Commentary

Search And The Age Of 'Usefulness'

There has been a lot of digital ink spilled over the recent changes to Google’s algorithm and what it means for the SEO industry. This is not the first time the death knell has been rung for SEO. It seems to have more lives than your average barnyard cat. But there’s no doubt that Google’s recent changes throws a rather large wrench in the industry as a whole. In my view, that’s a good thing.

First of all, from the perspective of the user, Google’s changes mark an evolution of search beyond a tool used to search for information to one used by us to do the things we want to do. It’s moving from using relevance as the sole measure of success to incorporating usefulness.

The algorithm is changing to keep pace with the changes in the Web as a whole. No longer is it just the world’s biggest repository of text-based information; it’s now a living, interactive, functional network of apps, data and information, extending our capabilities through a variety of connected devices.

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Google had to introduce these back-end changes. Not to do so would have guaranteed the company would have soon become irrelevant in the online world.

As Google succeeds in consistently interpreting more and more signals of user intent, it can become more confident in presenting a differentiated user experience. It can serve a different type of results set to a query that’s obviously initiated by someone looking for information than it does to the user who’s looking to do something online.

We’ve been talking about the death of the monolithic set of search results for years now. In truth, it never died; it just faded away, pixel by pixel. The change has been gradual, but for the first time in several years of observing search, I can truthfully say that my search experience (whether on Google, Bing or the other competitors) looks significantly different today than it did three years ago.

As search changes, so do the expectations of users. And that affects the “use case” of search. In its previous incarnation, we accepted that search was one of a number of necessary intermediate steps between our intent and our ultimate action. If we wanted to do something, we accepted the fact that we would search for information, find the information, evaluate the information and then, eventually, take the information and do something with it. The limitations of the Web forced us to take several steps to get us where we wanted to go.

But now, as we can do more of what we want to online, the steps are being eliminated. Information and functionality are often seamlessly integrated in a single destination. So we have less patience with seemingly superfluous steps between us and our destination. That includes search.

Soon, we will no longer be content with considering the search results page as a sort of index to online content. We will want the functionality we know exists served to us via the shortest possible path. We see this beginning as answers to common information requests are pushed to the top of the search results page.

 What this does, in terms of user experience, is make the transition from search page to destination more critical than ever. As long as search was a reference index, the user expected to bounce back and forth between potential destinations, deciding which was the best match. But as search gets better at unearthing useful destinations, our “post-click” expectations will rise accordingly.  Whatever lies on the other side of that search click better be good. The changes in Google’s algorithm are the first step (of several yet to come) to ensure that it is.

What this does for SEO specialists is to suddenly push them toward considering a much bigger picture than they previously had to worry about. They have to think in terms of a search user’s unique intent and expectations. They have to understand the importance of the transition from a search page to a landing page and the functionality that has to offer. And, most of all, they have to counsel their clients on the increasing importance of “usefulness” -- and how potential customers will use online to seek and connect to that usefulness.  If the SEO community can transition to that role, there will always be a need for them.

The SEO industry and the Google search quality team have been playing a game of cat and mouse for several years now. It’s been more “hacking” than “marketing” as SEO practitioners prod for loopholes in the Google algorithm. All too often, a top ranking was the end goal, with no thought to what that actually meant for true connections with prospects.

In my mind, if that changes, it’s perhaps the best thing to ever happen in the SEO business.

2 comments about "Search And The Age Of 'Usefulness'".
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  1. Thomas Pick from Webbiquity, April 19, 2012 at 2:39 p.m.

    If Google's changes end up sending less traffic, but more relevant visitors, to any given site then it's all good.

    The concern of SEOs is that they are now going to be penalized for using tactics that were viewed as perfectly acceptable when used. The legal doctrine of ex post facto dictates that the government can't charge you with a crime if your act wasn't statutorily defined as such when you committed it. But Google isn't the government and has no obligation to abide by this principle.

  2. Alex Porter from Location3 Media, May 9, 2012 at 1:43 p.m.

    “First of all, from the perspective of the user, Google’s changes mark an evolution of search beyond a tool used to search for information to one used by us to do the things we want to do. It’s moving from using relevance as the sole measure of success to incorporating usefulness.” - On point with showing how relevant and useful, often used interchangeably in search marketing, are very different. Useful is a step beyond relevant. After reading this post, I began thinking about this concept and decided to discuss the question of what the shift towards usefulness means for digital marketers in my blog post for Location3: http://l3m.me/J8zMmP . Thanks for the inspiration Gord!

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