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Rohan Ayyar

There's More to Search than Google

Rohan Ayyar
There's More to Search than Google

I guess if a search engine can give you the answer to life, universe and everything; you pretty much don’t need to go anywhere else, right?

It’s no wonder then that Google has maintained its vice-like grip on search market shares. The latest ComScore numbers show 67.6 percent of the search market is dominated by Google. Bing puts in a valiant act, while Yahoo — post-divorce from Bing’s search engine — is on a downward death spiral.

Before we get to a life beyond Google, let’s first revisit how Google works. This will help us appreciate the need for substitutes and their value.

How Google (and Search) Works

The basics of how Google works is something most digital marketers have at least a vague idea about. In a nutshell, the search process comprises of three major components:

  1. Crawling
  2. Indexing
  3. Processing Queries and Serving Results

The first two processes happen way before a search user enters the picture. Google spiders known as "Googlebots" crawl the web to discover new pages and pick out content from these pages that they file away in their indexing servers. URLs present on crawled web pages point the Googlebots to newer pages, and key content from those pages also gets added to the index servers.

Along with that, webmasters submit their sites to Google to be crawled and indexed proactively. Google then proceeds to create a link graph to assess the relationships between the indexed pages. Their relative importance is arrived at by using various factors that make up the PageRank of the page.

When a user types in a query, Google switches gears from data collection and filing to data retrieval. This is what the process typically looks like:

query chart

Different types of queries trigger different processing responses in different contexts. Distinct pages on the same domain might be crawled and indexed sequentially, but are retrieved and displayed in the SERPs based on their direct relevance to the query, the filters applied on them, and all the other factors that make up PageRank.

Understanding how search queries work will help you avail every opportunity there is to capture searchers’ mind share. For example, Shopify has a resources page that provides their customers virtually all information on starting a retail business, including information on setting up their sites, marketing guides, theme stores and more. This shows how one page on a domain might act like a central hub for pages that might be retrieved for different queries and intents.

queries infographic

When a user types in an informational query like learn ecommerce, Google will be able to bring up Shopify’s Ecommerce University, which is just one part of the whole marketing mix in action here.

Google’s Hummingbird update added a layer of complexity to search processing they did not incorporate much of previously — using semantic and exploratory techniques to information retrieval. Google recognized very early that users have a tendency to type in full sentences or questions into the search bar, instead of “keywords” that marketers like you and I spend our nights worrying over.

This realization has led Google to move beyond informational, navigational and transactional queries, and “understand” natural language patterns in order to show results that are closer to what users wanted than ever before. In case you’re wondering how semantic search affects your conversions and how to optimize your site for it, here’s a quick and simple guide.

The Search Landscape is Changing

Rise of the Google Challengers

It is interesting to note that even though Google continues to be top dog in the search arena, there’s an increasing number of contenders jostling to play catch up. With the rise and rise of Bing, CC Search, DuckDuckGo, Wolfram Alpha, Blekko or even Facebook (as a search engine), the day of specialized search tools catering to specific functions and needs is finally here.

Adam Tanner, in his article on Forbes, claimed that traffic to Google-alternative search engines like Startpage and Ixquick rose dramatically following Google’s changes to its privacy policy in 2012. From under a million visitors per day, these sites were racking up to 2.5 million visitors by mid-2013. In the post-Snowden world, today their traffic stands at 5 million users per day.

Google’s market share may not be threatened anytime soon, but compared to the competition, its engagement is surely taking a hit. With the highest bounce rate among the top five search engines and the fewest pages per visit, Googlers seem to be a fickle lot. Something to think about the next time you allocate your search budgets.

how search engines rank

Mobile Now a Real Threat to Desktop Search

Did you know the fourth most common screen resolution used today is 320x568 — or, in other words, — the size of the iPhone 5 screen? If your online assets have spent years of preparing to become “mobile ready,” your day of reckoning is here!

Mobile is finally coming into its own as far as search is concerned in 2014. Twenty-five percent of all search queries now come from mobile, with that figure hitting an all-time high of 65 percent during the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Search’s shift from desktops to mobile devices and the ramifications of this transition on local businesses, online retail and the mobile advertising industry is the other big change the search world is coming to terms with.

Emarketer’s research shows Google went from owning 82.8 percent of the mobile search market in 2012 to 68.5 percent in 2013. Experts expect a further slide to 65.7 percent in 2014. The reason for this drop is simple. The way people search on desktop and mobile is inherently different. Dedicated apps like Yelp, Tripadvisor, Shazam or even Twitter, replace the ubiquitous desktop searches on Google and have slowly sneaked away market share on mobile searches.

Another interesting fallout of the mobile switchover is the growing number of calls to businesses via mobile searches. With a 42 percent YOY growth, calls from mobile searches are set to reach 65 billion calls annually by 2016. Time to offer click-to-call on mobile searches right away!

Changing User Behavior on Google SERPs

The constant tweaks Google keeps making to its algorithms may be the bane of digital marketers everywhere. But the changes it's made to its SERPs has also resulted in significant changes in user behavior over the years.

Google changes

The classic “Golden Triangle” that every marketer worth his salt wanted to get into on a Google SERP circa 2005 no longer holds sway, according to latest eye tracking and heat map studies.

Golden triangle heat map

Google’s SERPs now offer rich data-like maps, sponsored results, snapshots and more in the area outside the traditional Golden Triangle. And user interaction has followed.

Users now view more than the first few results; they click on results lower on the SERPs, but the time spent viewing each result is significantly less — 1.17 seconds in 2014 versus just under two seconds in 2005. The Knowledge Graph, answer boxes, local packs and other content summaries with rich snippets that Google now provides offer users a glimpse of what lies inside the result without even clicking on it.

Websites that adopted the structured data markup required to show rich snippets on Google SERPs enjoyed 20-30 percent higher CTRs in the early days. These days, users are accustomed to knowing what to expect before they even click on the URL.

User Concerns with Google

While nobody debates how Google makes our lives so much easier (click to call pizzas, anyone?), there’s a cost to pay for all the comfort that we enjoy.

While creating a monopolistic market, overstepping personal boundaries with Street View or even the environmental impact of innumerable servers dotting the globe are definite causes for concern (and lawsuits), some issues with Google attack the integrity of marketers and the dignity of users simultaneously.

Cookies, Government Snooping and the Death of Privacy

Google’s AdSense and DoubleClick ad servers use cookies to identify and track users across the web, logging data about users’ behavior online. This behavioral data is used to target ads at users in a manner that is efficient from an advertiser’s perspective and relevant from the user’s perspective. While this practice means the loss of some degree of privacy for Google users, the benefits of using Google outweigh privacy questions to some degree.

Further, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and their ilk have blown the lid on the extent to which governments and non-governmental agencies use companies like Google to pry into personal lives of citizens to a level that is unprecedented. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the NSA actually have a list of keywords whose usage they monitor in supposedly "private" conversations and internet searches around the world, and profile citizens based on this information, leading to some extremely unpleasant consequences.

So basically, your Google search histories are one request away from a government agency.

search terms on the SERPs

If you are in a particularly daring mood, you could check out this website and see how closely Uncle Sam is watching you.

Biased Search Results

In a bid to improve the search experience for users, Google tries to “learn” from every search a user performs and uses the data from links they click on to show up “personalized” search results in the future. So if you clicked on URLs from the same publisher a few times in previous searches, the likelihood of that publisher’s results showing up on future searches goes up exponentially.

While Google claim they do this with the aim of improving user experience, it is something that Pew Research reports users are dead against. While 73 percent are against it because they felt this would be an invasion of their privacy, 65 percent felt this limits access to a variety of information sources, giving them a very one-dimensional view of the world.

Algorithm Changes that Affect ROI

Google has implemented scores of algorithm changes since its release at the turn of the millennium in the name of making the search engine more responsive and valuable to users. Trouble is, these updates tend to change the game of “ranking” for organic searches every time, sending mixed signals to businesses and making it really difficult for them to understand online marketing. This leaves them with little choice but to "up" their advertising budgets to stay visible.

Closing Thoughts

The best thing about Google is how it makes life so easy for users. That, by the way, also happens to be its worst quality, according to some people.

If for nothing else but experimentation, you owe it to yourself to try other search engines. Take a walk on the wild side for a while, and then decide if you really want to return to Google’s familiar fold.

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Rohan Ayyar is a startup-focused marketer involved in creative content strategy, web analytics and conversion optimization at E2M, a premium digital marketing firm. Rohan is also an avid writer in the digital space, with posts featured on Fast Company, Social Media Today and HubSpot, among other places. You can reach him on Twitter.

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