five years ago.  Back then, search queries typically resulted in generic results that weren’t nearly as well-matched to the actual intent of the searcher.

That sort of improvement is no accident.

But one thing has changed pretty dramatically – the types of devices consumers are using to conduct their searches. Just a few years back, chances are someone would be using a desktop or laptop computer where viewing SERPs containing 20 results was perfectly acceptable – and even desired for quick comparison purposes.

Today, a user is far more likely to be initiating a search query from a smartphone. In that environment, searchers don’t want 20 plausible results — they want one really good one.

You could say that “back then” it was a browsing environment, whereas today it’s a task environment, which creates a different mental framework within which people receive and view the results.

So, what we really have is a product – search – that has become increasingly better over the years, but the ground has shifted in terms of customer expectations.

Simply put, people are increasingly intolerant of results that are even a little off-base from the contextual intent of their search. And then it becomes easy to “blame the messenger” for coming up short – even if that messenger is actually doing a much better job than in the past.

It’s like so much else in one’s life and career: The reward for success is … a bar that’s set even higher.

Thanks to IOT, search is morphing into “just-in-time knowledge.”

aeIn today’s world of marketing, it’s been obvious for some time that the pace of technological change is dramatically shortening the life cycle of marketing techniques.

Consider online search. Twenty-five years ago it was hardly a blip on the radar screen.  Picking up momentum, paid search soon began to rival traditional forms of advertising, as companies took advantage of promo programs offered by Google and others that aligned neatly with consumers when they were on the hunt for products, services and solutions..

Google has attracted billions upon billions of dollars in search advertising revenue, becoming one of the biggest corporations in the world, even as entire industries have grown up around optimizing companies’ website presence and relevance so as to rank highly in search query results.

And now, thanks to continuing technology evolution and the emergence of the Internet of Things, the next generation of search is now upon us – and it’s looking likely to make keyboards and touchscreens increasingly irrelevant within a few short years.

afhSearches without screens are possible thanks to technology like Google Assistant, Amazon Echo/Alexa, and software development kits from providers like Soundhound and Microsoft.

This past October, market forecasting firm Gartner came out with an interesting prediction: Within four years, it forecasts that ~30% of all searches will be carried out without a screen.

It’s happening already, actually. In web search, Amazon Echo answers voice queries, while the Bing knowledge and action graph allows Microsoft to provide answers to queries rather than a set of answer possibilities in the form of links as has been the case up to now.

Gartner envisions voice interactions overtaking typing in search queries because it is so much easier, faster and more intuitive for consumers. By eliminating the need for people to use eyes and hands for search and browsing, voice interactions improve the utility of web sessions even while multitasking takes on ever-increasing degrees of shared activity (walking, driving, socializing, exercising and the like).

Related to this, Gartner also predicts that one in five brands will have abandoned offering mobile apps by 2019. Already, many companies have found disappointing levels of adoption, engagement and ROI pertaining to the mobile apps they’ve introduced, and the prognosis is no better going forward; the online consumer is already moving on.

Gartner’s predictions go even further. It envisions ever-higher levels of what it calls “just-in-time knowledge” – essentially trading out searching for knowledge by simply getting answers to voice queries.

Speaking personally, this prediction concerns me a little. I think that some people may not fully grasp the implications of what Gartner is forecasting.

To me, “just-in-time knowledge” sounds uncomfortably close to being “ill-educated” (as opposed to “uneducated”).  Sometimes, knowing a little bit about something is more dangerous than knowing nothing at all. Bad decisions often come from possessing a bit of knowledge — but with precious little “context” surrounding it.

With “just-in-time knowledge,” think of how many people could now fall into that kind of trap.

Bing, Blekko, and more new developments in search.

Facebook + BingWhen it comes to the evolution of online search, as one wag put it, “If you drop your pencil, you miss a week.”

It does seem that significant new developments in search crop up almost monthly – each one having the potential to up-end the tactics and techniques that harried companies attempt to put in place to keep up with the latest methods to target and influence customers. It’s simply not possible to bury your head in the sand, even if you wanted to.

Two of the newest developments in search include the introduction of a beta version of the new Blekko search engine with its built-in focus on SEO analytics — I’ll save that topic for a future blog post — along with a joint press conference held last week by Facebook and Microsoft where they announced new functionalities to the Bing search engine. More specifically, Bing will now be displaying search results based on the experiences and preferences of people’s Facebook friends.

What makes the Bing/Facebook development particularly intriguing is that it adds a dimension to search that is genuinely new and different. Up until now, every consumer had his or her “search engine of choice” based on any number of reasons or preferences. But generally speaking, that preference wouldn’t be based on the content of the search results. That’s because the ability for search engines to deliver truly unique search results has been very difficult because they’ve all been based on essentially the same search algorithms.

[To prove the point, run the same search term on Yahoo and Google, and you’ll likely see natural search results are pretty similar one to another. There might be a different mix of image and video results, but generally speaking, the results are based on the same “crawling” capabilities of search bots.]

The Bing/Facebook deal changes the paradigm in that new information heretofore residing behind Facebook’s wall will now be visible to selected searchers.

The implications of this are pretty interesting to contemplate. It’s one thing for people to read reviews or ratings written by total strangers about a restaurant or store on a site like Yelp. But now, if someone sees “likes,” ratings or comments from their Facebook friends, those will presumably carry more weight. With this new font of information, as time goes on the number of products, brands and services that people will be rating will surely rise.

The implications are potentially enormous. Brands like Zappos have grown in popularity, and in consumer loyalty, because of their “authenticity.” The new Bing/Facebook module will provide ways for smaller brands to engender similar fierce loyalty on a smaller scale … without having to make the same huge brand-building commitment.

Of course, there’s a flip side to this. A company’s product had better be good … or else all of those hoped-for positive ratings and reviews could turn out to be the exact opposite!

Google’s Instant Search: Instant Irritation?

Google's Instant Search is a Non-StarterHow many of you have been noodling around with Google’s new Instant Search functionality since its unveiling earlier this month? I’ve spent the better part of a week working with it, trying hard to keep a “completely open mind” as to its benefits.

I’ve finally came to the conclusion that … I can’t stand it. I’m a pretty fast typist, and generally know what I’m searching for. I really don’t need Google “pre-anticipating” search results for me, and find the constantly jumping search results window extremely off-putting to the point of distraction.

I gave Instant Search a full week … and couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve now elected to turn it off completely.

Wondering if I was the only one with this view … it certainly didn’t take long to find out that there are a great many people out there who feel the same way. You can use Google search (either the “instant” or “traditional” will do fine) to find any number of blog posts and user comments about Google Instant Search that are just one notch shy of mutinous — and hardly genteel in their choice of language. (A few examples can be found here and here and here.)

If the comments by disgruntled users are to be believed, Bing/MSN may find itself with a nice little bump in search volume market share by the end of September.

And if that actually happens, Google Instant might die a quiet death – which wouldn’t be the first time Google laid an egg in its “throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” approach to product development.

But if Google Instant does gain traction … there are some negative implications for search marketers as well. Many companies seek to structure their online marketing campaigns by determining the optimal amount of spending on search advertising, display ads and social media. The key to success in this endeavor is undertaking a process that examines the millions of cookies and billions of clicks that are made by web users, along with factoring in other elements like geographic location and time of day.

All of this information is weighed against the cost of various ads and the likelihood of success as they are served to the user. That’s determined by running regular models of millions of keywords and word combinations, judging the relative costs to determine the optimum frequency. For some of the most aggressive marketers, these models are run once or twice daily.

The advent of Google’s Instant Search scrambles all of that, because it makes the process even faster and more hectic than before. As those of you who have experimented with Instant Search know, you start seeing “suggested” search results with just the first one or two keystrokes … and those choices continue to change with each new keystroke made or movement of the cursor down the list of Google’s suggestions. For marketers, the result is a lot more velocity on the ad side – and more price changes.

As proof of this, within the first few days of Instant Search’s launch, sites that Instant Search recommends after the first one or two letters are typed into the search box – “Mapquest,” “Ticketmaster” and “Pandora” are three useful examples – were experiencing significant increases in traffic, whereas their hapless competitors were not.

If that’s what is happening with the big boys, where does this put smaller businesses? The answer is obvious: They’re going to get squeezed big-time … and as a result, their search advertising costs are going nowhere but up.

Mighty sporting of you, Google.

Google Goggles: The Innovations in Search Marketing Just Keep on Coming

Just when you thought there were no new breakthroughs to be had in search marketing … along comes Google Goggles. It’s a new “visual search” application focusing on computer vision for mobile phones, currently in development and testing at Google Labs. An early version has already been unveiled by the Goggles product development team and been released to Android mobile users.

What does Google Goggles do? It allows anyone to search on a cell phone simply by snapping a picture of an object. Once the picture has been taken, it is “read” by Google’s cloud, algorithms search for the information, the matches are ranked and detailed search results appear on your phone – just as if you had typed in a search command.

Because this is far easier to show than to explain, Google has issued a short video clip that features several members of the development team demonstrating how Goggles works. Currently, the app works well with inanimate objects such as DVDs, books, and physical landmarks. You can even point your phone to a store building while using the geo-targeting feature, and search results pertaining to the store and its merchandise will appear on your phone.

What doesn’t work so well are items like food, plants, animals and people … yet. Give it a few more years, and no doubt the brains at Google will have figured out those challenges as well.

While at present Goggles is available only to Android phone users, it is Google’s intention to develop and offer the program to other popular mobile platforms. So iPhone and BlackBerry users needn’t worry.

Incidentally, Goggles isn’t the only new development in search that’s happening right now. Google is also working on creating real-time translation in multiple languages by speaking a query into a search engine app. (The audio is translated into a digital request before being processed and returning results.) And developers at Ball State University are working on devices that can “read” search commands simply by the flick of a finger or by waving in front of the screen.

What’s next? Search results appearing after someone merely thinks about making a query?