Google Search On 2022 - the empire strikes back
Search On 2022 was full of announcements that show how Google aims to defend itself against Inta-Tok and Amazon.
The largest animals are the easiest targets. Alphabet’s +20 years success story is remarkable but opened several angles from which the company is getting attacked. Google’s Search On 2022 event was a demonstration of defense mechanisms against these attacks from Insta-Tok and Amazon.
As marketers, it’s important to understand the dynamics between the biggest platforms and where Search is heading.
Instead of going through each announcement individually, I will explain how they fall into strategic buckets and provide a roadmap for the future of Search.
Breaking out of the Search box
Google's biggest strength is also its weakness. In 3 years, Alphabet could barely diversify away from Search as largest revenue source.
In the meantime, the world saw the rise of a new challenger: TikTok. Google's only true defense is Youtube, but recent earnings (indicating growth slowed down) disappointed.
Instead, Google aims to break out of the Search box and steer users to search with their smartphone camera (called Multisearch). In my review of Search On 2021, I wrote about the age of visual indexing powered by MUM. Google understands that the way we search is outdated and technology allows users to use more devices and information to provide a better idea of what they’re searching for.
Visual Indexing is part of Google’s vision for Ambient Computing.
Local against Amazon
Speaking of Ambient Computing, Amazon held their hardware event just one hour before Search On 2022 - what a dig! [x]
Google reiterated its vision for Ambient Computing at Google I/O 2022:
Your devices work together with services and AI, so help is anywhere you want it, and it’s fluid. The technology just fades into the background when you don’t need it. So the devices aren’t the center of the system, you are. That’s our vision for ambient computing.
Amazon made that fairly clear in a blog article in December 2021 [x]:
This vision of ambient intelligence is not that different from the one on Star Trek. But for most of the last decade, the focus has been reactive assistance — for example, ensuring that customer-initiated requests to Alexa meet customers’ expectations.
In the ambient-intelligence vision, an AI service such as Alexa makes sense of the state of your environment, including devices, sensors, objects, people, and activity around you, to help you in every situation where you need assistance — either reactively (customer initiated) or proactively (AI initiated).
Both Amazon and Google compete not just for ecommerce but also for Ambient Computing! Neighborhood Vibe Check and the next level of Live View are the results of Google leaning into its competitive advantage against Amazon, which is Local Search. [x]
On top of that, Google announced a slew of new e-commerce Search features to attack Amazon heads-on [x]:
Shop the look
Product suggestions in Discover
The latter is especially interesting. Google Discover is a push channel, meaning users get suggestions based on how Google perceives their preferences without searching for anything.
Adding product suggestions to Discover is a small step toward competing with platforms that focus almost exclusively on discovery, like Tiktok or Instagram.
Videos against Insta-Tok
Google didn’t dwell on the point for long, but the Search On 2022 presentation showed a local search for Oaxaca with new SERP Features that included creator videos. It’s unclear whether these videos come from Google’s Web Stories or 3rd party platforms. [x]
“For topics like cities, you may see visual stories and short videos from people who have visited, tips on how to explore the city, things to do, how to get there and other important aspects you might want to know about as you plan your travels.”
Two other platforms that are working on a similar feature are Tiktok and Instagram.
TikTok has released a new Nearby feature that shows posts in close proximity [x]:
TikTok’s Nearby feed would offer a similar experience but be paired with the app’s already-successful recommendation algorithm. In theory, the feed should display local content that you actually want to see. For example, if your For You page often displays restaurant recommendations or must-see hiking spots, the Nearby feed should show you videos of restaurants and hiking trails that are near you.
Instagram is working on a searchable map similar to Snapchat [x]:
Prior to this update, the map experience on Instagram only included posts. With this new update, users can search the map, access filtering options and move the map around to look at what’s nearby. Meta says the new map is now available on Instagram.
The company says the new searchable map allows users to have a more immersive experience when finding popular locations and businesses around them via tagged posts, stories and guides. You can also find relevant locations on the map when searching certain hashtags.
More personalization, better targeting
Google takes another stab at personalizing Search with 3 new features. I already mentioned personalized Discover suggestions earlier. The other two are product filters and personalized search results.
Google approaches this in an active and passive way. Users can favor shopping brands and get more results from them, but Google also tries to understand better what customers prefer. Personalization, in general, is much easier to do in the context of shopping because it’s clear that any search along a journey will eventually end in a conversion intent.
What’s interesting about the active approach, though, is that it provides Google a strong signal for FLoC successor Topics. As browser cookies fade, more personalization means better targeting, especially if users indicate what they prefer.
More first-hand experience
One pattern in Google’s most recent updates is the focus on real experience. Publishers who write product reviews but clearly never tried the product out will struggle to get organic traffic in the future.
At Search On 2022, Google introduced a new feature called Discussions and Forums that shows more results from online forums like Reddit to surface “more results from people’s authentic experiences”. This announcement fits right into the direction Google is going in with recent updates because forums are more likely to contain a lot of first-hand experience from users.
But it also makes sense from a user preference perspective. The graph below shows how the demand for Reddit has grown strongly over the last 2 years. Today, searches for Reddit surpass destinations like the New York Times, Fox, CNN, and even Twitter.
It’s unlikely that Reddit could ever rival Google as a search engine, but it’s a place with valuable information, and Google wants to surface more of that in the search results. Users don’t convert on Reddit, so Google may aim to show key pieces of information from Reddit in Search not to lose its position as starting point for buyer research.
Putting the pieces together
Google is defending itself in several areas: e-commerce, local search, and video. At Search On 2022, the company introduced many features that marketers and Growth experts need to understand.
Google’s ad business model is very compatible with all new experiences. Local businesses can bid on more visibility in Live View or run ads in local creator stories. More personalization enables better targeting for Google Topics. More engaging e-commerce results enable more brands to pay for product-listing ads.
The big strategic pillars are to detach from text search, bring more information (and ads) to the real world, and surface more first-hand experience. Image optimization, local reviews, and forum presence gain importance. We will find new paid and organic approaches to reaching audiences and acquiring customers within these pillars.