Although it evolved in countless small ways, the core search engine experience stayed the same for many years: A user typed in a set of keywords, clicked enter, and saw a list of results.
While that’s still common, it is increasingly being supplemented by—and even surpassed by—other behaviors. How people engage with search engines, and the language they use when doing so, is quickly changing.
Why is this happening? How exactly is search query language evolving? What does it mean for marketers?
To understand the root cause, you simply need to look at how device preferences shifted in recent years. In the fourth quarter of 2013, some 66% of Google searches were conducted on desktop or laptop computers and 34% of searches were conducted on mobile devices. By the end of 2019, the shares essentially flipped, with 61% of searches conducted on mobile devices and 39% conducted on desktop or laptop computers.
That matters because mobile devices, and smartphones in particular, are fundamentally different from computers. For example, smartphones are very portable, have always-on internet access and built-in GPS, and are equipped with good microphones and speakers.
These qualities and capabilities have changed when and how people search. In particular, they’ve driven on-the-go and location-based queries, and also powered the rise of voice-enabled smart devices like Siri and Google Assistant.
And it hasn’t just been smartphones and tablets that consumers have been embracing. Voice assistants have been integrated into millions of wearable/IoT devices, like Amazon’s Echo and the Apple Watch, and people now often turn to these to search. (In fact, asking questions is the second most popular use of smart speakers after playing music.)
Basically, searching has shifted from always being conducted in a fixed place via a keyboard on a computer to being done nearly anywhere via a range of devices, and often spoken rather than typed.
This has resulted in very different types of searches. Specifically, people have moved away from using stilted, keyword-centric queries to asking a series of questions with more natural phrasing. As Google puts it: “We [search users] have transitioned from using keywords to get answers to having longer conversational journeys. In the past, we might have typed ‘travel destinations,’ but today we are more likely to ask, ‘where should I go on holiday?’ followed by questions like ‘when is the best time to go?’ or ‘where should I stay?'”
What’s important to note is that this shift has been accompanied by huge improvements on the backend: Thanks to machine learning and AI capabilities, specifically Natural Language Processing, search engines are able to understand conversational queries much better than in the past and deliver valuable results.
The combination of innovative consumer-facing technologies and smarter backend systems has created a virtuous cycle: Consumers are searching in new ways and as they have positive experiences, they alter their behaviors even more.
For example, between 2015 and 2017, the number of searches containing “open” and “now” and “near me” grew by 200% as people realized that search engines could answer on-the-go questions about the hours of local businesses. This helped to drive the rapid growth of new variations of “near me” searches, such as “car dealerships near me” and “wedding gowns near me.”
On a deeper level, the new devices and capabilities are changing what people use search for. As consumers move away from thinking of the platforms as simply databases, they’re asking more judgement-based and qualitative questions, such as those including terms like “should I” (up 65% between 2016 and 2018).
Because all of this is pretty new, the exact words and phrases that consumers use to search are still very much in flux. However, the overall trend is that people are moving away from “search engine language” and towards using the same phrasing that they would with a friend.
So, what does that mean for marketers?
One area to watch is search engine optimization. As search language continues to become more natural and as engines continue to become more sophisticated in matching content to queries, old-school approaches like keyword stuffing pages are likely to become increasingly less effective. That doesn’t mean SEO will disappear, but rather that it will need to evolve.
Another thing to keep in mind is that search engines like Google can only answer complex, naturally-phrased questions if they can find the information. Given that, it’ll be even more important to have well-structured sites and pages so that the crawlers can suss out details like hours and pricing easily. It’s also why it’ll be essential to continually update your presence on platforms like Google My Business and Yelp that feed search engine results.
And keep in mind that these shifts in the language of search are just the beginning. IoT devices are still in their infancy and search engines are still adding new features that make use of smartphones’ capabilities. For example, visual search, where the user shares an image with the search platform rather than using a language-based query, may be on the cusp of mainstream adoption.
Ultimately, this means that search engine language will not only continue to rapidly change, but that it may even evolve to the point where many searches are conducted without using any words at all.