Ryan McMillan provides a take on the future of search
My take on it is that you need to ‘add to the ecosystem’ rather than ‘echo’ within it.
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Ryan McMillan from Atlas Digital
Ryan McMillan

Trends: How search is changing, and not in the way that you might think

Search engines have dominated the internet landscape almost since Google’s inception in 1998. But, search is changing, and not in the way that you might think. Why? Well, the first thought that comes to your mind might be ‘AI’, which is the most obvious disruptor of the search engine business. It’s easy to pay attention to the zigs (AI) but don’t let that cause you to miss the zags. Us humans search for content in all different types of ways, and the biggest shift in search engine behaviour right now is actually a move towards ‘social search’ as the preferred method to answer your search queries.

Date Published:
Ryan McMillan from Atlas Digital
Ryan McMillan

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51% of Gen Zers prefer TikTok for search over Google according to a study by HerCampus, mainly due to its highly consumable, efficient short-format video content.

The study is eye-opening, indicating that 40% of consumers use TikTok for information, with 64% of Gen Zers and 49% of Millennials doing so.

In this article, I’ll lay out the 4 reasons why I think search’s biggest disruptor in the next year is social media platforms and not AI.

Reason #1) All search results have become the same.

The main play in the last several years of SEO has been what Brian Dean, founder of Backlinko, coined ‘The Skyscraper Technique’. Its purpose was to ‘copycat’ SEO results, with the basic process being:

  1. Identify keyword with opportunity related to your niche
  2. Review the top 5 articles ranking for that keyword
  3. Rewrite all points from those articles into one ‘super article’ then add in something unique
  4. Publish and watch your results grow

This was a highly successful approach, but as you can imagine over time it has reduced the diversity of information in the SERPs (search engine ranking positions) and as such reduced the quality of the search experience. 

The result? Google search in many cases just isn’t the same as it once was.

Take for example, a search like ‘How to gain muscle’. A search result for this query will likely yield an article from bodybuilding.com telling you the 10 steps to gain muscle. The 2nd article is probably from ‘Men’s Health’ providing similar information, and so on.

Instead, search ‘How to gain muscle’ in TikTok, and you’ll find almost unlimited amounts of fitness influencers telling you 5 easily consumed tips in under 30 seconds. 

Swipe and get the next result? It’s typically a different set of tips, in a different setting, from a different influencer. 

It’s definitely not just the same words on a page rearranged, like the bodybuilding.com and Men’s Health examples.

In my opinion, the short form video content leads to higher ‘search satisfaction’ (e.g. feeling that the question was answered) and thus a stronger and more credible connection is formed with the influencer vs a faceless 1,200 word post.

The final result is a much higher likelihood of that searcher returning to TikTok to consume more information. And so the wheel continues.

Reason #2) The expected time to consume content has reduced

The recommended length for a best practice article is around 1,200 words. It takes almost 5 minutes to read an article of this size.

A short-form video on the other hand takes about 30 seconds to consume. Not to mention the user experience of simply swiping to the next article instantly if they don’t like it.

I’ll trust you to do the ‘back of the napkin’ math yourself, but it’s obvious that you can watch several short-form videos in the time it’ll take to read an article.

Alongside this, the format of short form videos are highly optimised, getting to the point much quicker.

The result is that you potentially learn more with a video, learn it faster and can also skip over to the next video if it isn’t interesting. Pretty hard to compete with, right?

I believe that this is causing a shift in consumer expectations. Basically, users want their answer faster. The purpose of long articles was to provide in-depth information to answer their search queries. The reality is that these long articles are full of fluff that you need to sift through to find your answer. Definitely not what Google intended.

Reason #3) Search has low discoverability

The ‘Front page of the internet’, Social media platform, Reddit has very high discoverability. 

You can go to their homepage and scroll through popular threads, finding something of interest and then head down the rabbit hole.

On the other hand, you can also use their search function to find what you’re looking for.

Traditional search engines like Google don’t work like this. Instead, you need to think of a query and go from there. It’s great if you have a specific question to ask, but these days there are many ‘front pages of the internet’ across social media platforms, allowing you to search, discover and consume content all in one place.

Google has included a ‘discover’ feature in Google, but without the other social components evident in a social media platform (user profile, friend network, interactivity) I believe that these don’t provide the same experience that a social media platform would. Importantly, they’re also website and not creator led.

Reason #4) Users value anecdotal insights 

The famous book ‘Influence: the psychology of persuasion’ by Robert Cicinaldi highlights ‘social proof’ as a key aspect of influencing human behaviour. 

Searching via a social media platform, the majority of content is presented by a creator with a real face, name and personality. 

Search engine results on the other hand tend to be ‘faceless’ long-form blog articles with an unrecognisable author but linked back to a brand.  That makes them a lot less engaging, and a lot less persuasive in terms of retaining and believing that information. 

Remember that bodybuilding.com article example that I referenced above? You’re much more likely to trust the answer from a short form video creator than the long-form article due to the social proof aspect. We believe what we see. When the answer is coming from a human that’s big and muscly, then they must know what they’re talking about.

As such, we underweight the importance of anecdotal evidence by creators and overweight data, insights and facts to provide answers. 

So, how does search need to change?

Well, the first question to ask would be “does it need to change?” or even “Is it just too late?”

I believe that yes, it does need to change, and that no, it isn’t too late.

Words are powerful. They’re impactful. Not to mention that authors have been forming connections with readers long before the first video was ever recorded.

Short-form video content on the other hand can be shallow. There’s often a lot of sizzle but not much sausage.

Individual consumers have varying search needs depending on the scenario. They search for different types of information and will choose the appropriate medium to find their answer.

So, there’s a place for both styles of content, and both search engines.

But, search results must change in order to remain competitive to alternatives and to be able to answer user queries in a way that will keep searchers coming back.

It’s been a heck of a year for search. It’s already undergoing massive disruption from LLMs, as they contribute to reducing content quality while massively expanding content volume. The use of ChatGPT or Gemini to find information means we may not visit search engines at all, and finally other apps like social platforms sometimes just have more engaging, lower effort answers.

The tide is against content quality, but luckily, not necessarily against Google (and other search engines).

With all of these changes, it is already becoming increasingly important to focus on uniqueness in search.

My take on it is that you need to ‘add to the ecosystem’ rather than ‘echo’ within it. AKA forget the skyscraper technique and think of something interesting to say. Don’t worry about content length and optimise for content quality. 300 insightful words are likely to have a bigger impact than 3,000 lines of fluff.
Alongside this, authorship will rise in importance. Bring great writers back. Have your founder write thought provoking unique opinion pieces that relate back to your market. These resonate with consumers and in turn your brand.
Finally, distribute that content across all platforms, changing its format to suit each one (i.e. short-form video content on some, long-form articles on others). That way, you can capitalise on search in the consumer’s most preferred format.

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