When Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page announced yesterday that they were restructuring Google’s operations by making it a subsidiary of a newly created holding company called Alphabet in an effort to “make it cleaner and more accountable”, it seemed, at first glance, like an April Fool’s joke that came out four months too late.
Speculation about this sudden change began instantly. Maybe it’s simply an effort to keep Google nimble and cutting-edge by separating its core business objectives and strategy from more “out-there” projects like Calico, which aims to slow or even prevent aging.
Or, if we want to be cynical, maybe this is an attempt by Google to untangle itself from antitrust charges recently filed by the European Commission.
But, with Sergei and Larry now running Alphabet, where does this leave their core search product, and what will the future hold for the “slightly slimmed down” and streamlined Google?
It is no doubt significant that former Google SVP Sundar Pichai is now the CEO of Google, and by examining Google’s recent history, as well as Pichai’s views and goals in light of this recent announcement, I believe we can make several key predictions about the future and direction of Google Search.
Even More Focus on Mobile
Google has been focusing more on mobile for years, and just this year, rolled out a new, separate set of ranking factors for mobile. Why the continued focus on mobile? Other than the fact that mobile usage continues to grow in the US, Pichai believes that a key element of Google’s continued growth is to connect with billions of potential users that could never be connected to before. And how will those users connect? The answer is mobile. In a recent interview, Pinchai explained:
"So we are thoughtfully, across our products, thinking about what it means for a user in India or Brazil or Indonesia or Africa with limited connectivity to use products like YouTube, Google Search, Google Maps. How do we make their experience better? That’s a big part of it."
In other words, Google is looking to make their Android, their mobile OS, the first experience that millions or even billions of users have with the internet. For the search marketer, this means making your mobile site optimized, streamlined, and effective, so that any user---whether they are browsing from their mobile device while watching TV or logging onto the internet for the very first time—can easily and intuitively understand how to navigate your site and whether or not it meets their needs.
No wonder Google’s mobile algorithm update put so much emphasis on ease of use, clickable links being properly spaced for human fingers, while condemning mobile-desktop site redirects. Can you imagine if a user who has never browsed the internet before tries to access a level two page on your mobile site and gets redirected to the desktop homepage instead? They wouldn’t know what to make of it, and would likely give up on your brand all together.
Avoiding that kind of mistake was the basis of the mobile algo update, and it seems it will continue to be a driving force behind the “streamlined” Google’s mission.
Google Is Looking to Predict and Assist
Ever since Google rolled out its Google Now app, it’s been clear that Google’s mission is not only to provide answers to a user's search queries, but actually anticipate those queries and provide an answer before it is even asked.
At its recent I/O Keynote address, Google revealed an extension of Google Now called Google Now on Tap, which is able to provide context and answers to a user even while they are using a completely different, unrelated app. For example, a user listening to a track on Spotify is able to verbally ask Google information about the artist playing, and Google Now on Tap will provide the answer.
What should a marketer do with this development?
Our recommendation is to structure, mark-up, and contextualize your data as much as possible. In a world where one of Google’s core mission statements is—in Pichai’s own words—“to organize users’ information” and “be assistive”, marketers should make sure that all of their sites core information is organized, parsed, and marked-up in such a way as to be easily understandable to Google. After all, Google can’t recommend your site’s information to its users if it can’t easily access and sort that information.
In the near future of Google, it seems that the same strategies that help websites rank in the Knowledge Graph or Quick Answers, are going to help recommend websites to millions of new users.
In a “Machine Learning” Future, On-Site Engagement Is Going to Be a Major Ranking Factor
While Google’s algorithm has always been a mystery, we may soon be approaching a world where no one physical person knows all of the ranking factors, because they will be determined by machine, not by man. In a recent Whiteboard Friday, Rand Fishkin elaborated on how Google is trending toward a machine-learning algorithm, in which the algorithm is constantly tabulating what satisfies users, and adjusting itself based on that tabulation, with little or no input from outside sources.
What this means for SEO, is that it will be much much harder to “game” or trick the algorithm because the algorithm will be constantly adjusting based on exactly how its users are interacting with your website. The ultimate goal, then, will be to satisfy searches. Fishkin elaborates:
"…if you produce something that means more successful searches for Google searchers when they get to your site, and you ranking in the top means Google searchers are happier, well you know what? The algorithm will catch up to you."
In other words, in the future, how many links or how much social buzz your website gets may matter less than how useful a searcher actually found your site to be.
Bold Prediction: Off-Line Search
At the very core, we know that in order to do a search on Google, a user must be connected to the internet. But, what if that’s not the case in Google’s future?
One of Pichai’s core values seems to be Google as a great equalizer, in the sense that anyone, anywhere should be able to easily access Google information, emphasizing in a recent interview that “…someone who has [access to] just a smartphone hopefully has...the same [capabilities] as someone who is more privileged.”
Connected with their aforementioned mission to bring smartphone connectivity to a new market of internet user who may have previously not had access, it becomes clear that marketers will soon face the responsibility of ensuring that websites can be used and understood by a soccer mom in the US, as well as a first-time user in a remote location.
Since connectivity in a remote location may be slower or work more selectively, we predict that Google will soon offer a way to search completely off-line.
While this may sound far-fetched, consider that Google recently announced that their Google Maps feature will be fully usable and searchable even offline:
"With offline maps, users will be able to save maps and search for things with everything they've become used to with the online version of Maps. You'll be able to browse reviews, hours, and even get turn-by-turn voice directions—all while offline."
Given this, it’s not too difficult to imagine a world where Google pre-saves a sample of top sites in key niches to a users’ smartphone when they are connected, so that they can access that information later when they are offline.
What can a marketer do if/when this happens?
We Can’t Predict Google
While Alphabet is no April Fool’s joke, it certainly was an unexpected development from a company that is never short on surprises. While it remains to be seen how the sudden creation of Alphabet and Pichai taking the reins of Google will play out, preparing as best as we can for Google’s immediate future is the best thing we can do for our clients.