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The recent preview of OS X Yosemite from Apple caused predictable amounts of chatter online (including this article) and rightly so.
Sales of Macs hit 4.8m in Q1 2014, up from 4.1m for the same holiday period in 2013. OS X has a big impact on the conventions of UI and UX.
The feature I saw the most buzz about on social is the improved Spotlight. The feature has a new search window and a rich, scrollable preview of results that finds stuff on your Mac but now also Wikipedia, Bing, Maps, and other sources.
This is the latest reminder of how powerful search is and how consumers increasingly rely on it across technology and the web.
It’s not really a surprise either. Mac users have been using apps such as Alfred to increase their productivity, before Apple announced it would meet this need within the OS.
There are other areas of Apple’s operating systems that will soon use search. In this update, due in Autumn, iPhoto will be searchable, too, by date and location of photograph.
Safari will have a streamlined toolbar with search that, although defaulting to Google, includes the Spotlight style search, showing Wikipedia results and more.
Elsewhere, in iOS 7, search (with a down swipe) across apps was added to the iPhone and iPad last year. In iOS 8, Apple is adding DuckDuckGo as a search option in Safari. And in the App Store ‘related search’ suggestions were added this Spring, with ‘trending searches’ set to come.
Where else does search preside?
Leaving Google (and Bing, Yahoo etc) aside, search is widespread.
Some studies have conversion rates for site searchers up to 50% higher than non-searchers. It’s obviously a valued tool at a site level, and is used by up to 50% of site visitors.
Long before Gmail was released to the public, it was used in an early form internally at Google as the large amounts of email called for good search functionality. This search functionality wasn’t perfected in competing email providers until later.
Twitter’s success can be partly attributed to hashtags, a form of social search it invented. Facebook followed suit, but as we’ve discussed on this blog before, the search on Facebook isn’t as elegant or efficient as Twitter’s.
This hashtag and search functionality has been key to Twitter’s pre-eminence as a second screening app, alongside the TV.
Comparison engines and marketplaces
Although not every query uses string search, these big websites have been almost as influential as Google in acquainting the user with choice and a degree of transparency.
The way smartphone users use map apps sums up how search has changed consumer behaviour. Part of the power of the smartphone is its use of search engines and maps to enable people to plan on the move. We can leave the house on a whim, knowing we have searchable email, searchable web and searchable maps in our pockets.
The storing of the world’s knowledge online, from museums to libraries, has changed the way research and knowledge sharing is undertaken as it is increasingly searchable from anywhere.
Why is search so valued?
Even today, consumers see search as an even-handed democratic force on the web. Search allows for a lot of what consumers value on the web - effective price and service comparison and information retrieval.
Companies use search to help consumers with a specific goal. Without it, websites have to rely on slick site structure to allow users to find information in as few clicks as possible.
As mentioned previously, searching customers tend to convert at a higher rate. The intent inherent in search has, of course, proved to be very lucrative for search engines, which sell advertising based on this likelihood of conversion.
As search has matured and it has led to a surfeit of content in every industry, one of the advantages we may be starting to see is an increasing focus on quality.
As algorithms become sophisticated enough to tell the difference between truly valued content and that which has been created quickly in an attempt to rank, companies will have to once again create the best content possible.
It could be that this dynamic helps to turn the tide of poor quality that accompanied the inception of content marketing.
What are the downsides of search?
As search evolves, suggestions will continue to take the form of the most popular queries and results. There’s a danger that this will lead to a filter bubble effect, as search is recommending more and more content rather than allowing people to find it.
This is partly an appeal of social media – the feeling that the information found in a Twitter or Facebook feed owes more to serendipity than does the Google results page.
Additionally, companies do feel that Google’s search is so important they are beholden to complying with every update Google implements. No matter that Google claims all changes are for the benefit of its users, some companies have felt unfairly punished in the past, with penalties incurred for a variety of factors.
One downside to search that Google is tackling is the longevity of indexed pages. Once there has been something posted about you or by you on the internet, it tends to stick around.
This is mostly due to Google’s continuing surfacing of certain pages during a Google search. However Google now has a ‘forget me’ form that allows people to request the de-indexing of content they feel has no further relevance.
How is search changing?
Well, despite the headline (and search surely is becoming more of a user expectation) users are tending to find content more and more from social media. If anything, search, previously the domain solely of Google, is opening up and becoming fragmented. Consumers are searching on many different platforms.
Google itself is increasingly expanding its knowledge graph, the so-called semantic web. Linked data and structured mark-up is allowing the serving of much more relevant results. It is this semantic web which has laid the groundwork for voice control, something we may see more of if Google Glass and other voice activated wearables take off.
Contextual results, interactive elements in Google, authority attached to not just websites but content authors, these are all a big part of Google as we know it today.
If anything, the next stage of search, services such as Google Now, take us away from what we would term search, and more into predictive software. Perhaps the future of search as we know it now is not ‘a little and often’ but ‘the occasional feast’.
For more information on search engine marketing, see the Econsultancy SEO Best Practice Guide.