Search in the age of assistance

March 2017

Fresh from Advertising Week Europe, Matt Bush, Director of Agencies - Google UK, explains how search is evolving to assist users in navigating an increasingly complicated world.

Every year the world gets a little more complex. Whether we're trying to get to grips with political and economic uncertainty, or just navigating the bewildering array of choices in everything from what we eat to what we watch on TV, we need information to help us make sense of it all. From the start, it’s been Google’s mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, which makes Google Search a natural place for people to turn when they want a little help in unravelling all this complexity.

Search connects inspiration with action, linking those moments when you want to buy something, or find somewhere, or understand what’s going on in the news, with a relevant piece of information. In the UK this year, our top searches reveal that we’ve helped people figure out everything from ‘how old is Donald Trump’ to ‘what is anxiety’, taking in ‘why do we have pancake day’ along the way - but search is evolving, and as it evolves, user expectations of how it can help are changing with it.

Four trends that are changing search
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The first trend in the evolution of search is mobile. Since the arrival of the smartphone a little under a decade ago, mobile has become the primary channel through which people access the internet. One of the most significant consequences of this shift has been that we access the web much more often, with the percentage of people using the web several times a day increasing from around 35% to 60% over the last five years1.

On top of this increase in usage, the second trend is that people are now accessing their device with their voice. As a result, we’re now seeing 20% of searches in the Google App coming from voice2.

The third trend shows that people are now spending more time in messaging apps than on social media. In fact, messaging overtook social media in 2015 - and has only become more important since3.

The fourth and final trend is the rise of connected devices. According to global web index, people now have an average of 3.64 connected devices. This is going to keep on growing, as computing becomes more ambient and assistive4.

The age of assistance

Add these four trends together, and you have the beginning of the age of assistance - where people are looking for a unified experience in which hardware and software work seamlessly together to provide answers in the moment and in context. When people start to think of their mobile device as an assistant rather than a search terminal, it changes the kind of questions they ask. Instead of using keywords like ‘weather paris today’, they might ask ‘do I need an umbrella’ - a question that requires an understanding of spoken language, location, time and intent before it can be answered.

This future is one Google has been working towards for some time, ever since Larry Page foresaw Artificial Intelligence as "the ultimate version of Google… It would understand exactly what you wanted, and it would give you the right thing.” We’ve made some great strides in working to realise this vision, using machine learning to develop tools like RankBrain, which processes queries we haven’t seen before, and finds pages that might provide an answer even if they don’t contain the exact words being searching for. We’ve also used machine learning to enhance our understanding of photos, training our algorithms to recognise different images so that if you want to see photos of dogs or cats, you don’t need to label or tag images separately, you just need to ask your phone.

For us, all of this comes together in the form of Google Assistant. We set out to design a personal assistant that understands voice and natural language, engages with users conversationally, and surfaces information not just from Search, but across all of Google’s products. Google Assistant has knowledge of the world around you, but also understands your own world - answering questions on everything from ‘when is the next Star Wars movie coming out’ to ‘when is my flight leaving’. It can even help you from within other apps - for example, if you’re chatting about a particular restaurant in a messaging app, you can ask it to look up opening times without leaving your chat. Google Assistant is the evolution of search, and an ideal partner in navigating the complexity that surrounds us.

Brands in the age of assistance

Another consequence of the ubiquity of mobile, voice, messaging and connected devices is that soon, there will be no limit to the moments when people look for answers, help or inspiration in their daily lives. For brands, this means that there will be more opportunity than ever to provide customers and potential customers with valuable assistance. To make the most of this opportunity, brands have to be able to anticipate consumer needs and wants in more depth than ever before, and find ways to engage them with help and answers before they even ask. As assistance becomes the new normal, people will choose brands that are in-step with their needs, and who provide their services in a relevant and timely fashion. Businesses will ultimately win or lose on their ability to predict these needs, and delight their customers more effectively than the competition!

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