The Evolution of Search

I bet you cannot guess the most commonly searched “how to” question of 2018—I had to Google it. When you think about it, it seems kind of backward to ask Google what the most commonly searched question in America was. But, if you still haven’t found the answer, it was “How to vote?” Pretty simple question, but there are over 2.3 billion results. 

I challenge you to pull out your phone and look at your most recent search history. Observe how many questions you asked the digital world and the plethora of answers that were returned to you. There’s a ton of information there, and that is just the surface level of searching. Chances are that you continued your digital journey on another webpage where you kept narrowing your search. For customers and retailers alike, on-site search is the tool that drives customers to the answers that they are looking for.

A Genealogy of Site Search

The practice of using search engines to find answers to our questions is completely ingrained into the way we live and operate on a daily basis. The ability to search allows us to pose questions and receive immediate answers, request and digest information at a much faster rate. Many of us seasoned internet users remember the early days of search, riddled with subfolders and limited archives, but few acknowledge the drastic impact that modern search has on our day-to-day experiences. 

Search needed years of evolution to get to its current state. Its earliest stages were planted in the roots of the internet with the development of ARCHIE—a program that allowed you to search internet FTP files. This was quickly followed by Veronica and Jughead, who sound like a lovely couple, but were actually complimentary search engines to a popular system called Gopher. Keep in mind, all of this was happening during that interesting decade in time we know as the ’90s. This era wrapped up with both Yahoo and Google launching their own search engines, and Yahoo becoming the first self-crawling search engine. 

As Yahoo found success and popularity, Google had quietly created a tool that would revolutionize the entire ecosystem of internet searching with the Page Rank Algorithm. This algorithm sourced all information on a searched topic and ranked it based on link quality and quantity. This process of gathering information and ranking it for users had never been done so quickly and efficiently, and Google had it down. Microsoft attempted to compete against Google with the launch of Bing in 2009, but never quite achieved the same popularity. Something about saying, “I’ll Google it” just sounds better than “I’ll Bing it”.

Today Google holds over 70% of the global search engine market, while Bing and Baidu both carry a little less than 10%, and Yahoo pulls in the remaining 3%. Google’s impact on the market continues to be felt as they constantly update their algorithms and seek out new innovations. One of such innovations is the exploration of deep learning through artificial intelligence systems. These systems analyze vast amounts of data and create neural nets that allow them to perform tasks such as recognizing photos or vocal commands. As users become more accustomed to innovative practices, such as voice command or AI services, brands like Google will have to continue to provide search capabilities that harness the technology and leverage it for consumers. 

The ability to search is pivotal to the internet user experience. From surfing the web to searching for specific products, it continues to prove itself as the most valuable tool on the internet. For its users, search provides direction and clarity, guiding them through the different websites and catalogs, while allowing them to isolate the products they want. For the merchant, it provides simplicity—relieving users of congested filter menus and arduous looking. It’s the tool that made the internet useful for users. 

The Growing Importance of Search 

Change In Expectations

Search seems rather simple, but as it has evolved, it has become a dynamic player in the way users interact with the web. Today, the answer is simple, “just Google it.” Anytime you have a question, Google is there, ready and willing to give you the answer. Here’s a challenge, try to go a whole day without Googling anything—it’s pretty tough, I only made it 6 hours. 

What was once a daily rarity has turned into a constant practice, as other forms of search engines become more prominent, such as YouTube and Amazon. The days of casually browsing and using filtered navigation have been surpassed by the integration of search tools across all interweb systems and stores. Because of it, user expectations have also changed—where they are flooded with search suggestions and more specific search results. Just like Google, search changed the expectation. 

Mobile-First Mentality

In a mobile-first culture, most users encounter the search tool through their digital devices. Our compact pocket computers are the primary resources that continue to fuel our desire for answers, while we keep searching. For eCommerce customers, this search cycle is mimicked from the first search onward to the merchant’s site, and deep into the inventory of the store. As the primary form of transactions shifts toward mobile, users crave an experience that is simple from start to finish and search provides that simplicity. 

Consider there are two types of customers on your site: the first of those are browsers—those who roam about your site, with no intention or purpose, their journey is one of pure exploration. The other is the hunters—Those whose actions are focused and directed with intention toward a goal, ideally a purchase. Of these two types, more than 50% of people visiting a start page on a website go straight to the internal search box in order to navigate.   

The impact of search has only increased as the shift from desktop buying to mobile buying has evolved. For merchants with large and complex catalogs, this tool is their lifeline. Without it, their customers can get stuck wandering the digital aisles of their store, possibly never finding what they came there for. As all eCommerce merchants know, the longer it takes users to get to what they are looking for, the less likely the conversion. The ability to sift through thousands of products in a matter of seconds puts customers in the driver’s seat of their digital journey and gets them to their destination faster.

Imagine being inside a sprawling candy store looking for a Reese’s and there’s no employee there to help you find your favorite candy. You need the employee who has the store memorized. The one who sends you directly to the Reese’s aisle, no distractions or discourses—that is what search does! 

And that candy store I mentioned, that’s a real place. Check out how the search tool on our client, Old Time Candy, evolved over the years.

Why Search UX is Important?

I think it’s clear that search is an imperative function of any site. Sure, it’s obvious that potential customers need to be able to locate exactly what they are looking for quickly, but search allows you to optimize your site, giving those customers more tailored and helpful search results. This all feeds the seamless experience that keeps customers coming back.

Here are three simple search practices:

Search should always come first. 

On most websites, you will see the search bar located in the top region of the browser, usually associated on the left or right side. In the mobile device appearance, prioritizing the search menu at the top middle will ensure that users always find it. Similarly, it should be clear what the search bar does. Whether it means marking it with a magnifying glass or copy, indicate the specific function of this tool. 

Keep search simple.

Do not assume that the user is seasoned with your search tool. Take advantage of guiding your user via predictive search or semantic searching. Both of these features allow your user to be more specific with their search through the indexing of previous searches or common language instances. For users who have an idea of what they are looking for, but don’t know specifically, this function helps dramatically. 

Constantly improve your search.  

Continuously seek to improve your search tool. Track the search process that users encounter on a regular basis, and identify places for improvement. Whether it be through more refined semantic search capabilities, filtered search navigation, or a variety of other solutions, the more in touch with your user, the better the search tool. 

Search Never Stops

The idea of searching starts with a question. It doesn’t matter if you are asking another person or typing away at the keyboard, searching comes from a lack of experience and a desire to know. As the internet ecosystem has progressed, search has been at the foundation, supporting all whimsical inquiries and serious ponderings alike. And I think that’s the beauty of digital search when you look at it. It shows us that we are not alone. It shows us that there’s actually someone wondering what will happen if you eat too many sugar-free gummy bears. It shows that most moms don’t make every meal from scratch and that even some of us don’t know how long to brush our teeth. 

I think that is the point of search: to bring together answers from all kinds of people for all kinds of people. What’s funny is that in studying the evolution of search, I’ve come to see a glimpse into the evolution of people and their intimate relationship with search. As people develop and change, they continue to search, seeking out answers for difficult questions. And maybe, in the same way, search needs us, to continuously ask the unanswered questions, like how many licks does it take to get to the tootsie center of a tootsie pop

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