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Google's AI and User Perception - Re-understanding Search

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I'm a "meta" kind of person. I like looking at things on a fundamental level un order to get at the crux of what defines a topic and our relationship to it. In that vein, I have a funny sort of question for you. And as odd as it may sound, there are enormous implications to its answer. Are you ready? 

How do we relate to search? 

It's really a simple question: What preconceived and latent notions do we hold in regards to search? Of course, how we answer this question will also determine how we view the searcher and what we conceive they are doing when they search for something on Google. Now you can see why this little, perhaps out of place question, has far-reaching consequences. 

And away we go. 

Current Perceptions in How We See Search 

Bionic Eye

In October 2018, Google added the word "journey" to the search community's linguistic repertoire. Since then, we've all been busy throwing around all sorts of insights related to "search as a journey," search journeys," "search discovery," or whatever incarnation you so prefer. And for good reason... because the concept is new and it's important. That said, and while we have grasped the concept, it does not mean we've internalized it. 

I'm particularly calling myself out here. I've been talking about Google's "new" way of relating to search well before the search engine threw its latest buzzword out into the open. However, like any shift in the overall paradigm, the last thing to change is how we latently relate to the matter at hand. While Google had formally announced a change in course, I realized that I had not revamped my unsaid associations to search (not to get too Freudian). And as anecdotal as this may be, I believe I can safely bet you haven't either... which is why I felt it important to verbalize my "transformation."  

Enough prefacing Oberstein... get on with it! 

What We Think Search Is 

We, in general, see search as being monolithic. What in the world does that mean? It means, we see searches taking place in isolation and keywords being their own vacuumed universes.

OK, but what does that mean? 

It means we think of a search taking place in a vacuum. Don't believe me? Search your feelings, you know it to be true .... When you think of someone sitting at the computer doing a search, do you really think of the context of the searcher, where they've been and to quote the great Dr. Suess, "Oh the places they will go?" 

That is, we generally imagine a searcher sitting down and executing a search for a very specific reason. More than that, we see each search as existing in isolation of the previous or next search. 

I'll prove it to you ....

Don't we still talk about targeting keywords, scoring keyword wins, garnering keywords, ranking for a keyword, etc., etc., etc.? The notion of a keyword is one that treats each topic and each search that was undertaken as separate "entities." Except I thought it's not about keywords anymore? I thought it was about journeys which intrinsically stands in contradiction to the notion of "the keyword" as it elevates topics over phrases per se?! 

In simple terms, we imagine the user executing one search, then we imagine them running another search as a totally distinct and separate event. That's why we still refer to the process as "when a user searches for X." The reality is that the user is often not searching for "X." Rather, and more often than I think we assume, the user is searching for "X" understanding.

Let me explain. I'm a big sports fan and I often do a search for a given player to see what's going on with them. Recently, it was former Pittsburgh Steeler (an American football team) wide receiver (the guy who catches the ball), Antonio Brown. I would enter something like antonio brown news into Google. I bet a lot of Steeler fans did the same. What would we say as search marketers?.... Ranking well for the keyword antonio brown or antonio brown news is surely a big win!  

In this instance, we'd be completely preoccupied with ranking for all sorts of terms related to the dastardly, deceiving, unloyal, irreverent antonio brown (things didn't work out well for my team in this instance in case you couldn't tell). Except when I literally ran this search each day for the better part of two or three weeks... I did not care one iota about antonio brown.... I was looking to understand where things stood with my team... I didn't care about what was reflected in the search term per se, but rather the topic the term was subsumed under. 

In other words, the keyword I entered was a formality... I had to enter something... but what I really cared about was topical understanding. It's this notion that I think we may know intellectually, but have not fully internalized. 

The idea of "a search" or of "a keyword" as being an isolated event or subject is in many instances (though not all) antiquated. With far more topical reach being available to a Google user, the monolithic way of looking at a search is far less applicable than it once was. Yet, this has been our way of thinking for quite some time, and like any shift in perception, change is slow.  

How Has Machine Learning Changed How Users See Search? 

AI Brain

As I mentioned, we traditionally relate to search as the acquisition of "X." The user plugs a keyword in so as to get information related to that keyword. As noted, in many cases, the user is not looking at the keyword as an end unto itself, but as a means towards "greater enlightenment." 

I'll give you a good example of the difference between the two outlooks. YouTube. You could look at a YouTube user as typing something into the search box there and finding a video. However, the reality is far more dynamic. One YouTube video begets another video. How many times have you sat down to watch a video only to search for another one related to it? (Um, like a gazillion-billion times to use the numbering system of my 8-year old twins.)

We all see the YouTube user as only starting their journey with the initial video they're watching. We all know the user is going to get sucked down the rabbit hole and end up missing the better part of their children's childhood and all other sorts of important milestones.

Is that how we see the average Google user? Be honest.

Not really. 

Again, we see each search being an isolated event. A one-time thing that lasts but a moment. 

I would argue, and Google's release of all things "search journey" all but confirms, that search is becoming more and more a "YouTube-like" experience. Meaning, the notion of "a" Google search is a fading concept. Rather, you have a multilayered and continuous search experience. One search relates to another search in both directions (i.e., past and future searches). One keyword is really part of a larger topical desire, a broader interest in an overarching subject.

A Meeting of the Minds: Machine Learning,  Advanced Entity Understanding, & Latent User Associations  

While the obvious instigator for this change in how users approach search is Google's SERP features (which create new content avenues), let's remember that the new search as a journey "elements" are a response to user behavior. In other words, many of the new elements on the SERP (such as mobile's Discovery Feed) are the result of Google's analysis of the user's search behavior. 

What then was the instigator of Google's move towards search journeys and more pointedly of the user's move to a more dynamic and diverse approach to search? 

I have not surveyed a substantial number of Google users to determine the cause of their evolved relationship to search. Disclaimer: What I am about to say is the result of using both my powers of deduction and induction (the horror). 

Here's a radical thought. ... There is no one thing that changed the user's association to and expectations of search. Rather, as better and more relevant content was slowly being churned out and as Google has gotten far better at showing relevant and diverse content the user's "feelings" towards search followed suit. 

Let me rephrase this a bit more technically. What is the impact of Google's machine learning implementation on the user's "search juxtaposition?" How has RankBrain and the like changed the way users perceive search? 

It's a funny question, isn't it? Since 2016 I've both read and written articles all about the impact of machine learning on Google search and it was not until this very moment that I thought to ask myself (nor have I seen anyone else ask) how these changes impacted the user's feelings towards search! 

And I call myself a marketer!  

In all seriousness... doesn't it make sense to step back and consider how Google, being better able to interpret intent and subsequently tender more diverse results, impacts the mindset and disposition of the user? 

Instead of showing more "literal" or "linear" search results, over the past few years Google has bestowed a colorful array of diverse results upon its users. What would the natural response to this be? Well, wouldn't it be a more affable disposition towards using search to gain a deeper and broader understanding of a topic? Wouldn't it be to see search as a means for a lateral topical exploration? Or in other words... search as a journey. Search as a journey is not an accident... it is the natural evolution of Google offering better, broader, and far more diverse search results since 2016! It didn't come into existence at Google's 20th anniversary event... it has been the slow evolution of how users go about search - an evolution that perfectly paralleled Google's machine learning advancements.

The features Google announced back in October of 2018 were just the icing on a cake that already existed for some time. Google themselves admitted that by saying neural matching was at play for months before it was revealed in October 2018. The new "search as a journey" features/elements were not meant to create search as a journey. Rather, they are meant to better facilitate what users are already doing on their own. 

What Modern Search Looks Like 

It's quite hard to conceptualize what notion of search I am propagating without something tangible to observe. In plain terms, I could talk about how a user's approach to search is more dynamic and layered than ever until blue in the face...but nothing helps illuminate better than an actual example. So here we go. 

A Real-Life Search Journey

As I mentioned, I use Google to keep up on sports. There is no doubt a better way to do this, but I resort to using the Google SERP, as I am sure many do and as Google has designed it to be. Follow me as I go from a very broad sports query to a completely new topic in a few easy steps.  

There are 162 games in every major league baseball team's regular season (i.e., not including the playoffs). Now, I have no life... I have four small kids and there is no way I can watch anywhere near 162 games and keep up on what happened in each of them. Thus, with frequent regularity (which comes out to about 5 times a week) I search for my team on Google to get a sense of what's going on.

Before I show you my search journey, I want you to know, I didn't fabricate or alter my search process for the purpose of this post. This is exactly what I searched for and the rabbit hole I went down. 

Let's start with the query for my team yankees

Yankees SERP

We get a lot of good stuff here (or bad stuff if you look at the score). Wait... did you catch that? You didn't?! 2018 rookie of the year nominee and future baseball star Miguel Andujar got injured! (How could you miss that?) 

Behold the power of Google Posts:

NY Yankees Google Post

I, of course, clicked on the post and watched the video: 

Google Posts Yankees Video

In typical sports style, I heard that the player was injured and a whole bunch of fluff about how he's going to work hard to get back as soon as possible. For anyone who knows sports that could mean he's coming back next week or next year! 

I need more information. 

My next move was to see if the Top Stories carousel gives me something that talks about this and sure enough, it does: 

Yankees Top Stories Card

Clicking on the card I was whisked away to an NJ.com article that gives me a bit more detail on the nature of the injury: 

Article on Player Injury

It turns out, Mr. Andujar, despite being filled with hope and promising hard work has a "tear in his right shoulder labrum that might need season-ending surgery." 

In the words of Star Trek's Dr. McCoy, "Dammit, Jim!" 

I'm not sure who Jim is in this case, but dammit! Season-ending? He's one of the only players on the team who hits for contact (that means he doesn't strike out a lot and does a good job getting on base). I, in good sports denial, refuse to believe this. Can't be! What is this "labrum" thing anyway? It can't be that vital that he has to miss the season with immediate surgery. It's not like a kidney or anything... it's a labrum.... that doesn't sound essential to life at all. To me, the labrum is the appendix of the shoulder. He'll be back playing next week. 

The minuscule part of me that still has a hold on reality knows better and it demands I search for what is a labrum

Labrum SERP

Oh, this Google fella is smart. Sure, it gives me some useless definition related to insects. (I don't care about insects, I care about baseball players!) That said, the next three results are all about not just shoulders, but shoulder tears (as in shoulder injuries, as in Google knows why I'm here). Remember when I said that Google has a better grasp on providing diverse content and on understanding what a user really wants, thereby impacting how the user feels about the viability of search? Case in point. If I thought it would be a pain to go and find content on the labrum vis-a-vis a tear/injury, I would have just moved on. 

Let's take a look at the first result Google gave me from verywellhealth.com: 

Shoulder Injury Content

Well, would you look at that! The lead image is of a guy playing baseball! That Google... oh that Google. Turns out, it's hard to diagnose the severity of the injury (there are three types of injuries to the labrum). Typical treatment starts with letting the shoulder heal on its own and assessing what's what at that point. So there is a real chance that Mr. Andjuar will be back without having to have season-ending surgery. I knew it all along... the media has to run sensationalist headlines to sell papers (digital ads)... he's OK (maybe)... I knew it all along. 

Takeaways: Practical Analysis of My Search Journey

Two quick points here: 

1) The second I saw the nature of the injury I bounced from NJ.com to find more information. I know it's not as easy as it sounds, but it would have done the site well to include a sentence or two on the nature and treatment of the injury. The article may well have towards its end... I have no idea as I didn't return to the page to find out. It just goes to show you how important understanding both the nature of your audience (in this case, most of us have no idea what a labrum is) and why they're there (to both know what happened and what it means). In this case, the article did a good job telling me what happened, but it forgot to tell me what it means (i.e., what is a labrum tear and why it means surgery). 

The point is, being in touch with the search as a journey mindset is very important to content creators.

2) If we still lived in a keyword focused and monolithic search environment the article would be a total win. However, here I bounced after two lines because the content creator didn't consider the overall journey, didn't consider that I wasn't searching for the same reasons and in the same way as I would have just 2-3 years ago. (I'm not blaming anyone, I'm sure you could critique this very article the same way).

If I had more time on my hands I would have searched for who the backup third baseman is for the Yankees. Doing as such would have brought me to a new website. That's why it's important for a site to consider the overall intent of the searcher. In this case, I don't care about the player per se (sorry Miguel, sports is a cruel world). I care about the team. What does his injury mean for my vicariously living through a group of grown men playing with wooden sticks? (Though, let's not get too Freudian with that either.)

A content creator fully in touch with their search as a journey selves would have thought into the larger intent here, the team. Instead, the content focused on an isolated sub-topic, as we have all been doing for years. Here, that's the player (as opposed to the team, as I've mentioned). A more internalized understanding of search as a journey would have either resulted in the article talking more about how this will play itself out vis-a-vis the team or a separate article on the topic. This way, when I do find the time to search for who will play third base instead of injured  miguel andujar or who is the yankees backup third baseman the site will show at the top of the SERP (all things being equal).

[For the record, the latter search did bring up a result from nj.com where they discuss the backup player from.... 2016. That's not very helpful now,  is it? For the record, I am not picking on anyone here (as previously mentioned). This is a hard change, it's a subtle change, it's an abstract change. That's why I'm writing this post! Know, I am speaking more to myself than to anyone else.] 

Search Perception at First Light 

Colorful Sunrise

Sure, there are instances, perhaps many, where a user wants a "one and done" experience. They plug in a keyword, want a quick (or even not quick) answer and then they're done. I just don't think that happens as often as it used to and as often as you might think. The example I gave you above is one of many I could have personally gone through. Every month I like to search for a list of what's new to Netflix. The other day I did just that and I saw an ad for an Amazon Prime show, Jack Ryan. My thought process was literally, "Oh man, I totally forgot about that show, when is season 2 coming out?". I then proceeded down the rabbit hole of all things related to season 2 of Jack Ryan.

Don't take my word (or personal experience) for it. Just ask yourself, which search scheme is Google focused on? Is the search engine more concerned about individual searches or are they focused on overall search intent (i.e., the user's fundamental search desire and subsequent end goal)? The answer is obviously the latter. That should pretty much tell you all need to know about how searchers are going about search! 

But that's not our knee-jerk reaction to what search is, at least not yet. These things take time. That said, it's important to be aware of where our intellectual perception ends and where our precognitive relationship to search begins. Google has shown qualitative improvement when it comes to understanding and connecting entities. More, I believe the search engine can treat a domain/site as an entity. The result of this and other advancements is a cornucopia of search results that lends itself to deeper search engagement. Users will and have responded accordingly. The SEO industry as well.... but only on the surface. I don't think, to no fault of our own, that we've truly come to appreciate what the new search paradigm means. Hopefully, this post has helped you as it has helped me to consciously realize how I think of search! 

About The Author
Mordy is the official liaison to the SEO community for Wix. Despite his numerous and far-reaching duties, Mordy still considers himself an SEO educator first and foremost. That's why you’ll find him regularly releasing all sorts of original SEO research and analysis!

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