The launch of Google Search was a game changer. Twenty-two years on, brands need to get search right more than ever, says Jon Buss.

Since the birth of our species, humans have searched for answers. Ten thousand years ago, we needed answers to the bare essentials: where can I find a cave to shelter in? Water to stave off thirst? Berries and meat to feed my family?

As we evolved, those questions became more complex. And fast forward tens of thousands of years, so too have our ways of asking them.

The very first online search engine was created in 1990, the ‘Archie’ search engine by Alan Emtage. It would have been unrecognisable by today’s standards; only the listings were available – and not the content of the actual site – due to limited space.

As the 90s progressed, sites such as Ask Jeeves and Yahoo! entered the search engine market, the former encouraging long-form questions for consumers. Then Google came along and changed the search game forever.

Nowadays, questions asked in a search engine like Google or Bing don’t just return an answer in an instant, but also relevant and timely information by brands, businesses and organisations. The evolution and advancement of Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) means that we’re now asking more complex questions and expect immediate answers. Otherwise, we’ll go elsewhere.

If you're a business, this can have dire consequences or present wonderful opportunities depending on whether you get the answers to your consumers’ questions right.

The search for answers

It’ll soon be Google’s 22nd anniversary. And I think it’s safe to say our thirst for answers is greater than ever before.

Google receives 5.6 billion questions each day – and 15% of those searches have never been seen before. In fact, in the time it takes to read this sentence, there will have been 4,861 unique searches on Google, ones that have never been searched before. With so many more questions being asked, the need for answers has never been greater. Google’s ability to move beyond ‘blue links’ to provide direct answers to questions (sometimes before they’ve even been typed) has become the gold standard for search.

Yet how many times have you been left feeling confused by a poor search experience, faced with conflicting information or out-of-date answers? This is unlikely to be Google’s fault – rather, a result of the real challenge faced by businesses to keep their information accurate and up-to-date everywhere at all times. And consumers know this; we found that they are most likely to blame the brand rather than the search engine when the answer is wrong.

And this frustration can be just as easily felt on a brand’s website.

When a customer asks a question on a brand’s site, it’s their purest moment of intent. Whether they’re looking for a store’s opening hours or a pair of kids’ trainers for their niece’s birthday, they’re attempting to progress down a funnel that will eventually lead to a sale.

Answering your customers’ questions can be the missing link between interest and a purchase. If customers can’t find what they need right away, they’ll go elsewhere. After all, there’s an entire digital world to choose from. Thus, a poor search experience equates to leaving money on the table – or worse, handing it to someone else.

Search is no longer simple

But the evolution of search isn’t just about how questions are answered: it’s also about how questions are asked. And this is another bottleneck for businesses.

Back in the early days of search engines, people knew they could only pose basic questions using simple keywords. Search engines were computers, after all – you couldn’t expect them to understand nuanced, multifaceted questions the way a human could.

One Hummingbird update later, and Google had embraced semantic search. By 2015, questions could now be filtered through the lens of intent, context, and search history, meaning they could be processed in much the same way humans process natural language. Quick as a flash, we grew used to asking complex, intricate questions.

Today we expect all searches, whether on Google or a brand’s website, to provide equally intricate answers.

This has been particularly striking during the pandemic, when getting the right answers can sometimes literally make the difference between life and death.

Raising the (search) bar

The evolution of search reflects the evolution of our civilisation: of the exponential rise of information and the existential need to neatly categorise, file away and retrieve it when needed.

In this vein, humans have always remained inquisitive and curious. Yet the way we retrieve the answers to our questions has changed immeasurably. So, too, have our expectations. We’ve been trained to expect answers to our questions instantaneously both on a brand’s website or search engine result.

Search is a tool through which business can converse with customers to understand their wants and concerns and give them what they need, whenever they need it.

Brands have the answers customers want. And by onboarding the right technology they can deepen their relationship with customers, and earn trust, loyalty and repeat patronage as a result.