The future of search is up for grabs. Who’ll win?

I read a very interesting article on Venture Beat last week that got me thinking about the future of search – what it looks like, who will own it, what role Google will play in it, and the implications for physical retailers. 

With user expectations increasing, interfaces shrinking, and voice search growing, retailers need to think about how the future of search will impact their store discoverability. Otherwise they’ll be paying the price in missed shopper visits and sales.

The state of search 

One thing is true: for all the hype around search as state-of-the-art and tech innovation of the previous few years, it isn’t where it should be. The fact that we refer to some people as being good at googling implies it’s a skill on the user’s behalf, not the search engine.

The article cited three main reasons for this:

  1. No authority: everyone writes and games the system, the internet is full of spam and gaining authority is increasingly difficult. In the age of spam and user-contributed content, it’s hard to know if the answer you get is right or wrong.
  2. Higher expectations: more complex and precise questions are being asked by users, and they expect them answered accurately, immediately and in context.
  3. Shrinking interfaces: the shift to mobile screens, tiny watches and voice interfaces means traditional search needs to adapt. Fast.

I posted about the rise of location centric mobile searches a couple of weeks ago and there is no doubt in my mind that we’re in a mobile first age. While desktop users are happy to engage in more in-depth search sessions, smartphone users expect instantaneous answers. These on-the-go or on-the-couch whilst watching TV moments where users turn to their device for a context-rich immediate answer, are where search needs to step up.

Conversational search 

Mobile has already put a lot of pressure on search, and the imminent transition to the more conversational interfaces of voice and messaging will only increase that pressure.

Voice is the fastest growing type of search according to Behshad Behzadi, Director of Conversation Search at Google. 55% of teens and 41% of adults use voice search on a daily basis. A number that’s only going up.

Why? It’s faster, it’s hands-free and it’s becoming increasingly more reliable: two years ago the error rate was 20%, compared to only 8% now.

In 2015, more Google searches occurred on mobile phones than desktops, the first time that was the case. It was also the first time voice searches grew faster than text-based searches, with voice making up roughly 20 percent of all mobile searches.

From voice recognition to voice understanding 

People who type a query and people who ask a question have different intent: the typer may be OK with doing a bit of research, while the voice searcher wants an instant result. With the rise of voice search, increasing popularity of voice search from the tech giants, (Google Now, Siri and Cortana) and new entrants like Viv and Hound, search engines have no choice but to appeal to both types and “understand” these conversational search queries.

We don’t type the way we speak. Instead of the query ‘weather sydney’, search engines are asked “what’s the weather like in Sydney tonight?”, thus having to interpret natural phrases and meaning. That said, the contextual improvements made recently by Google are pretty amazing:

  • Location context: Google knows your location, so you can simply ask ‘how far to the airport’ without specifying where.
  • App context: If you’re looking at a specific restaurant in an app, you can then ask Google to “show me the menu” or “provide directions to the restaurant” and it will know which one you’re talking about.
  • Website context: Same goes for websites. If you’re looking at pictures of Roger Federer, then ask Google “what year was Roger born?” it will know who Roger is. Pretty clever!
  • Personal context: ask Google “what’s my address” without specifying who ‘my’ is.

Retail relevance 

Retail is still an area that needs significant improvement. Echo and Alexa from Amazon are the exception: their voice search capabilities are incredibly effective and they’re taking a massive piece of the product search pie from Google! But it’s all about buying from Amazon. What about the rest of the retail ecosystem, physical retail in particular?

That’s what we’re working on at Booodl: helping retailers be optimised for discovery by shoppers searching location centrically. We call it Store Discovery Optimisation. In the near future, a shopper should be able to ask Siri “where can I buy Nike Air Max nearby that takes Amex?” and get an accurate response. That’s our vision.

With Google’s recent announcement around Allo and their new AI research lab in Zurich, I expect to see big things in this space more generally in the next few years. The new Zurich-based team has the goal of inventing the future of search: a voice-activated, human-like entity that can answer any query intelligently. Emmanuel Mogenet, Head of Google Research Europe, said “we are building the ultimate assistant. In two years, you can expect Google to become a personal life assistant across multiple surfaces, including your phone, Google Home, even cars.”

Intelligent adaptable search will be at the heart of that.

Who will own the future? 

The race to own the future of search has started.

Despite Google being the obvious player, if they are to lead us into the next era of mobile and voice led search they will need to disrupt their own business.

With 90% of revenue coming from advertising (a model that was built on showing content next to ads in a desktop view), how will they adapt? I recently wrote about their new mobile ad formats, but overall their mobile ads aren’t performing as well as hoped. And how do you make money from voice interfaces?

And if Google is to truly disrupt search, will they have to become content creators? To get the rich and accurate data set needed for the next era of search, do you have to do it yourself rather than basing your answers on others’ information? This is the approach they took with Google Maps and it worked beautifully.

Amazon is certainly in an interesting (albeit threatening) position: they don’t rely on advertising revenue and the introduction of Alexa already has them at the front of conversational commerce and voice search.

Or will it be Facebook? Yes, they’re advertising reliant, but they do own the biggest messaging platforms in the world – Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp. Then there’s Apple, who just announced they’re opening Siri to developers.

What does the future of search look like to you, and who will own it?

I know this: physical retailers need to get optimised for discovery now. If you aren’t making your store as discoverable through search as Amazon has made online commerce with Alexa, then you will continue to leak shopper visits and sales.

As for shoppers, better store discovery is available now for location centric searches, and voice search will continue to get better and more accurate as physical retailers share and organise their store data for powerful AI voice systems to use.

At Booodl we’re working hard on location-centric search for physical retail, but it will be incredibly interesting to see how this one plays out across the board. One of the biggest businesses in history is up for grabs!

This blog post was originally published by Booodl CEO & Co-Founder, George Freney, on LinkedIn.

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