Thirty years ago three little old ladies asked an exceedingly simply question about a hamburger. The premise of their collective query quickly permeated pop culture when the catchphrase made its way onto T-shirts, pithy comic routines, and eventually into the 1984 Mondale vs. Hart presidential debate.
The iconic slogan “Where’s the Beef?” no longer resonates with the third-pound-bacon-stuffed-cheese-laden-mega-burgers served up from today’s fast food obesity express lanes. However, several sardonic correlations can be made with today’s digital environment, especially when it comes to search.
Before we ask “where’s the search?” we need to understand how and why searching has been supplanted by finding and answering.
Let’s take a brief walk through an abridged history of search in order to better understand how the engines have whetted digital marketers’ appetites for organic search results.
Search B.G. (Before Google)
Originally, the Internet was nothing but a compendium of File Transfer Protocol (FTP) sites that users could peruse in an attempt to find specific communal files. As the list of web servers joining the Internet grew, the World Wide Web became the interface of choice for accessing information on the Internet. Naturally, the need for finding and organizing the geographically dispersed data files developed.
In the early 1990s, search engines spawned from users’ needs to readily navigate the files on the web servers that made up the Internet.
Archie became the first index that attempted to organize this content. Gopher made the database searchable.
In 1993, Mosaic provided the graphical interface that greatly improved web browsing. All we needed was a way to find all the content that was out there.
Enter Wandex – the first title tag web crawler, which was quickly followed by its full-text indexing cousin, WebCrawler in 1994.
Silicon Valley was becoming the epicenter of search engine innovation in 1993.
Excite was launched, and then the Yahoo directory. WebCrawler, Lycos, Infoseek and AltaVista crawlers quickly followed. Inktomi and HotBot joined the search engine club in 1996.
This was an exhilarating time filled with revolutionary digital discoveries.
Then an interesting thing happened. Ask Jeeves joined the crowded marketplace and forced us all to consider what natural language search queries would dig up in its expansive treasure trove of text-based content. The first answer engine was borne.
Search A.G. (After Google)
MSN carved out its niche in the now teeming search market by being the first engine to bundle its capabilities with connectivity in 1998 (and not be a member’s only club like AOL). Every search engine’s primary directive was to find and organize the distributed data found via the Internet.
Everything changed in 1999 when Google made size matter – at least in terms of the number of web pages indexed. With two years of crawling under its belt, Googlebot began winning the index size wars and started to take market share from Yahoo.
That’s when a funny thing happened on the way to the Internet; the more Google’s search index grew, the less relevant its search results became. Title tags and meta descriptions were growing increasingly infested with misdirected terminology that didn’t properly communicate the context of the content and, subsequently, misdirected users from finding relevant search results.
Granted, the web was still so new that perusing 10 blue links per page of search results became a luxurious pastime for the blossoming digerati. Sometimes the results you really wanted were actually on page five, not just dampened results in Google. Nostalgic search purists enjoyed the luxury of determining relevancy on their own big screens.
Fast-forward to 2014 and such thoughts are wholly outdated because organic search optimization simply is no longer one dimensional.
Desktop search has changed dramatically over the past two years because algorithmic results were polluted with contextual dissonance and, once again, relevancy suffered. The 10 blue links have been augmented with image carousels, sitelinks, breadcrumb links, knowledge panels, and related searches and such.
Searchers are presented with a dizzying array of Page 1 options. If your content isn’t there, it’s not optimal.
Search is now a core function of almost every social venue, monetizing its way into a sustainable future. How you optimize your video content as opposed to your image library is quite different.
You can’t provide visitors with a one-way social experience and expect to gain friends, likes, +1’s, and pins. If your content isn’t customized to the social venue, then it isn’t optimal.
Mobile device market forces have accelerated the need to optimize for local search functionality on the small screen. If your content isn’t digitally dexterous, then it’s likely producing a sub-optimal search experience. And if you don’t help the search engines understand the context of digitally rich content on any device, then your search referrals will likely produce diminishing returns.
This is the challenge of content optimization in 2014. Organizations need to produce high-quality and authoritative, yet informatively entertaining, content that is device agnostic and encourages a uniquely human social echo if it is to be deemed search engine optimal.
Twenty years ago online organizations needed to be in every contending search engine, directory and database in order to allow for a burgeoning audience of potential visitors to find them.
“Where’s the search?” in 2014 and beyond? It’s everywhere, anytime, for everyone, on any device imaginable. Now we just have to make it an optimal experience for all.