Search seems to be here to stay. In comScore's most recent U.S. desktop search engines ranking, the company estimates that across all search engines, 16.8 billion desktop searches were performed in February 2016 alone. (The data was found through comScore's proprietary search analysis product that "captures all of the search behavior at almost 200 search properties in 38 individual countries.") And while 16.8 billion is massive, the ranking didn't account for mobile searches.
Online search can be a major traffic source for many businesses. Searches are usually intent-driven. When people arrive on your website from search engines, it's usually because they've actively searched for something that you offer.
These searchers weren't interrupted with an ad by your brand while browsing on a social network—they were actively seeking out your brand or product. This is a big difference, and a major reason why online search traffic can be so valuable.
As search is constantly evolving, I thought it would be helpful to talk a bit about what search engines are up to in 2017, and what it could mean for your business.
1. Search engines are getting better at natural language.
Natural language processing has become a key component of many companies over the last few years. Apple has Siri, Amazon has Alexa, Microsoft has Cortana and Google has Google Now. With this growth in natural language technology, it's no surprise that search engines are using the technology to improve their search products.
Take Google, for example. In the last few years, Google has released products that show that the company is getting better at understanding natural search language. Google Home and Google Voice Search are two examples of products that show Google's investment in natural language processing. They've even released an API for developers to use Google to parse natural language within their apps.
What can this mean for your business? It may mean that search engines are getting better at understanding queries that aren't exact. Not everyone thinks the same, so two people might use different search queries to find the exact same information. Search engines know this, and have been trying to address this in search results.
For example, say you're interested in learning more about a football team's lineup. You searched for “quarterback kansas city," while another person searched for “KC qb." The search engines would give the same result: a list of current quarterbacks that play for teams in Kansas City. Search engines are able to understand that in these two queries “KC" and “Kansas City" are the same, “quarterback" and “qb" mean the same things and to still show the same results.
Ten years ago if you wanted to rank in search for both of these phrases, you had to worry about each of these exact phrases. Today search engines often show the same result for both.
This can be great news for smaller businesses. Since search engines understand natural language and can infer meaning, you may have to worry less about exact phrases for pages on your website to rank.
Instead of focusing on ranking for specific keywords and phrases, it might make more sense to focus on building better resources around topics rather than specific keywords.
2. Search engines are getting better at understanding the searcher.
When you use search engines repeatedly over time, most of them collect data about you: The websites you visit, videos you watch, your searches, the emails you write, your location and much more. (There are a few search engines like DuckDuckGo that don't collect data this way.)
In Google's case, the company uses all of this data to enhance your experience using its products. So when you search for “Mexican food" on your mobile phone, odds are Google isn't going to give results telling you what Mexican food is. Instead Google is most likely going to show you restaurants near your current location that serve Mexican food.
This is one of many ways that search engines can alter searches based on the data they collect.
3. Your site's security is becoming more important than ever.
As of right now, one of the only search engines that is really pushing site security with respects to rankings is Google. However, since the search giant controls around 64 percent of all desktop searches, it may be worth paying attention to.
Google has taken their push for greater security on the internet and announced on their security blog that as of January 2017 they would be giving warnings to Chrome users when they visit pages with login or credit card forms that aren't using HTTPS, a secure version of the "protocol over which data is sent between your browser and the website that you are connected to." They'll soon be labeling all non-HTTPS pages with warnings.
Google offers a guide on how to enable HTTPS on your servers. If your business relies on Google for traffic, it might eventually be unavoidable as Google starts to mark all pages that don't have the HTTPS level of security.
4. Search engines are putting an emphasis on mobile devices.
Search engines have put a big emphasis on the mobile search experience.
For starters, search engines like Google and Bing have implemented AMP results, or Accelerated Mobile Pages. AMP is a protocol that greatly strips down web page elements so pages can load faster on mobile devices.
When you do a search on a mobile phone, these search engines show pages that have AMP implemented above their usual results. This can be a huge incentive for publishers who have enabled AMP on their websites.
The second thing that is changing in the mobile search landscape is the way mobile pages are indexed. For example, Google has put an emphasis on mobile searching by using a “mobile-first index." Up until recently, Google would index pages on a website as if the visitor was from a desktop computer. Google is now indexing content as if they were visiting on a mobile device, and showing results based on those experiences.
You may want to look into making your site mobile friendly. Whether your website has a responsive design or you have a completely separate website for mobile visitors, taking steps to make viewing your website on a mobile device a great experience could be helpful.
How Search Engines Can Work for You
There are two main takeaways that I want you to take from recent changes to search engines.
1. Don't try to game the system.
As search engines keep getting smarter with how they parse queries and search intent, tricks and hacks are less likely to work like they did in the past.
Instead of trying to stay a step ahead of search engines, create great experiences for people visiting your website who might turn into customers. In short, I recommend creating great content for your customers—not just for search engines.
2. Pay attention to mobile searchers.
Search engines have made it clear that they are putting emphasis on mobile web users, and you may want to, too. Consider optimizing your site for people visiting on mobile devices and implementing AMP if it makes sense for your business.
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