The cool thing about search is the way it just keeps changing and growing, meaning website owners and marketers are constantly needing to adapt and exploit new opportunities to maximise their search presence.
Here are five noteworthy directions in which search is evolving that I think digital marketers need to be aware of.
1. The search results for desktop and mobile are becoming more diverse
When Searchmetrics analysed how search results differ by device last year, we found that more than 25% of Google results on mobile phones are different to those displayed on computers using the same keywords.
Results displayed on tablets differ from those on computers in around 8% of cases.
Over time I would certainly expect these differences to increase as the search engines learn more about what people expect when searching on different devices.
We know that searchers experience a laptop (with a bigger screen area) differently to a mobile phone and a lot of the times when they search on a laptop their intent is different.
If you search for 'pizza' on your laptop, for instance, perhaps you are more likely to be looking for a pizza delivery service to bring pizza to your door.
But on a mobile, you are more likely to be on the move and hence searching for a restaurant nearby (which is why local is an important factor when performing mobile searches).
In general, Google is beginning to better understand these differences so that laptop and mobile results are starting to differ and this trend is going to continue.
With tablets, data tends to indicate that more people use them in the evening at home, perhaps watching TV on their tablet. So perhaps search results will start to reflect these characteristics.
2. More Knowledge Graph integrations
Those with an interest in search will already know about it, but for those who don’t, the Knowledge Graph is a system that Google introduced to enhance search results by providing popular facts about people, places and things alongside its traditional results.
It pulls data from a variety of trusted online sources including Freebase, Wikipedia and the CIA World Factbook.
The idea behind Knowledge Graph is that searchers are able to use the information displayed to resolve their queries without having to navigate to other sites and gather the material themselves.
So at the moment if you type in the search query 'what is the height of the Eiffel tower?' you get the answer via a Knowledge Graph integration on the search results page.
It's the same with 'what’s the population of London?' Historical figures or celebrities also throw up integrations including images and facts. Try Albert Einstein or Miley Cyrus.
Factual information and answers to straightforward questions will be answered more and more in this way.
So if your business model is based on gathering and providing simple information or facts online then you may find you are at risk.
3. The role and importance of structured data in the search results is increasing
We already know that one of Google’s aims is trying to answer search queries as quickly as possible, with richer, useful information, without requiring searchers to navigate off search results pages if possible. And structured data is one of the keys to doing that.
Structured data can be defined as information that is formatted in a way that search engines can easily understand, using specific language placed within the source code of web pages.
Search engines use structured data to identify and understand online content, so they can improve the results displayed for specific search queries. It can be used to display richer results including the additional text, images or links known as rich snippets.
The additional information can include, for example, the average review and pricing information for a shopping product or a restaurant. Search results for a recipe could be enhanced by a list of ingredients, nutrition facts and cooking time.
Or the snippet for a music album could list songs along with a link to play each song.
Google wants website owners to add as much structured data to their sites as they can. It is supporting and making tools available to do this, including the likes of Structured Data Markup Helper and Schema.org.
So if you want to be part of this richer search experience you need to embrace structured data now.
4. User signals are becoming even more important
In recent years, we’ve seen Google increasing the momentum in its fight against web spam. This has included targeting suspicious link-building schemes and other tricks that some shady SEOs have been using to game the system.
Hand in hand with this goes the idea that search engines will start to put even more value on positive user signals (such as click-through rates, bounce rates, time on site when a user visits a page etc ) in determining rankings.
These factors already play a role, but it’s likely their influence will become even greater. Issues such as bounce rate and time on site relate to how users feel about and engage with the content they find on a site and support Google’s goal of rewarding relevant and good quality content in its results.
Generally, user signals such as these are a little more difficult to manipulate than factors such as numbers of backlinks so you’d expect search engines to pay attention to them.
And of course, there is an ongoing debate about whether user signals from social networks such Google+, Facebook and Twitter etc might eventually become a valuable factor in determining search engine rankings.
5. Content is increasingly required more in-depth
In the past, SEO had been mostly concerned with specific content and the more specific, the better. Each piece of content eg page, blog, video etc was primarily focused on being highly optimized for one specific topic and its related keywords.
Today, semantic and contextual search are becoming the more prominent buzzwords in search. Search is moving from a strongly keyword-specific basis to an approach covering the wider 'topic' around a certain keyword.
This means, web content is increasingly supposed to provide more related information on a keyword (see Knowledge Graph) – so potentially more in depth and longer content is required as a result.
When search engines 'understand' the intention behind a keyword query, content is required to not only fit a specific keyword, but rather a whole cluster of related topics – including a bunch of terms / keywords around the main topic.
For example the keyword query ‘flu symptoms’, could include a wide number of related areas including ‘flu therapy’, ‘flu medicine’ or even those such as ‘fever’ and ‘nervous cough’ which don’t even contain the word ‘flu’ from the original keyword.
Search engines, especially Google, are already very good at grasping the semantic meaning behind a query (as well as the intention behind that query – informational, directional, transactional etc) and assessing how effectively and holistically a URL performs against this kind of query, in order to provide the user with the most relevant information.
So instead of focusing on a specific keyword or phrase, content in SEO terms will be increasingly required to cover broad theme or topic areas.