Search is for old people

Chart showing search dataSearch engines are dying. Get used to it – in a few years time search will be an “also ran” on the Internet.

When you think about it, search engines are rather cumbersome and time-wasting. Their accuracy is not that great either. Your daily web activity – if it is typical – includes one hour each day which is completely non-productive. That’s because you go to Google, search for something, go through the results, choose a page and then click on it only to find it wasn’t quite what you wanted. So you go back to the search results, choose an alternative and try again. If that isn’t quite what you wanted, you try another search phrase and start the process again. Every day, this to-ing and fro-ing between search engines and possible results takes up 60 minutes. You would be more productive WITHOUT search engines.

Well, you would be more productive without search engines if you could find what you were looking for…! In spite of their failings, the educated guesswork that the likes of Google provides is the best we have got. Or is it?

Think back to before the Internet; how did you find things then? The most frequent ways of finding things were either to look in a directory, such as Yellow Pages, or to ask someone who would “know” what you wanted. Indeed, this was our preferred method of “search” for aeons before the web.

Since the arrival of online social networks, people have increasingly realised they can ask questions on those services to find things. If you want to know the best restaurant for a romantic meal for two in a town you have never visited, just ask on Facebook or Twitter and you’ll get several answers together with links. You’ll soon see the most popular restaurant, saving you what could be many minutes of searching on Google. A few years ago I needed a meeting room in Guildford and had spent 30 minutes searching on Google without finding what I needed. So I asked one question on Twitter and within three minutes I had replies and had made a booking. If I had done that in the first place, I’d have saved half an hour of my time.

More and more people are realising that “social search” is faster AND more accurate. That’s because human beings know what you mean by your questions, whereas search engines can only make a connection between what you type and what appears on a web page. For instance, ask Google for “what is the best restaurant for a romantic meal for two in Newbury” and your top result is TripAdvisor where you then have to trawl through the listings. After that, you get a listing for “Thousand Oaks, California” which is nowhere near the location and the third result is the Newbury Manor Hotel wedding service. The fourth entry is about Boston and the fifth one is about lighthouses. Clearly, searching on Google for something like this is between useless and time-wasting. But by asking the question on Twitter I got a message back ten minutes later with the precise location I needed.

Human beings are better at interpreting search questions than mathematical algorithms.

As social networks become more popular, more and more people are realising this and new research shows that the younger you are, the more likely it is that you will turn to social FIRST to find things online. Indeed, in the under-24 age group 43% of individuals go  to a social network FIRST to find things online. As this demographic groups gets older, they are going to help push search engine popularity lower.

The study found that the older you are, the more likely it is that you will choose search engines before social networks to find information. That suggests this is a “habit” formed out of almost 20 years of Internet search engine usage. And remember, not all habits are good.

If you run a business, let this study be a warning – putting all your eggs in the search marketing basket could prove a problem for your future business. Search engines will not disappear – but their importance will gradually diminish over the coming years. Search marketing will need to be part of a mix of online activity and not the sole focus – as it appears to be for many businesses these days.

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