The world of search is about to be flipped completely on its head. As part of that sea change, today's reactive Web-based searches are about to give way to proactive, geo-fenced answers that will pop up before you even frame the question.
In many cases, you won't be searching for content - content will be searching for you.
Putting The New Search In Context
Search, to date, has mostly worked something like this: You type a word or phrase into a search bar in a browser or mobile app and a search engine with a funny name returns a list of Web pages it deems related to your query.
In recent years, search has gotten a lot better in a number of ways. One key improvement takes location into account. If I type "Notre Dame" while I'm in my hometown, then it's very likely I will get results about the University. If I were located near Cleveland, though, I might get results about Notre Dame College. And if I were in France, surely my results would focus on this beautiful edifice.
Location is part of what experts call "contextual search," which becomes even more important with the rise of mobile computing. Where we are and who we are makes a big difference in the search results we want, and contextually aware search engines are working to use that information to decide what results to return to us.
According to J Schwan, CEO of Solstice Mobile, there are four aspects of contextual searching that all have to work together:
- Security and privacy
First, there's the where - what Schwan refers to as geo-fencing. Where you are, as noted above, makes a difference in what search results are most appropriate.
Then there's relevance, which dictates results through explicit preferences that you have set, the results delivered to other users in a similar context and what is going on around you at that particular time (traffic, weather, business hours, etc.).
The third aspect Schwan highlighted is relatively new, but fast-becoming more important to contextual search: push. Rather than waiting for users to search and then reacting to that query, data providers and search engines are working on how to push data to users based on their context. Google Now does this now on Android and its Chrome browser extension: cards based on your search results, location and even email messages will appear that give you the traffic report to get home or inform you of the latest sports score.
The final aspect is the wrapper of security and privacy that has to work with all of this to ensure a user's data doesn't go where it's not supposed to.
Squinting For SEO
Contextual searching is perfect for mobile, because, well, mobile users are by definition moving around. But the mobile form factor also makes contextual search more important.
Many people may have honking big 27-inch monitors on their home PCs, but relatively tiny smartphone screens inherently limit the amount of information we can access. In that context, it's even more important for mobile users to get the right results near the top of the results screen.
This is even more true when adding natural interfaces to search, such as voice-activated searching using systems like Apple's Siri. Forget search strings, Siri has to process natural-language queries and either speak or display usable results on a small screen.
For search-engine optimization (SEO), this is a huge challenge: With contextual search, it's no longer enough to get your business or product listed on the first Web page of results. On a mobile device, as well as in push situations, SEO is really effective only if you can push your results into the top position, or at least into the first few lines.
Wearable devices like Google Glass and the rumored iWatch could put even more pressure on search results. We don't yet know what their interfaces will look like, but it seems safe to assume that there may be even less real estate available to display search results.
This is one reason why the search engines are working so hard to deliver knowledge rather than just Web page links in their results. Google and Bing both now feature "knowledge boxes" that try to encapsulate the pertinent information about a topic in one glance. This "knowledgization" of search results is conducive to mobile search because it parses data into easily displayed and digestible chunks - essential for the smaller screen.
We may already be seeing the early effects of this trend. Last Fall, Google reported its first-ever drop in search volume. Some of this decline is no doubt attributable to competition - such as Bing, Yahoo or even local searches through services like Yelp. But how much of it is due to pushed content and knowledge replacing what might have otherwise been searched for? If the information being received is of better quality, then perhaps we won't have to search as much in the future.
By incorporating context and working towards knowledge - useful information instead of just plain data - the next evolution of search will take advantage of new opportunities and cope with new demands and challenges.
Will that help us make better decisions? We can hope.
Lead image and Notre Dame images courtesy of Shutterstock.