Online search has evolved so gradually that many people find it hard to track its growth. One day, voice-based search seemed like a dumb gimmick that only heard what you said half the time. The next day, it felt like voice search had been working well for years.
But the fact is, over the 20ish years it’s been around, online search has changed dramatically. It has evolved from a clunky, barely-functional tool for finding specific webpages to being the ultimate channel for knowledge and discovery. With just a phrase, you can summon accurate information on any topic, get answers to any common question, find the exact product you’re looking for, or simply discover more about a subject.
So where do we go from here? How does search get better? And how could it change our interactions with technology overall?
How Search Has Evolved
Before we can look into the future, we have to look at the past. How has search evolved to date?
The frontrunner in the search engine world is Google. It became the dominant online search competitor from the moment it entered the scene, and today, it retains share of nearly two-thirds of all online searches. Its brand is synonymous with online search, and it continues to set standards for how other search engines operate.
It’s important to remember that Google, now owned by Alphabet, is a for-profit company. The service is free and accessible to anyone with an internet connection, but ultimately, Google is interested in making money. Its main source of revenue is advertising; when people click ads, the businesses who placed those ads pay a small sum of money to Google.
Accordingly, to serve the best ads and attract as many money-generating users as possible, Google is incentivized to give users the best possible experience.
This amounts to achieving several sub-goals, including:
- Providing more relevant results. Google has long been the primary search engine choice because of its ability to conjure up relevant results—in other words, to provide users with content that matches their queries. In the old days, this amounted to finding content that contained keywords and phrases similar to what was included in the user’s query. But over time, this evolved to Google systematically understanding the intent behind user queries as well as the purpose of content throughout the web. Today, it can find much more intelligent, qualitative matches.
- Providing more authoritative results. Additionally, Google has evolved to provide more authoritative results. Just because something is a topical match doesn’t mean it’s trustworthy—or that it’s going to be satisfying to an end user. The web is filled with spam and low-quality content, and part of Google’s job is to filter that content out. Over the years, it has developed much higher quality standards, capable of detecting spammy links, bad writing, and other signs that a website shouldn’t be trusted.
- Providing a quicker, more intuitive interface. Google has also developed its search engine to provide users with a faster, more intuitive interface. You can get results almost instantaneously, even if you search a convoluted phrase—and you can search using any number of different methods, such as voice-based search.
- Providing direct information and answers. Google has also attempted to simplify and hasten the search process by giving users direct information—rather than merely directing them to a website that might have the answer. If you search for a relatively simple, answerable question (like “who was the first President of the United States?”), you’ll get an immediate answer—no clicking required. This not only makes the user experience simpler and more enjoyable, it also keeps the user on Google for a longer period of time, increasing the likelihood that they’ll click an ad.
We can expect Google to continue evolving along these pathways. But what could further evolution along these lines look like?
New Ways to Interact With Search Engines
First, we’ll likely see the emergence of new ways to interact with search engines. Rather than simply typing in a query or using our voices, we’ll have a variety of new modes of engagement.
- New devices. For starters, we’ll see search become more integrated with a wider range of devices. Already, we’re conducting searches with our laptops, smartphones, tablets, and speakers throughout the house. In the future, the internet of things may introduce us to even newer, more innovative modes of engagements. Search-capable devices may be practically everywhere.
- Conversations. Voice search has already represented a massive breakthrough, so what if we could search in a more interactive way—like through conversation? Having a search “agent” guide us through our search could give us even more customization options—and give us more relevant results than ever.
- Gestures. What’s even faster and easier than searching with your voice? In the future, you may be able to search using simple gestures. With the right device and ample user prep, it could be possible to use gestures like pointing, nodding, or even blinking to search and browse results.
- Thoughts. Though likely reserved for the distant future, a brain-AI interface (like Neuralink) could even make it possible to search using only your thoughts.
Personalization and Prediction
In some ways, Google can be considered a data company. Its advertising network relies heavily on its ability to give advertisers meaningful data about their advertising targets. Additionally, search results already rely heavily on user data; your demographic group, your previous search history, and even the way you interact online can all shape your search results.
In the future, this data-centric search model will grow to become even more powerful. Driven by big data and artificial intelligence (AI), Google and other search engines may be capable of actively predicting your searches before you execute them, providing you with results they think you need before you truly need them. At the very least, we’ll see even more personalized experiences, with search results tailored specifically for individuals based on a litany of data points.
Alternatives to Google
While Google continues to retain ownership of the largest share of online search, there are other search competitors that are slowly rising. For example, Bing is every bit as functional as Google, with some distinct advantages, and DuckDuckGo is becoming an increasingly popular choice for users concerned about privacy. Additionally, there’s plenty of room for a new, agile, innovative startup to disrupt the industry—potentially rethinking search from the ground up.
In the coming years, we could see a paradigm shift here. It all depends on the entrepreneurs and programmers at competing tech companies and startups. If a new player or an existing competitor finds a way to unseat Google, it would probably be because they offer a fundamentally different experience—one that’s difficult to imagine, given our immense familiarity with the current scope of online search.
Higher Quality Standards
Though difficult to execute from a programming perspective, Google and its rival search engines could make a push to introduce even higher quality standards than before. Despite their best efforts, there’s still an abundance of badly written content and irrelevant links on the internet. Additionally, search engine optimization (SEO) makes it almost trivially easy for skilled content creators to manipulate search rankings in their favor. More advanced techniques could potentially filter content based on depth, accuracy, and possibly even intention—clearing up search results with better content than ever.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see a major transformation of search in the next few years. For the foreseeable future, we’ll likely witness a gradual unfolding of new features and small updates to the search engines we’ve come to know and love. But beyond that, as new innovators attempt to disrupt the industry and older players strive to remain dominant, we could see a fundamental rethinking of the average search experience. By the end of the decade, online search could be practically unrecognizable.