Spring has finally sprung, driving even the most hard-nosed online marketeers outdoors to enjoy the sunshine. It’s a time when important trends and developments can easily be missed – and that’s why we’ve summarised the most important SEO news for May here. This time we will be looking at the development of the search market, Google’s assault on e-commerce, and possible negative impacts of language assistants on our behaviour.
1) The market for search engines is maturing
It’s once again back in fashion to question Google’s dominance in the search market. The Facebook data protection scandal means that many critics of the Google system are hoping that a slightly larger portion of the online community is beginning to recognise that “free of charge” online doesn’t mean “without cost”, and that as a result, user numbers for the Mountain View search engine will no longer continue to grow. We can see some support for this assumption in the trend of many users preferring to start their shopping search directly in Amazon – a competing company. And this presents a good reason to ask the questions: is Google losing market share? Where are users actually doing their online searching? A study by American data collectors from Jumpshot sheds some light on the matter. SEO veteran Rand Fishkin interpreted their analysis of US clickstream data – i.e. referrer data at server level and anonymised click logs from web applications – from 2015 to 2018, with surprising results. Contrary to the presumed trend, the number of searches on Amazon is in fact growing; however, because the total figure for all searches increased at the same time, Amazon’s market share consistently remained around 2.3% over the entire period analysed. A detailed look at the various Google services, such as the image search or Google maps, reveals declining figures for searches within these special services, due to technological and design changes. However, these searches are simply shifting to the universal Google web search. This means that the company from Mountain View has been successful in integrating a range of services for users on mobile devices and desktops into its central search results page. Google’s market share therefore also increased by 1.5 percentage points between 2015 and 2018 to around 90%, meaning that the competition seems miles behind. As with Amazon, the search share for YouTube, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter is almost unchanged. Microsoft’s search engine Bing and Yahoo have not increased their market share despite a rise in searches. Fishkin’s conclusion is appropriately pragmatic: the search engine industry was at a sufficiently high level of maturity in 2018 that a handful of strong players were able to successfully establish themselves on the market. However, Google’s dominance will not be at risk for some years, as all of its pursuers are benefiting equally from continued dynamic growth in search volumes, the SEO expert summarises. Fishkin adds that even if the giant from Mountain View manages to emerge apparently unscathed from any data scandals, the fact that Amazon, Bing, etc. are able to successfully keep pace with the market leader is the real key finding behind the Jumpshot figures. This assessment is also in line with the phenomenon of growth in mobile searches not coming at the expense of traditional desktop searches. Instead, mobile expansion is also taking place as growth, while desktop searches at a continued high level have not lost relevance.
2) Google wants to know what you bought last summer
In the growing segment of transactional shopping searches, Google’s market power is built on sand. Although the Mountain View company has successfully established Google Shopping as a brokering platform, their vision of controlling the entire value chain, including payment platform, has remained a pipe dream. Or to identify the issue more precisely: Google knows what people are searching for, but only Amazon knows what millions of people actually buy. This is about to change. With a feature launched in the USA called ‘Google Shopping Actions’, a buy option can be displayed directly in the Google search results for products from participating retailers. This feature is intended for retailers that want to sell their products via Google search, the Google Express local delivery service, and in the Google Assistant on smartphones, as well as language assistants. Instead of having to sidestep to selling platforms such as Amazon, the user will in future be able to procure products directly through Google. Google says that Google Shopping Actions will make buying simpler and centralised. The company announced that a centralised shopping basket and a payment process that uses a Google account means that the shopping experience will be processed easily and securely for users of the search engine. In addition to traditional search using the Google search field, it will also be possible to make purchases using speech input, enabling the company to remain competitive in the age of language assistants. Of course the other side of the coin is that a direct shopping function also enables a new level of quality data to be collected and attributed to individual users in Mountain View.
3) Alexa and the age of unrefinement
“Mummy! Turn the living room light on now!” Any child that tries to get what it wants using these words will probably fail miserably. It’s an unchanging component of childhood that you learn to politely word a request to another person as a question, and that that little word “please” is always – by a distance – the most important part of a statement of wish. But this iron certainty is at risk. And that’s not because of a vague suspicion that children these days are no longer taught manners by their parents: what might prove to be a much stronger factor is that the highly digitised younger generation have at their command – even from a very early age – a whole arsenal of compliant, uncomplaining helpers and assistants who do not respond with hurt feelings or refusal if given an abrupt command to complete a task immediately. In the American magazine ‘The Atlantic’, author Ken Gordon engages with the effects of this development on future generations. He states that although precise commands are a central component in controlling software, it makes a huge difference whether these are silently conveyed to a system using a keyboard, or delivered to a humanised machine assistant via speech commands. Gordon goes on to say that the fact that Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and so on accept the lack of a “Please” or “Thank you” without complaint could leave an emotional blind spot in young people. Finally, he concludes that although a speech command is just a different type of programming: “Vocalizing one’s authority can be problematic, if done repeatedly and unreflectively.” But it’s still too early to start predicting how our interaction with each other will change when artificial intelligence and robots become fixed parts of our family, work teams, and ultimately society.