Roger Barnette has taken an interesting look at the future of search engines in a recent post on the Search Insider blog. The post looks at a number of recent events that could foreshadow dramatic changes in the online search environment.
First, recent reports from big online metrics firms ComScore and Hitwise showed small declines over the last year in use of traditional search engines. There's always been some volatility in the use of specific search engines, as new entrants come into the field, existing search sites expand coverage and work on improving their search and selection engines. In particular, the traditional big search sites have taken hits recently by the rise of non-English language search sites and the growing globalization of the Internet and the rise of niche search alternatives.
One of those new entrants in the search market is likely to be Facebook, which has the corporate size to challenge the big search sites and has the niche potential of integrating Facebook likes and friends' preferences into its recommendation engine. Another possible big entrant is Apple. While Apple hasn't publicly announced its intent to enter search, it has made two big moves lately to internalize standard app features that had relied on external services. With Apple's release of iOS6, it has dropped YouTube and GoogleMaps as standard included apps in favor of its own mobile apps. When those moves were announced, many felt it was just a matter of time before Apple internalized search as well. (However, Apple has since formally apologized to users for its troubled and buggy Maps app - which may have Apple reconsidering entry into mainstream search, or at least delaying announcement and implementation until they've developed a fully competitive option).
Another major shift impacting search is the rapid growth in mobile, which has helped expand interest in, and use of, location-based and context-based searches. Not only are mobile searches expanding the ability to search, studies are indicating that people use mobile search differently - much more of an emphasis on location-based searches, comparison-focused searches, and situational searches. These can pose a challenge to legacy search engines to develop mobile-optimized applications, lest they lose market share to alternatives.
Speaking of alternatives, niche search alternatives have also been on the rise. There are, for now, two basic types of niche alternatives - one is the rise of content-specific search sites, the other are sites that aren't primarily designed for search, but incorporate search and recommendation engines.
The best examples of the latter are Amazon, and to some extent Netflix. Both excel in terms of recommendations (tailoring search results to user preferences), and are comprehensive enough in their coverage to satisfy most search activity. As Barnette states, "When people skip
over a search engine and go straight to Amazon for product search, it’s
clear that either Amazon is doing something very right, or search
engines need to improve their results."
There seem to be two predominant types of niche search engines - language-based and content-hosting based. Historically, Internet use and content has predominantly been English language based. More recently, however, the proportion of English-language content has declined as Internet use has expanded globally. While many of the large search sites developed sites and search engines in other languages, they've been challenged by native language search engines in many cases. Native language search sites may be better equipped to capture nuances and differential preferences of local users/ In addition, users may feel more comfortable using native-language focused sites, or think that it would provide better results. Recent years have also seen a rapid rise in focused content archives or hosting sites. YouTube is the classic example - with its focus on videos and offer of free hosting, it's become the place to go for many users looking for video content. But similar archives/hosting services exist for many fields of academic research, photographs, fan fiction, movie information and credits, and myriad other topics. Users looking to search within those topics often will go to these niche search sites first - so they don't have to sort through the extraneous results a more general search engine would provide.
Barnette suggests that all these factors suggest that the big general search sites will continue to experience erosion in their use - although that could be ameliorated somewhat by acquisition (such as Google's purchase of YouTube), developing their own niche search products, or optimizing applications for emerging search types (such as Bing's new search app optimized for mobile use). As for "search marketers," volatility in the general search market is likely to keep the value of search sites for search marketers somewhat uncertain. On the other hand, most search marketers are interested in reaching targeted users - and the fragmentation of search by niches, and the additional targeting opportunities offered by mobile, can be quite valuable in some cases.
Search sites are starting to experience the evolution in audiences and market that all general-interest media are facing - where an increasing number of competitors start nibbling at the niches, and changing user interests and preferences will begin taking users to alternatives that better match their interests (if the dominant sites aren't nimble enough to provide their own alternatives and niches). Internet sites and services aren't exempt from the general trend effects of the digital/telecom revolution.
Source - The Future of Search, SearchInsider