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4 min read

Search Leeds: Tom Anthony on the next trillion searches

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Tom Anthony is head of research and development for Distilled. His talk at Search Leeds 2016 was an energetic exercise in futurology, guiding the audience through new technologies that are either in the early research phase, already in existence or already starting to become a trend. Most importantly, he theorised what these developments mean for SEO and digital PR. Here are our notes from his talk:

Take aways

  • More search results will be presented in-situ in an IPA
  • Conversions will also happen in-situ
  • Make an app now and start the integration into IPAs
  • Right now there’s an opportunity to leap-frog the competition
    • It doesn’t matter how many links your competitors have earned if 10 blue links don’t show up because you’ve built the app that integrates with the personal assistants

“Personal Assistants are definitely coming; don’t embrace it at your peril”

Natural language is quite difficult for humans, never mind computers. But if we’re talking about the future of search, it’s not enough just to talk about natural language.

  • Ambient search
  • Faceted search
  • Transactional search

Google carries out its information needs study for years now. 1,000 people participate every year with an app installed on their phone which then sends them the question What did you want to know recently eight times a day.

From this, not only did they create many of its recent Google Now cards, but it found that 1/3 of all potential searches go unfulfilled. Either people are too lazy, they tried but the search engine wasn’t good enough or the device wasn’t available when they needed it.

There’s a real move towards trying to have search devices that are always available. Amazon Echo was the first ever-present, always listening device, released last year. Google home is the same idea and Apple is rumoured to be working on a Siri equivalent.

What’s really interesting about these devices is that they’re frequently or always shared. People share other devices too, especially smartphones, at least once a day on average (see Google Research paper).

The thing about search engines is they want you to always have a search device nearby, but they also want you preferably to always be logged in, because that’s where their true power lies. An increasing number of shared devices poses a challenge to this, but there are a number of interesting technologies being developed to address this.

Google Zensei and ATAP research

This is the forefront of Google’s mission to create a world of frictionless knowledge. Zensei uses bioimpendance to know who you are as soon as you interact with the device, and frictionless systems like this which work without passwords or fingerprints. Such ambient interfaces aren’t perfect, but it’s the first step across the bridge towards seamless interactions with search.

Other research in the pipeline from Google ATAP include

  • Project Soli – using radar to detect interactions
  • Glissando – a research project where Google is trying to layer gestures and audio control together in one system.

Ambient search advances will soon mean that search devices will be ubiquitous, leading to new types of search, and personalised search will be ubiquitous, leading to increased reliance.

This can be seen in things like the rise of direct answers, which are becoming more dynamic and real-time, creating the new card paradigm; basically breaking things down to units of data that are ‘device independent’. The search engines are also trying to move users away from web-based searches, where the majority of results are delivered through websites. Instead, most results will answer your search there and then, without taking you to a website.

This is nothing new. Google’s increasingly indexing entities rather than things (see Dixon Jones’ Search Leeds talk on evaluating the web). The thing for the user is that you can now use these attributes not as the answer but the search query itself. See Hound in the US, or VIV, the personal assistant from the guys behind Siri who call it the ‘personal assistant Siri should have been’. It’s ‘conversational commerce’ is definitely part of the future.

We’re going to see  a world where personal assistance become the new gatekeepers, and the industry will just write plug ins, not not new apps. Google, for example, will pull all of the information from different competitors sites and display all of the results in Google, rather than take a user to different pages.

Faceted search will capture more of the funnel as more of the filter and sort phase moves there. Meanwhile web search will become inadequate for handling more and more of these searches.

A great example of this: you can now order any Amazon Prime product just by speaking to Amazon Echo. In Siri you can search for films, then find times and then buy tickets through an app. The interesting thing about this is how users now go most of the way through the sales funnel before opening the app. How long before we see that purchasing phase taking place direct from the search engine.

Read more from Tom