Search engines are like mothers: they are built to understand you. With the most basic cues, they know if you are happy or sad, coming or going, getting ready for bed or just waking up.
Search engines didn’t start out this way, but Google PageRank gave birth to the viability of getting what you needed just by asking for it. Clearly this process has been refined over the years and will continue to evolve.
Over the past decade we’ve been presented with every type of specialized search engine you can imagine: web search, vertical search, retail search, travel search, mobile search, social search, job search… the list goes on and on.
In the beginning, specialized search appeared to be the wave of the future for finding exactly what you wanted. If you only desire travel searches, you best go to an online travel agent because they are the only ones that really understand your travel needs and won’t inundate you with extraneous results. Same idea with shopping engines or job search sites – the results you get will be filtered to the right universe of results you’re seeking.
As a result of these specialized search needs, not only has the search engine market ballooned over the past decade, but so have the number of places where people conduct their searching. As people continued to move more of their lives and interests online, vertical search entities spread like wildfire because they were designed to deliver against very particular searcher needs.
This trend is illustrated by the tremendous growth of non-search engine search entities during that time. In August 2011, of the 27 billion searches conducted on desktops in the United States, more than one-third occurred on non-search engines.
Search on sites like Amazon, eBay, and Facebook has been growing faster than (and therefore gaining market share from) the core search engines for several years. But in the past year, this vertical search market actually contracted by 6 percent after several years of strong growth.
While these vertical search sites’ search volume has leveled, the core search engines have actually continued to grow at double-digit rates. Searchers are actually migrating back towards their origins, like transplant New Yorkers that have had their fun and are ready to move home and start families. So what might be driving this shift in trend?
I believe the answer lies in searcher intent, and people’s desire to be understood by their search engine.
Nothing is more maddening in a search context than having to continually refine your searches to find what you want. (I don’t even want to think about trying to find anything via search online in the 1990s – it just gives me heartburn). This problem was the driving force behind the initial emergence of vertical search, which enabled searchers to get a higher signal to noise ratio.
Vertical search inherently signified searcher intent, while search engine results were often too broad. Even if the top results were what you wanted, they became diluted pretty quickly and you suddenly had too many interpretations of your intended destination.
What’s happened is that the search engines have shown considerable improvement in their use of blended search results to better reflect possible searcher intent. The search experience and their algorithm refinements have gotten so good that it sometimes feels as if they are inside of your head reading your thoughts.
If we take a look at a Google SERP today, it looks quite different than what it used to look like just a few years ago. It includes filtering for topic, location, and date on the left, a map on the right, Google Places results for restaurant reviews, and any number of other refinement options that present themselves depending on a particular search. The search engine’s ability to both interpret searcher intent and offer a multitude of options to be answer your question at that moment is vastly superior to what was available a few years ago.
The below Bing SERP also demonstrates the expanded capabilities of the core search engine experience. Here, upon searching for “flights to Brazil,” we're presented with a variety of options for reviews, price comparison, flight finders with interactive calendars, related searches, and the like. Once again, this experience simply didn’t exist on the core engines a few years ago, and the vertical search sites flourished as a result.
As these user improvements manifest themselves in the search results and searchers have increasingly begun to rely on them for their more vertically-oriented search needs, we're finally beginning to see a significant shift in the market. Growth in vertical searches is now actually conceding ground to the core search engines in a reversal of the past few years.
Now, don’t go taking this as the beginning of the end of non-search entities. Their business is still alive and well and will continue to serve a critical function for specialized searching behavior.
But increasingly, search engines are improving the quality of their results in a way that is helping to fill the void once created by searches with vertical intent. With continued acquisitions of vertical search providers like Google’s acquisition of ITA for travel search or Zagat for restaurant reviews, the core search engines appear focused on this type of searcher intent and I would expect their results, and their share of the search market, to only get better with time.
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