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. And 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 relevancy 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 worlds 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. Google had to introduce these back-end changes. To not do so would be to guarantee that they would 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 that’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 3 years ago.

As search changes, so do the expectations of users. And that impacts the “use case” of search. In it’s 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 that destination and us. 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 now with functionality and answers to common information requests being 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, decided 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 the SEO specialist is to suddenly push them towards 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 of 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, there will always be 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 in terms of true connections with prospects.

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

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider April 19, 2012