How Google Search is reinventing itself

The evolving digital landscape has changed people’s search behaviours forever.

A view from behind a person’s shoulder of them on their laptop with Google’s home page open.
Photo by on Unsplash

Google is completely changing the way that search engines operate.

Search behaviours encompass much more than simply asking a question and looking for an answer. Often, people don’t have a specific question in mind, but are curious to explore a topic. Or they might be trying to learn something that doesn’t have an obvious answer.

The online world has become more visual and interactive than ever, thanks to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Many people are turning to multimedia to find what they’re looking for. Sometimes, a simple text result isn’t always the best format to satisfy a search query.

The tech giant recently announced many exciting plans during their “Search On 22” event to reinvent search by being more than a search engine.

Before we talk about how Google is adapting to this new era of visual search, let’s briefly talk about the three types of search queries to understand the motivations behind a search.

  1. Navigational — To find a particular website, such as ‘Medium
  2. Informational — To learn about something, such as ‘the origins of Halloween’, or answer a question, such as ‘what’s a normal age to get grey hair?
  3. Transactional — To make a purchase decision, which can be specific, such as ‘buy iPhone 14 Pro’, or broad, such as ‘book a flight

By understanding these types of search queries, Google can decide which formats are best to display the relevant results, such as:

  • Photos
  • Short-form videos
  • Long-form videos
  • Reviews
  • Forums
  • Blogs
  • News

Now that we’ve talked about why people search and the formats to display information, here are some of the ways Google is reinventing the way users search.

Google Lens allows people to search by taking a photo or screenshot of something. Based on the image, Google can detect and understand what the user might want to know.

For example, Google may detect an image of a dress and assume that the search is transactional, since people who have searched for dresses in the past may be looking to buy one. As a result, it might display links to stores where a similar looking dress can be purchased.

Another example is uploading a picture of a math question. Google will extract the text from the image and surface the answer to the problem or related links to solving that type of equation.

The results from Google Lens will be relevant to what Google detects the image to be.

An image showing how Google Lens can extract the text from an image of a math equation from a textbook and display results related to solving the math problem.
(Source: Google Lens — Homework)

Building on top of Lens, Google’s advancements in AI allow for more natural and intuitive ways of searching with the multisearch feature.

Users can search by using a picture or screenshot and adding a text query to it. This mimics the behaviour of how someone might point at something and ask a question about it.

Multisearch can also be useful for when you don’t quite have the words to describe what you’re looking for. Google will help you explore your curiosity by providing suggestions that it thinks might be relevant to you.

A gif of capturing an image of a tropical shirt in Google Lens, then adding “tie” to the search which leads to search results of tropical ties.
(Source: The Keyword — Search On 2022 Announcements)

As if image searching wasn’t enough, Google is elevating Maps to include immersive views of the real-world.

People like to research places before they visit them. For example, before visiting a restaurant, one might check out their Instagram page to get a better sense of what to expect from the food and overall ambience of the restaurant.

With immersive views, you can virtually explore and understand the vibe of a place before deciding to go. You can also view places at different times of the day and in different weather conditions to help plan your visit more accurately.

This takes decision-making to a whole new level.

A gif of a mobile phone taking the user through an immersive view of a cityscape leading to the inside of a restaurant.
(Source: The Keyword — Search outside the box: How we’re making Search more natural and intuitive)

People want to receive advice or opinions from other people. These searches can be related to purchasing a product, experiencing a service, or any topic that you might ask a friend.

With this desire in mind, Google is introducing a “Discussions and forums” section in their search results “when you search for something that might benefit from the diverse personal experiences found in online discussions.”

If you search for the best cars for a growing family, in addition to other web results, you’ll now see links to forum posts that include relevant advice from people, like their experience with minivans for transporting multiple children.

If you’re used to typing “reddit” after your search query to read actual people’s experiences, “Discussions and forums” are a direct response to this behaviour.

A mockup of a mobile phone showing Google’s new ‘Discussions and forums’ feature.
(Source: 9to5google — Google Search adding ‘Discussions and forums’ section and translated news coverage)

Instead of searching for something, looking for the best result, clicking into a website, and finding the information on the page, Google displays featured snippets that surface the most relevant answer from a website directly on the results page.

This can drastically reduce the time needed for someone to get the information they are looking for.

Featured snippets can be especially useful when searching on mobile or by voice, as it eliminates the need for discovery when looking for a quick answer.

We display featured snippets when our systems determine this format will help people more easily discover what they’re seeking, both from the description about the page and when they click on the link to read the page itself.

For example, a Google search for “how to jump start a car” surfaces a featured snippet from a website that displays the steps to jump start a car, right on the results page.

Google’s automated systems determined based on previous searches that the information in the featured snippet is the most relevant for this specific search query.

A screenshot of a Google search results page for “how to jump start a car”.
A screenshot of a Google search results page for “how to jump start a car”.

Vertically scrolling through short-form videos has taken over Gen Z, but not just with dancing and lip syncing videos. Many people turn to TikTok to research products, learn something, listen to other people’s experiences, or see places before visiting them.

In fact, TikTok has transformed the way brands connect with their audiences. Content creators are able to promote brands on TikTok, which contributes to an infinite loop of discovery, consideration, purchase, review and participation.

TikTok’s Retail Path to Purchase is not linear. It’s an infinite loop. From discovery to consideration to purchase to review to participation.
(Source: TikTok for Business — The infinite loop: TikTok’s unique retail path to purchase)

TikTok has reported that 49% of users use the platform as a source for discovering something new and 35% use it for learning something new.

“In our studies, something like almost 40 percent of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search. They go to TikTok or Instagram.”

— Prabhakar Raghavan, Google Senior Vice President

It’s safe to say that short-form user-generated content is another way people discover and learn about things from a seemingly more personal perspective.

Based on this data, it’s no surprise that Google introduced YouTube Shorts globally in 2021 to compete in the short-form video space. As of 2022, YouTube Shorts has billions of daily views, suggesting that users have accepted Google’s platform as a fierce competitor to TikTok.

By recognizing new trends and adding enhancements to their suite of products, Google is pushing the boundaries of how search operates.

Whether you’re looking for a specific answer or just discovering something new, Google’s helpful features will lead to a better search experience to get people the right information in the best format possible.

A gif of some of Google’s helpful search features.
(Source: Google Search — Helpful Features)

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