Google is in for a wild ride as social networks change the nature of online search. Guest contributor Matt Beswick looks at how the company is responding.
For the better part of a decade, Google has been the unchallenged master of the web search world. From rather humble beginnings on the campus of Stanford to the pinnacle of Silicon Valley, the company has come a long way.
And yet, despite of the meteoric rise of the world’s preferred search engine, there are no guarantees that it’ll hold its top spot. Google is in a holding pattern at the moment, stuck at roughly 66% market share for web searches. To defend their edge in the search market, they’ll need to step it up and innovate like never before.
Google’s looming challenges
As many have already pointed out, Google’s advantage in search is more precarious than one might think.
About 95% of Google’s profits are derived from search advertising as exemplified by platforms like Google AdWords. If their search traffic falls off, their bottom line suffers. Worse, their revenue per advertisement has actually been falling for the past couple of years.
It seems as if every company from Amazon to Facebook is cutting in on their business as of late. The traditional desktop browser is no longer the only major road to search, as mobile apps and competing gateways pull traffic away from Google’s search portal.
That’s actually one of the major reasons why Google is acting less like a monolithic search engine and more like a social network, as demonstrated by the debut of Google+. Facebook’s Open Graph illustrates the new reality of using real-world feedback from actual users when ranking online content. More and more, the world of search is headed into an arena which isn’t a traditional strength for Google.
Obviously, it goes without saying that Google is at a crossroads. As such, there’s been a perceptible shift in their approach to search in recent months.
Algorithm wars: the SERP struggle continues
While Google was climbing the search market mountain, every Black Hat spammer with a web connection was simultaneously concocting new ways to game the system. For years, quality SEO practitioners were forced to play the game due to Google’s inaction in coming down on low-quality links, low-quality content and shady SEO practices.
Beginning in February of 2011, Google’s long-awaited Panda update came out swinging against so-called content farms and webspam. The following year, their Penguin update upped the ante by slamming unnatural links and other shady link hijinks.
While the algorithm updates and their subsequent refinements were a great start, there’s still plenty of work to be done. The Google algorithm system isn’t perfect and probably never will be. Regardless, their search algorithms are being constantly improved to filter out bad SEO false positives and reward honest content producers.
In addition, Google is working to further fine-tune the approach introduced by Panda and Penguin, promising the introduction of such tools as a link-disavowal utility to combat negative SEO. There are also high hopes that social data will hold the key to adding the finishing touches to the latest upgrades, though it’s slow going at the moment.
New search-ranking tactics and techniques
Though algorithm updates and improved ranking techniques are clear signs of a shifting search marketplace, they’re not the only tools Google has at its disposal for remaining relevant. The integration of increasingly sophisticated machine learning and AI in Google’s ranking schemes continues to polish the overall formula.
Quite possibly the most promising development is the Knowledge Graph, whose core principles will no doubt influence the direction that Google and, by extension, Bing and Facebook are headed in. Essentially, we’re seeing a variety of factors both algorithmic and user-derived coming together to better generate accurate SERPs.
Digital rights in an increasingly digital environment
One of the greatest challenges faced by Google is the sensitive issue of digital rights management and copyright infringement. The well-publicized Megaupload fiasco proves that companies are serious about protecting their intellectual property.
The recent Emanuel or DMCA update introduced by Google is equal parts legal compliance and quality assurance. By penalizing sites that illegally host copyright-protected content, Mountain View is focusing on keeping their noses clean and rewarding original content producers. Though it’s a large investment in time and manpower, the overall effect is a positive one.
Moral of the story
Google needs to diversify its revenue streams and decrease its reliance on traditional search-based advertising.
Regardless, there’s no reason to think that they’ll pay any less attention to search. If anything, Google will redouble its efforts by refining algorithms, introducing new ranking factors, and moving closer to an engine that actually “understands” its users’ queries.
No matter what happens, the next few years will be an interesting time for web search in general.