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The death of search

The internet is gigantic. Conservative estimates put it around a trillion pages in size. In an ocean of data that is growing exponentially, the need to navigate it has never been more important. Yet despite this relentless growth, huge changes in what we need from the internet, how and where we access it,  and the way we actually find content has changed very little. We've basically operated within just three radically different paradigms so far.

In the first iteration of the internet, from its beginnings as a commercial entity, we operated in the era of discovery. Then around 2002, we shifted to a long period of pure search. Recently we've morphed into a new era of blended search and social discovery.

But everything is about to change. The advent of predictive computing will create a new movement in how we navigate content. We've been in control of what we've looked for, but now it's about to find us. How have we got here and what does it mean?

The first paradigm: Portals and discovery

The early internet was the era of portals and discovery. The home pages of AOL or Yahoo would be entry points or gateways to categories through which we navigated. It worked quite well then, partly because the internet was a billion times smaller, but mainly because we didn't know better. How can you begin to design something for the first time, with no sense of what it will be, how it will be used, or what it will become? Faced with a blank canvas, portals replicated the way we found content in a pre-internet world. It was our way to put newspapers online, so it was inevitable it would contain sections, sub-menus, and scrolling pages. This was an era where the front page was everything, and the curators of the content were in control.

The second paradigm: The birth of search

The arrival of Google signaled the end of the discovery era, and the birth of the era of search. The audacious move to place a blank screen and a cursor in front of us had many exclaiming that it would never work, that we fundamentally needed guidance online. We still do need guidance, but with the emergence of a more confident generation bought up on a diet of computers, Google offered a transformative alternative to the curated experience of AOL and Yahoo -- the notion that you, the user, are in control.

The third paradigm: Contextual search

For all of the twists and turns to the internet -- the rise of the visual web, the web 2.0 revolution, the rise of e-commerce, mobile, and more -- search has stood the test of time. For over a decade, the idea of the user at the helm and a personal web experience has been key. But more data and more processing has led to an evolution towards a more intelligent and personal search.

Search has, of course, improved and evolved. We now get ever better search results based on our history, location, and more impressively still, our social graph.

We are now in a hybrid period, a blended world of search and discovery, but the key difference is discovery now is social discovery. We use Google for searching, but it is Facebook and Twitter who are now our discovery portals. Just like AOL and Yahoo curated the internet for you in the '90s, social media curates for you now, with an important distinction -- it's our friends, family, heroes, and celebrities who guide our discovery.

Search is of massive importance for three reasons:

  • It remains the only way to navigate the sea of information within the internet.

  • It's the best way to make money on the internet. Search advertising has always been the number one revenue generator on the internet. It makes up more than half of Google's revenue and looks set to grow forever. It's quite simple. What's a better way to reach people than when they have asked for something?

  • It's becoming even more important now as we shift to an online world that is mainly accessed on mobile devices. In fact, mobile search is about as exciting as imaginable for a whole range of advertisers.

But so far nobody has talked about the third paradigm of the internet: the era of anticipation.

Anticipatory suggestions

Google is the champion of the search era, but it has also built the best known system for the collection and processing of data. Whether it's where we are, how we behave, where we live, how fast we are moving, what we have planned for that day, what we've been shopping for, what we've enjoyed, who we know -- Google knows it all. In a lot of situations, Google may know more about us than we do. This could lead to a profound change in how we receive information and, crucially, how we are marketed to.

Until now, every form of search has been "pull-based." It relies on us to be in control, to basically "pull" information from us. What with the never-ending updates to Google's algorithms, search results can be ever more fast and accurate. But it still needs our input in the first place. With the realization that Google has collected masses of information about us in the past and continues to do so on a daily basis, the real revolution will be anticipatory computing, or predictive computing.
Google has already started to make information cards appear on our screens based on our behavior. Amazon's Fire TV already downloads content it predicts we may want to watch to reduce download times. MindMeld is a video conferencing app that offers relevant information as we talk to someone. The smart thermostat Nest learns our behavior and changes heating settings and timings based on our predicted movements. Effectively, suggestions are being made to you at the same time as you realize you want something -- it does not wait for you to search for something. In the same way that push-based email revolutionized mobile working, push-based discovery will revolutionize what we used to call search.
Search, at present, offers businesses the chance to advertise your product or service when people are searching for something relevant. But it relies on a central premise -- that someone has decided to look for something. We're mentally attached on our smartphones, but we still need to choose to look at them. Do you always do a Google search as you are walking down the street and looking for a place to eat? When you need a taxi, do you always search online? There could be many daily situations where you have a need and are open to advice, but you won't do a search.

The true era of anticipation will be the onset of the ambient layer. With technology such as Google Glass or Google watches, we will enter into an era of true predictive computing -- a world where the off-line world blends into the online world. There will be an ambient layer of assistance that doesn't make decisions for us but merely offers suggestions. Imagine that it's 1 p.m. and you are walking around an unknown city. Your Google watch could show you a nearby place to eat that it knows you'd like because it knows what cuisines you enjoy. Imagine that it's 7 p.m. and about to rain. Perhaps Google could tell you about a nearby taxi company. What if you're driving to a destination and it's late? Maybe your in-car GPS can suggest hotels to you with live pricing and special offers.

We are entering a world where search will become obsolete because everything we need will already be in front of us.

Tom Goodwin is the director at Tomorrow.

On Twitter? Follow Goodwin at @Tomfgoodwin and iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

After 13 years working around the most exciting edges of advertising and around the world, Tom set up Tomorrow, an advertising agency to reimagine marketing for the modern age. Tom believes in a best of both approach, to embrace the new...

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