The Death Of Search

My columns lately have focused on the fundamental shifts going on within the world of search.  It's hard to get the pulse of these changes and so I find myself focused on one major change: the death of search.  The dog days of summer may have brought this on, but the string of sentimental search columns as of late solidified my thinking.  These articles read like the lyrics to a Bryan Adams song and went something like this - - "I got my first real six string (sub first page placement or ticket to SES) ..." but then "Jimmy quit and Jody got married. Oh when I look back now..."

Why all this nostalgia?  For me it serves as a harbinger of doom for search as we know it.  To fully understand the challenges we face as an industry, all jokes aside, we need to step back and look at the various changes as a collective movement. 

First, the proliferation of widgets, gadgets, and apps (oh my) is increasingly killing the page view.  The page view is a fundamental cornerstone of our industry and if content is dynamically fed to users' apps and devices of choice, then the engines will have a tough time indexing the content.  Instead they would have to index the app or content provider, not necessarily the content.



This also goes hand in hand with the next hurdle: paid content.  As fellow Insider Steve Baldwin wrote recently, in "Universally Accessible Web Content Cannot Survive," this would pose another major challenge for the engines.  Again I think they would be left with indexing content providers and maybe a WSJ-style excerpt at best.

What about Wolfram and these types of efforts?  Google sees the power, that's why it's lab-testing Google Squared. It's very cool, but with limited information available, searches here often turn up with incomplete data sets.  So you have to question scalability here.

Social communities and sites are also changing search.  Whether it's Facebook and Twitter, or Yahoo Answers and SMS options like KGB, they are changing how we access information.  All of these reduce our reliance on engines because a variety of our search activity now occurs outside engines, with much of the content residing within walled gardens and not accessible to the engines.

Mobile search comes with its own set of challenges for tracking across device, engine, and carrier.  The fragmentation here makes scaling problematic, but once that's solved, it has a huge upside -- especially as the millions of Americans already with mobile devices start to get acquainted with mobile search options.  Apple helped RIM sell more BlackBerries and grow the overall smart phone market.  But you still have to question how users will use/access information.  How many of us actually search via the mobile web versus via an app?  I daresay we live in an app world.

There are not many large independent search agencies left anymore because many advertisers and agencies are now focused on having an integrated suite of digital services.  The core of sponsored search is commoditizing and quickly becoming just another media.  Even the few remaining SEM shops now add new buzz terms (demand platforms, exchange buyers, auction media manages, etc.) to define who they are.  But this isn't new, we went through this a decade ago with the "Interweb" where we saw boutiques rule the land but eventually the big agencies got into the game via development or acquisition.  What this causes though is negative pricing and drives down margins.  Ronald Coase wrote about the damages this can do to an industry back in the 1970s.

Google continues to be a one-trick pony that seemingly wants to focus on everything but its core.  You have to wonder how long it can effectively juggle that.  I can't just single Google out, though; everyone is doing the same thing. Diversification and innovation come at a price.  The risk is that the innovation is not being managed adequately, so resources and money are not being used efficiently, data sets are not being properly vetted, and systems are not talking to systems, creating inaccuracies. Plus we always have the looming potential of regulation, which could kill retargeting and other data-reliant options.

So in summary, what we have going on is a collective set of changes that could form the perfect storm.  SEO is getting harder to manage as the proliferation of apps continues to kill the page view and gets compounded by widespread adoption of paid content.  Sponsored search continues to commoditize itself with an increased demand for digital integration that risks driving down value and profits.  Engines and agencies alike are diversifying at a dizzying pace that risks destroying specialization.  Last, no one really knows the full impact that social-, mobile-, and data-based search will fully have on the broader industry.

I don't see any of this playing out over-night, but there is a sea of possibilities for better or for worse. Whether the recent string of nostalgic articles is just a result of the summer heat or an omen, we are all in for some exciting times moving forward, even if we thought "it would last forever.   Those were the best days of my life...." 

12 comments about "The Death Of Search".
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  1. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, August 31, 2009 at 1:44 p.m.

    Okay Rob..I get the Bryan Adams reference and I'm guilty as charged. After all, Bryan is practically my neighbor up here! But I think there's a distinction that has to be made: Search as an industry and Search as a consumer activity. In the first case, you bet we're going to see changes, but primarily because of what's happening in the second case. The act of searching for information is not going to stop but it will evolve dramatically, causing the first to evolve along with it in lock step. And by the way, that first activity is erasing the decades long stigma of asymmetric information, upon which most tradtional marketing and advertising theory is based, so don't expect search to be the only thing to change. Everything's going to be tossed on it's head in the process. Thanks for the column've jolted me out of my "hot summer" reverie and back in the world of Search, or whatever the hell we call it.

  2. Chris Nielsen from Domain Incubation, August 31, 2009 at 1:45 p.m.

    Search is Dead. Long Live Search...!!!

    "Google continues to be a one-trick pony that seemingly wants to focus on everything but its core." Huh? They can only do one thing, but they are focused on all the other things they can't do?

    Why do Search Insider articles seem more and more confused and more and more confusing...?

  3. Rob Griffin from Almighty, August 31, 2009 at 2:27 p.m.

    Agreed Gord. You have known me long enough to know that I like to polarize an opinion to try and stir up healthy conversion and debate.

    Thanks for your witty retorts Chris, but no matter what you feel about our columns, they got you to think and reply.

    In the end my goal with this column was to focus on the death of search in its current form that is reliant on a few key gate keepers and the coming upheaval which I think is utterly exciting and awesome.

    Chris in response to your comments I'd have to say that to discuss how search as we know may die (or evolve) you cant help but discuss the new opportunities that will be born out of this change. So you cant avoid the seeming contradiction or duality of the topic.

    Maybe we should start referring to search as the Phoenix of the digital age? Please hum Bon Jovi's Blaze of Glory as you read this last comment ;-)

  4. Rob Griffin from Almighty, August 31, 2009 at 3:30 p.m.

    This article produced the best feedback ever! I just got an email that said nothing more than "This is hogwash". Nice, very nice.

  5. Thomas Lynch from None, August 31, 2009 at 3:46 p.m.

    It's thought provoking at least Rob. Just goes to show what a big year it has been for search, an exciting year. Change is a good thing. :0)

  6. Sean Gharavi from Aidris, August 31, 2009 at 5:36 p.m.

    Search as an Internet specific technology has a limited life span, like all technologies. Even as TV use decreases, so might the Internet and Internet Search along with it.

    People have always needed to find and access information and tools. It used to be in cabinets and some of it still is.

    It's almost certain that interconnected/networked software will be the search and delivery vehicle for information going forward.

    I've spent 17 years working in the Internet world and we're just seeing another transformation.

    Sean Gharavi
    Developing Internet Websites, Applications and Internet Marketing since 1992.

  7. David Culbertson from LightBulb Interactive, August 31, 2009 at 8:38 p.m.

    Each month, I look at the analytics for more than a dozen websites. Additionally, I've see the data for another 30-40 websites this year. I'm not seeing the death of page views.

    From my perspective, the proliferation of Apps (99% of which are on and the iPhone) are largely being done _not_ as replacements for web-based content but as supplements or when the platform really requires an App.

    For example, a game is much more visually compelling on FB and the iPhone as an app instead of a web page but these were never "things" that really needed to be searchable anyway.

    As long as the consumer views Google as the starting point for finding information, Google will be the defacto dictator of the most common Internet interface - I.E. the web page.

    Google has basically killed the yellow pages. Will something kill Google after only 10 years? Doubtful.

  8. Allen Maccannell from SenderOK, September 1, 2009 at 2:56 a.m.

    Twitter only goes back 2 weeks in search doesn't it? What happens to the old content? Do they even store it? Do old tweets at least remain on Google? Google is being forced to hopefully ask searchers what time frame they want searched.

  9. Robert Boyle, September 1, 2009 at 2:37 p.m.

    The trend is towards privitization and profitization of information. While it is true that someone must pay the bills, the strength and a considerable portion of the value of the internet is its intrinsic freedom. Greed always kills the things it loves.

  10. Daniel Ruby from Localytics, September 2, 2009 at 4:19 p.m.

    We were bandying about this theory last week, about social media killing search. One theory went that, based on the under-18 demographic's propensity to live on social networks and avoid search, the future of "search" will be closer to an instant version of Yahoo! Answers rather than a search engine as we know it today. It's an interesting change... the Internet has always been viewed (by me at least) as a repository for all information, past and present. The social media aspect does its part to take away the past information, and filter your answers to ones that are truly in the moment.

  11. Britta Meyer from Loomia, September 2, 2009 at 8:33 p.m.

    Rob- Loved your article and the perspective. Completely agree that the trends you quote, widgets, paid content, social, mobile and such, will definitely change and shape the industry, and search as we know it will be gone.

    And I like it! Search has had a lot of shortcomings we have come to accept because we could never resolve them. Think of SEO which made us favor robots over our users. The obsession with the click that led to fraud and yet became the "golden metric" for advertisers, even for brand campaigns! The dominance in this marketplace by Google and its subsequent defeat of so many innovative attempts to change and improve.

    Fact is, people are changing how they are using the Internet. Will search remain a key user behavior? Likely. But more than anything, the social web has empowered users and revolutionized content production, distribution and consumption. From UGC and social recommendations to micro-blogging and commenting, good ol' search is not fitting in as it used to.

    As the masses of content published reach new highs, we will find what's relevant to us via smart, semantic, intent-driven engines that follow us online and mobile with the content choices we are looking for without even knowing it. Search? Hardly. Discovery? Absolutely.

    As so intriguingly stated in this video i found via inSocialMedia: "We no longer seek the news. The news finds us." You say: Search is dead? I say: Long live discovery!


  12. Vivek Bhargava from communicate2, October 14, 2009 at 12:24 p.m.

    Fantastic Post Rob, the post really makes one take a hard look at one's business model.

    Although I agree, the web is going to move from web of content to a web of applications. I think it is more of "search is dead - long live search" - instead of targeting ads based on intent, the targeting would move to "it being based on actions", (twitter) demographics, behavior etc.

    Search is moving from the query box to identifying context (finding) and serving ads based on the context. (context for me is much deeper than content).

    Search is based on three pillars, dynamic pricing, measurement and ads based on context. As long as any new of advertising meets these three requirements, I would categorize that medium as a new platform of search advertising. (we could actually name it as "Find Advertising" instead of search advertising *laugh*)

    A bird that quacks like a duck, walks like a duck and looks like a duck, i call that bird a duck *smile*

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