How marketers can prepare for the future of search

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Don’t let the AI hype fool you – the future of search is driven by people, not algorithms.

The future of search is changing in front of our eyes. Google is rolling out new, experimental search experiences while Microsoft leans heavily into generative AI. Meanwhile, YouTube is blurring the line between search and social and TikTok is taking searches away from Google itself.

Tech companies are writing headlines with each new feature release, but marketers need to stay focused. The future of search is driven by people, not algorithms – and the latest user data proves it.

The role of search is changing

As the internet continues to expand and user habits evolve, the role of search is changing. This isn’t limited to search or any single channel, though. People’s relationship with the internet is evolving, driven by a mix of social trends, generational shifts and new technologies.

Sure, we can talk about platforms like TikTok changing the web (and we will) but this only tells part of the story. The real headline here is that internet users are living in a different world now to the one that existed before TikTok.

We’re firmly into the age of permacrisis and we’re even deeper into the age of misinformation, a phenomenon that’s eroding society’s ability to acknowledge the issues it faces, let alone deal with them.

If this all sounds a little negative, consider how the average person feels as they scroll through their social feeds. The phrase “doomscrolling” is now everyday language, contrasted with digital detox trends for people who want to switch off and get away from it all. Marketers need to pay attention because these concerns are changing the way people use search – and the internet, in general.

People are starting to spend less time online

In this context, it’s not surprising that time spent online has hit a ceiling – as shown by insights from GWI.

Time online has hit a ceiling

“Even in internet growth markets, time spent isn’t increasing as it used to. In the Middle East & Africa, and Latin America, average daily time spent online has fallen by 20 minutes and 34 minutes respectively since 2021 – and this remains the case among younger audiences too.” GWI; Connecting the dots – Discover the trends that’ll dominate 2023

The Covid-19 pandemic encouraged people to spend more of their time online but we’re now seeing a sharp decline. The average amount of time spent online has rapidly dropped to pre-pandemic levels where usage was already declining from highs in 2016-2017.

Marketers need to track this metric over the coming years because it puts everything else into context.

Finding information is still the most important reason to spend time online, but…

The same report illustrates shifting habits in how people use their online time. Crucially, finding information is still the most important reason for using the internet but keeping up with news and events has dropped since users were asked the same question in 2018.

Reasons people go online

The biggest shift in priorities is using the web to find new ideas and inspiration while keeping in touch with family and friends is now considered the second-most important reason to use the internet. Actively researching products and brands is now less important, as is using the internet to fill up spare time.

Let’s get back to the most important reason for using the internet: finding information. Yes, this is still cited as the web’s most valuable role in today’s society but the percentage of users stating this is steadily declining.

the number of people going online to find information is steadily declining, even though it is still the biggest reason

Google executives are well aware that informational searches are declining, particularly when it comes to Gen Z. Speaking to TechCrunch in 2022, Google Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan revealed the search giant’s insights found that almost 40% of youngsters turn to TikTok or Instagram when looking for a place to eat lunch – not Google Maps or Search.

Gen Z is driving the future of search

Google understands that Gen Z is driving the future of search. This is the generation largely responsible for the short-form video boom and TikTok’s rapid, meteoric global rise – a trend that shaped the current direction of the social web.

Almost every platform has clamoured to release its own short-form video formats over the past few years. Millennials are big on short-form video, too, but it was the global push from Gen Z that forced networks to respond as quickly as possible.

Sooner than most probably expected, Gen Z seized the mantle from Millennials as the key influencer in the online world. Gen Z is now in the driving seat and they don’t have the same preconceptions as their older peers.

For example, Gen Z is more receptive to short-form video ads on social networks than previous generations. Many of them don’t remember a time when social platforms weren’t inundated with ads and it seems they’re more comfortable with ad formats that fit into the wider experience of a platform.

This could partly explain why Gen Z is so receptive to discovering new brands on social – and, vice versa, why they’re more receptive to relevant ads.

Marketers can’t assume that Gen Z is only interested in short-form video, though. Insights from Google suggest this generation’s attention span could be longer than many would like to assume and they’re specifically searching out long-form video content on YouTube.

More people are searching for video essays on YouTube

It turns out Gen Z is increasingly discovering new brands and content creators through short-form videos and, then, seeking them out elsewhere. This can drive brand searches, direct social engagement (follows, likes, etc.) and searches for long-form videos from creators or brands on YouTube.

Marketers need to pay attention to what’s happening on YouTube, too. Multiple studies find YouTube is Gen Z’s favourite social platform and Instagram is comfortably in second place – not TikTok.

YouTube stands out as Gen Z's most-used platform, following by Instagram and TikTok

So, before you pump all of your marketing budget into TikTok, you should probably ask whether you’re making the most of YouTube.

Funnily enough, a separate study from Morning Consult asks Gen Z who their favourite brands are and the top three are YouTube (86.23%), Google (83.87%) and Netflix (82.18%).

Millennials & older generations aren’t done yet

When the world’s biggest tech companies are tripping over each other to appease Gen Z, many brands and marketers follow suit. Let’s not pretend Millennials and older generations are out of the race, though. In fact, Millennials and Gen X are still larger online populations than Gen Z in the UK and they’re also bigger active spenders online.

UK digital users by user ranking, by generation 2023

As insights from Insider Intelligence show, Gen X is still a key age group for online brands with the strongest balance of digital activity and financial clout.

Millennials are coming of age as a key demographic but much of this age group has lived through tougher economic times. As a result, they may never reach the financial clout of their seniors. At the same time, Gen Z is growing fast as a consumer age group but their financial outlook is even more unpredictable.

This will inevitably become the core consumer demographic but they could also be the most financially disadvantaged, collectively.

Unsurprisingly, Gen Z is already more sensitive to economic shock than its older peers. As the cost of living crisis continues, Gen Z is cutting back on spending more than any other age group in the UK.

Don’t ignore generational similarities

It’s tempting to talk about the differences between Gen Z, Millennials and other generations but this can lead us in the wrong direction. Generations also share similarities and this is particularly true for Millennials and Gen Z.

First of all, these are the two most digitally-native demographics. Gen Z may have led the TikTok boom but Millennials followed closely behind, having already driven the growth of Instagram, which much of Gen Z uses with similar enthusiasm.

You’ll also find similarities in attitudes towards brands, consumer values and sensitivity to economic shock. For example, despite being the two most financially disadvantaged generations alive, 41% of Gen Z and Millennials make impulse purchases every few weeks – more than any other demographic.

Other similarities include:

Of course, Gen Z and Millennials are different in many ways and these differences are important, especially if you’re targeting a narrow age bracket. However, it’s a mistake to get too caught up in the differences and ignore the similarities. It’s also easy to read too much into stats separating generations and overlook some of the priorities they share.

Always put the data into context

Don’t get carried away with the statistics, either. Yes, Google insights show roughly 40% of Gen Z use Instagram or TikTok instead of Maps or Search to find a place to eat at lunch. That’s still a minority, though – and a split between two rivals.

That leaves 60% of Gen Z, most of whom will probably turn to Google or other search platforms for this purpose.

A 2022 study from local SEO software provider, Rio SEO, backs this up:

  • 47% of Gen Zers said they very frequently use Google Search and Google Maps to find information about businesses in their area.
  • 68% of Gen Zers conduct multiple online searches per day.
  • 65% of Gen Zers want to travel 10 miles or less for a business’s products or services.

Search engines are still the primary source people turn to for information. The difference is more people are getting their information from a wider variety of sources (primarily Gen Z from social media) and this reduces the share for traditional search.

The rise of content discovery & exploration

One of social media’s biggest influences on the web is how it serves content to users. With traditional search, users are actively looking for content and typing in queries. They have to have an idea of what they’re looking for and a specific need in mind – otherwise, they’re staring at a blank page.

With social media, users are scrolling through an endless feed that constantly recommends content for them. Meanwhile, social algorithms constantly learn about user preferences so they can deliver relevant content and keep users scrolling or interacting with the platform.

Google isn’t in denial that the modern web centres around content discovery and exploration. It has launched a series of apps and experiences aimed at satisfying these demands over the past decade, including the Discover app, the Google News app and SERP features bringing content discovery to Search.

More recently, Google has teased a new AI search experience that will place greater emphasis on topic exploration over traditional queries.

As the web shifts towards content discovery and exploration, marketers also need to recognise the type of content people are engaging with is also changing. Influencer marketing was one of the biggest trends of the peak Millennial age, shifting the focus away from brands and placing it on individuals.

While the earlier days of influencer marketing lost their shine, they’ve been replaced by a new era of content creators who are less promotional and more authentic to their audiences.

The age of content creators is here

Brands and marketers that don’t have a plan for the age of content creators need to develop one – and soon. Millennials and Gen Z flock to YouTube, TikTok and Instagram to watch content from their favourite creators – and discover new ones.

Until users have a reason to actively search for something, this is how they’re spending most of their time online.

As content preferences continue to change, marketers need to adapt their strategies to maintain visibility for their brands. If your target audiences are spending most of their online time engaging with content creators, you’ve got three core approaches:

  1. Become a content creator: For brands with the right kind of image, becoming a content creator will be the best way to build and engage with a community directly.
  2. Partner with creators: Brands can also tap into the community of existing content creators by partnering with them through sponsorship and other means.
  3. Advertise on creator platforms: One of the easiest ways to tap into creator communities is to advertise on the platforms they use – eg: YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, etc.

You can’t just jump into the world of creators with the same mentality, though. Whichever strategies you adopt, you have to cater for changing attitudes. Millennials and Gen Z, in particular, demand authenticity and they’re quick to call out brands that fake it.

In the age of content creators, younger audiences are connecting with individuals and participating in communities. They want to interact with content creators directly and, in the case of brands, with the people behind the business and other members of the community.

We also have to consider the wider impacts the age of content creators will have on search, in general. Successful creators monetise their content and we’re already seeing an increase in gated content, paywalls, subscriptions and other monetisation strategies.

This isn’t unique to the world of creators on YouTube and TikTok, either. Online publications are also paywalling much of their content in a battle for survival. Content creation takes more time and effort than ever but the rewards are constantly shrinking in an open web.

If this trend continues, search engines like Google will have less free, quality content to index. Search, as we know it, wouldn’t survive this without finding new ways to incentivise content creation.

Some people will point to generative AI as a solution to this but the technology relies on masses of data from content in order to function. Without a constant supply of fresh, accurate data, generative AI falls apart and collapses.

Search is expanding – along with everything else

Google has been the front door to online information for so long now that it’s hard to imagine anything else.

The change is already happening, though, and it has been for many years. We’ve got Gen Z turning to Instagram and TikTok when they’re hungry, holidaymakers using apps like Skyscanner to search for flights and Spotify as the go-to platform for music and podcast searches.

As far back as 2016, Google admitted that 55% of product searches in the US started on Amazon, not Search or Shopping.

At the same time, millions turn to Pinterest for home decor inspiration, YouTube for travel guides and Twitch for live streams. Even within the Google ecosystem, users now have Search for informational queries, Shopping for product searches, Google Maps for local businesses and plenty more.

Search isn’t getting smaller; it’s expanding. It’s expanding in terms of purpose (information, shopping, entertainment, etc.) and also the variety of platforms people are using. Instead of Google Search being the doorway to everything online, we’ve got dedicated apps for music, transport, food delivery, hotels, flights, etc. – and the list continues to grow.

As a result, the percentage of informational queries is shrinking in relation to other online purposes.

This doesn’t make informational queries any less important, though. Yes, the rise of discoverability, creator content, generative AI and other trends are changing the search landscape. But none of these channels prioritise quality, accuracy and trustworthiness in the same way as informational search.

Accurate information may not be the only thing people are looking for from online experiences anymore, but it’s more important than ever when they need it.

How marketers need to adapt

There’s a lot of noise surrounding the evolution of search right now and this will only get worse. Marketers need to keep their focus and pay attention to the signals that really matter as they plan for the next era of search.

Earlier, we linked to a study from GWI showing the latest user trends. In the intro of that very study, the company cites an earlier publication, admitting previous predictions about the rise of voice search and other trends were wide of the mark.

The tech industry spent years trying to tell us that voice search was the future and, since then, it’s tried similar things with virtual reality, augmented reality, the metaverse and so much more.

As of yet, none of these predictions have materialised and any brands invested in these technologies are left to deal with the consequences.

We’re now at a point where all attention is on AI technology and, at the moment, generative AI in particular. This case is a little different because AI has been driving search evolution for many years already – and it will continue to do so. However, now that the hype surrounding AI has exceeded reality, marketers and brands need to be careful.

Don’t get caught up in the hype. Focus on what really matters: user adoption.

The only reason voice search hasn’t replaced typing is that users haven’t fully adopted it. Likewise, the metaverse is languishing in the depths of VR and AR because people, for the most part, aren’t using it. Yet all of the key trends driving search right now (short-form video, content discovery, etc.) are taking place because users are driving them.

This is where marketers will find the answers they’re looking for.

We can help you prepare for the future of search

If you have any concerns about the future of search or how to adapt during this time of evolution, our search marketing team can help you find the answers – based on data, not speculation.

Call us on 023 9283 0281 or send us your details and we’ll get right back to you.

Lee Wilson profile picture
Lee Wilson

Lee has been working in the online arena, leading digital departments since the early 2000s, and oversees all our delivery services at Vertical Leap, having joined back in 2010. Lee joined our company Operations Team in May 2019. Before working at Vertical Leap, Lee completed a degree in Business Management & Communications at Winchester University, headed up the online development and direct marketing department for an international financial services company for ~7 years, and set up/run a limited company providing website design, development and digital marketing solutions. Lee had his first solely authored industry book (Tactical SEO) published in 2016, with 2 further industry books being published in 2019, and can be seen regularly expert contributing to industry websites including State of Digital, Search Engine Journal, The Drum, plus many others. Lee has a passion for management in the digital industry and loves to see the progression of others through personal learning, training and development. Outside the office he looks to help others while challenging himself, having skydived, bungie jumped and abseiled (despite a fear of heights) with many more fundraising and voluntary events completed and on the horizon. As a husband and dad, Lee loves to spend time with his family and friends. His hobbies include exercising, trying new experiences, eating out, playing countless team sports, as well as watching films (Gangster movies in particular – “forget about it”).

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