Is The Future Of Search A Dead End?

When do you use a search engine? How do you use a search engine? How do you decide if you need to use a search engine in the first place? Are there alternatives that provide “better” answers faster?

These are some of the questions we were discussing at a recent Ruby on Rails meetup. Let no one say we geeks don't ask the hard questions!

As the builder of a business that helps entrepreneurs attract and convert their customers online it's my job to consider the future and how best to postion them for it.

In November 2010 online marketing was pretty straight forward. With ideal customer profile in hand it was a matter of:

  1. Creating content that attracts your ideal customers
  2. Optimize the content for both search (being found) and social (being shared)
  3. Convert visitors to leads using a variety of methods
  4. Stay in touch with those leads until they become customers

And while the devil is in the details that was pretty much it.

Time have changed, and they are changing faster than every before.

In response to a recent post – Google’s 3-Prong Strategy That Has Changed SEO Forever – Keith Bloemendaal asked:

What to do about the keywords (now you see them, now you don’t)?

Keith was referencing that fact that Google no longer tells you the keywords a visitor uses to get to your site if they are logged into any Google product. And this brings me to the idea behind this post – the future of search and how to respond to it.

I'm in the process of forming a complete idea on this topic however let me toss out my initial thoughts.

Note: In this post I'll answer these questions myself. My hope is that you'll share your answers with us below in the comments.

When Do You Use A Search Engine?

There are only two instances when I use a search engine:

  1. I'm doing customer research for a client
  2. I'm beginning research on a new topic

That's it. Otherwise I use one of my trusted sources. For instance:

  1. If I want to find a book I go to Amazon first or, if it's technical, O'Reilly and Apress. If there are many options I'll read reviews and make a decision or go to my personal network.
  2. I don't actively seek out new music, but when I do I use iTunes. BTW, they need to license the Amazon recommendation engine.
  3. For any given topic I have blogs and magazines I subscribe to. If a topic isn't covered by one of my current sources I ask a friend for a source.
  4. If I want a new game I go directly to the sites of the game publishers I like.

So whereas even a few years ago I used to go to Google many many times a day on average, unless I'm doing market research for a client, I visit Google 2-3 times, if that.

How Do You Use A Search Engine?

When was the last time you went past the first or second page of search results? Generally speaking, people using a search engine don't go past the first page of results. And while Google has many advanced ways to do search, most people simply type whatever they're thinking into the search box.

Google Advanced Search

Oooh I'll have some of that really advanced search please!

I'm in that latter group. I'll first try to determine the most specific thing I can think of about my search topic, type it in, and view a few of the initial top results. If I don't get what I want I'll try to refine my search.

Over the years though Google has gotten a lot better at figuring out what I'm trying to find and getting me there. Sometimes though it's not at all helpful and I need to go to people that know about the topic. And for that I go to Twitter.

Alternatives That Provide “Better” Results Than Search Engines

One huge advantage we humans have over computers is we understand context. And if context isn't readily apparent we can derive it from what someone is saying. This becomes important when researching a topic where the context is not obvious, or we aren't sure where to begin. In this instance humans are a much better source than a search engine.

So it's no wonder that at the bottom of Google's search results is a little button…

Ask on Google Plus

Google's "Phone A Friend" feature

Too bad I'm not a heavier user of Google+. I prefer Twitter myself. Regardless, 9 times out of 10, when I'm looking for an answer and I don't already have a source, I go to my social circles and ask away. And if I don't get a direct answer, I'm usually sent to someone who does.

Could Social Media Kill Search?

Frankly I don't think this is going to happen any time soon. It's going to take 10-15 years for more and more people to use search less and less, but it is happening.

Consider how you discover new information today. Are your favorite blogs talking about the new gadget or startup? Is that magazine you subscribe to pointing you to new books? Has your friend's iPod or iPhone (or Pandora stream) turned you on to a new artist?

So the question isn't so much “could social media kill search” but rather, in the face of consumer connectedness does search become less necessary?

I'm thinking yes, and more so over time. And this begs the question…

How Do Businesses Connect With Their Ideal Customers?

That's the million dollar question my friend. The answer I am coming to is a combination of:

  1. Creating valuable content that attracts and serves
  2. Socially networking – using social media platforms as well as in real life (IRL)
  3. Designing unique customer experiences
  4. Forming strong and lasting bonds with your customers
  5. Creating an entire ecosystem for your clients
  6. Strategic partnerships

That's a lot of parts. But hey, we're here to gain customers for life and build companies that last for decades to come. To do that, we need to learn the lessons of those that have already done so, companies like Apple, Amazon, and Virgin to name a few.

Make The Future

Where is all this going? Who knows! The exciting thing here is that right now we get to help shape the future of our businesses. To do that we need to understand that things are changing rapidly and we need to keep ahead of it.

Mobile is on an upward trajectory. That means using responsive design in everything you do.

People's attention is being pulled a million different ways at once. That means you need to keep as much of it your business as possible. That requires creating unique experiences that captivate and hold their attention. Those experiences are how you deliver your products and services, which must provide value.

Those are two examples of many.

It's exciting times. And it's in times like these when we can create our own future.


  1. definitely search engine will change their search style, interface and results. One thing we need to know how far it will be helpful for us?

  2. It’s an interesting point you bring up about Apple needing to ask to license Amazon’s recommendation script.

    I think it’d be a good idea for Amazon to license it to anyone who has an online store. Hell, I’d be right there with money in hand if they ever did.

    That little engine would help make my buyers get more of what they wanted and save me some time in the segmenting of my list of customers and the offers to put in front of them because it’s doing it on the fly for me when they buy.

    I’d still have to do it for future offers (or if they didn’t buy when they saw the “Other people also bought this to . . .” but at least it’d make it easy for people to buy while they’re in heat with their card in hand.

    I can’t imagine how much additional revenue this would pour into the river that’s already pouring into Amazon’s bank accounts. I’ll be wishing on a star that they let me help flood their bank account. 🙂

    • Are you using a WordPress-based site or do you have an e-com site that is custom built?

      • Our blog is on WordPress and it’s self hosted. And this is what we’re working with now in reference to a store we built ourselves . . .

        Seems like it’d be cool to have the Amazon recommendation thingie show up in the shopping cart after they’ve hit “Add To Cart”. 🙂

        And another concept to test is to make this store look and act like the books section of Amazon once you click on the report you want – reviews, excerpts, people who bought this also bought these . . . etc.

  3. Yeah Robert! I agree with Camille! This was a relevant and interesting post to read.

    The Highlighting feature didn’t really work out for me. Nice touch though!

    I do agree about the Responsive Design part, in regards doing anything that is being published in public on the web. I’ve seen some Single Page Design with HTML5/CSS3 animations which is really neat and works great if you are on your Stationary Computer, a Laptop or even an iPad/Tablet, but it doesn’t work on any type of mobile phone.
    – Have you seen anywhere any type of design that combine HTML5/CSS3 and Responsive design in a meaningful, beautiful and useful way?

    And btw; Creating our own future, isn’t that something we are working our buts of to do everyday, for a long as i can remember anyway 😉

    • I’ll respond to your comment in reverse 🙂

      Creating the future is what we do my friend! And yes it does seem to take quite a bit of work.

      As for HTML5 + CSS3 examples, I haven’t seen one yet that really stood out to me. I’ll keep looking though and if I see one you’ll be the first to know.

      Keep up the awesome Jan!

  4. Hi R~ Best post you’ve done in awhile. Thank you! You are at your strongest when you speak insightfully on what’s new and changing in the web world. Perhaps it’s just my particular needs – but the basics can be found anywhere and everywhere. Your distinction is understanding it deeper and further, and the straight way you say it is easy to digest. And fun. Keep up the good work –

    • Hi Camille – thank you very much for your feedback. If my writing does fail to meet your expectations please do let me know. While a public flogging is never fun I am a big boy and am happy to take any negative criticism via the contact form.

      Thanks again!

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