Nothing stands still for long in search. Early versions of search engines, such as Ask Jeeves, encouraged us to believe that artificial intelligence was advanced enough for them to understand complex questions and deliver accurate answers.
The reality was different. Users quickly realised that millions of results did not guarantee the right answer. For brands, the sheer quantity of results returned challenged them to fight for a higher place in the search rankings.
While the rise of search engine optimisation (SEO) and paid search enabled brands with enough clout to appear on that all-important first page of results, consumers have become smarter in the way they search, and more demanding. As well as searching for text, they often seek images, video, maps, news and reviews, to name a few.
Fiona Flintham, head of search and analytics at publisher DK & Rough Guides, says with content across print, desktops, mobile and tablets, a key challenge for brands is to enable consumers to find and enjoy formats on the device they like best. 'We continue to place emphasis on connecting our consumers with our digital content, and search engines play a key part in this strategy,' she says. 'We recognise the importance of integrating search and social strategies, and our search-engine marketing activity increases year on year.'
The long-term objective of search is to be less keyword-based and more intelligent, so that engines can access all this information and deliver more intelligent results, according to David Schruers, head of media at digital agency Essence.
'It's vital to understand every query and not just look at each word,' he says. 'This increased level of interpretation will be driven by a much more human approach.'
Features such as spelling corrections, the use of synonyms and expanded broad matches are all illustrations of how search is becoming 'smarter', with location extensions on mobile platforms adding a further dimension. Dan Robins, head of search at Carat, says there is growing personalisation of search. 'Google is getting better at knowing what you want and people are getting results from their friends as social becomes part of the mix.'
However, Eoin O'Neill, SEO director at agency Tug, sounds a note of caution: 'Personalised search and socially recommended search results make the user experience even more hyper-relevant. But the downside is that this approach creates a self-fulfilling loop of interest and content discovery. You show interest in one subject so you keep getting served the same type of content and results. You keep sharing the same things with your circle of friends so you keep the loop running. But how does this affect search marketing techniques?'
He adds that viral and experiential marketing grew in popularity over the past decade partly because they made users feel they had discovered something fresh. 'This contributes to brand affinity more quickly than traditional brand activity,' O'Neill says. 'If personalised and social search limit the opportunities for unexpected discovery, then this crucial sense of brand affinity will also be limited.'
The growth of social media has created a fresh type of content to feed into search: one that provides a notably human dimension. Microsoft's Bing engine has included social results, while Google is examining social options based on its challenger social network, Google+.
Joe Friedlein, managing director of Browser Media, argues that Google's Panda and Penguin updates have made social signals a more important part of search. However, he adds, establishing a high social ranking is not as easy as it once was with SEO activities such as link building.
He explains: 'Search is about brand building these days, not keywords, and you have to know who the influencers are and be able to offer them content they can use. It's not a quick process.' Brands need to understand an audience and find credible ways to engage with it, providing shareable content, he says.
Under its head of web spam, Matt Cutts, Google has launched a crusade against so-called 'black hat' SEO - the dodgy practices used by some brands to gain search advantage. 'Google has been more transparent this year, but it's not giving away the secret,' says LBi's media innovation director, Andrew Girdwood. 'Brands looking for success in search have to keep up with the philosophy of the search-engine thinkers. Modern search strategies must reflect the multisignal approach taken by the engines.'
Google's war on spam links has also led to some companies being penalised by the search company, resulting in plummeting rankings. And Bing has introduced a 'disavow' function that allows brands to list shady links that point at their sites.
Meanwhile, not everybody is enamoured with Google. Nick Garner, head of search at betting company Unibet, says Google's tinkering is actually resulting in lower user satisfaction. 'User results are not improving because Google wants to commercialise results. It is squeezing more and more onto the page and causing a lot of dissatisfaction, but because of its dominance, it can carry on watering down its search quality.'
Mark Fleming, SEO and affiliate specialist at travel firm Kuoni, argues that consumers are searching in a more advanced way. 'We are looking at long-tail searches as people bypass ordinary search. News and images are very popular for travel and we have integrated Tripadvisor ratings.'
Using a multisignal search strategy over the past year has allowed Kuoni to rank better than ever, Fleming adds. 'It has meant that we relocate PPC to secondary or tertiary positions, or even reduce spend,' he reveals.
Semantic search is the ultimate goal for search engines, with all search players trying to improve accuracy through a better understanding of user intent and context.
This means that instead of being presented with a list of, say, 10 search results on each page, users will type a query and be shown what the engines think the required answer is.
Another area exciting brands is 'visual search', which refers to the ability of devices to scan the real world through a camera and provide results accordingly. Examples include Google Goggles and Aurasma. Neil Hayward, head of technology at Kitcatt Nohr Digitas, says the agency has used the technique for General Motors marque Buick in the US. 'We indexed print ads with Goggles so users could view them through their phone and receive additional information about the cars,' he explains.
Although penetration is low at the moment, Hayward says visual search adds another component to the ever-improving intelligence of search: 'Ultimately, we'll be able to apply meta data to everything, whether real or virtual.'
BRAND VIEW - THE CHALLENGE WITH SEARCH
'Google anti-spamming measures seem to put more emphasis on brands. We should be rewarded, rather than affiliates or directories'
Tess Tucker, head of digital marketing, Just Eat
'The future of search seems to be in semantic results and it will be interesting to see what Google does with its Knowledge Graph, combined with its entry into different verticals like finance'
Heledd Jones, digital marketing manager, Confused.com
'Improvements to paid search that could help us target users by specific demographics and enable us to concentrate our efforts only within this niche would be warmly welcomed'
Lara Gunn, digital marketing manager, Lloyds Bank Wholesale Banking & Markets
WHAT'S NEW IN SEARCH
- Launched in May, Google's Knowledge Graph collects crowd-sourced results, linking what others have found useful as well as connecting to wider themes. Google describes it as part of a move from being an 'information engine' to a 'knowledge engine'. Google Now on Android goes one step further, offering results tailored to the location and the calendar of the user.
- Microsoft's Bing is leading the way in social-media integration following the launch of its social sidebar in June. Currently only available in the US, this pulls together Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare content, providing a human element to search.
- Yahoo! teamed up with Bing two years ago and now uses its algorithm. It recently unveiled the next evolution of IntoNow, a product that enables people to share TV content and songs using mobile or tablet devices.