Today I had a stark realisation: I no longer depend on Google to find stuff. I still use it to locate things: e.g. “klook activities”. But I rarely – if ever – use it to find businesses, places to visit, interesting blogs, etc.
The difference between finding something and locating something might seem mere semantics, but it is essential to this discussion. When you’re trying to find something you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for – you are searching in some general direction. When you’re trying to locate something, you know exactly what you’re looking for and you just need help getting to it.
Let’s take an example. I wake up on a Sunday morning. I’m hungry and I want to find somewhere new to have breakfast. Not too long ago I would have started my search on Google with “singapore best cafe”. Now – not a chance. In the back of my mind, I have a collection of local cafes that people have told me about, some good and some bad. I might check with Lady IronChef. I’d definitely check out Burrple.
Why the change?
There are three reasons for this significant behavioral change:
Firstly, social networks have dramatically expanded my network of contacts. There are people I have never met in real life who I trust more than people I know in real life. We share similar interests and have developed ‘trust’. When we make recommendations – whether implicitly or explicitly – they have meaning.
This is the fundamental problem with Google search: there is no trust. Once upon a time, we could trust that the best products would be at the top of Google’s search results for any given term. This is no longer true. In fact, we should be especially skeptical of those who come up first in Google results – as they are more than likely to be the ones whose products suck and are gaming the system.
This leads to my second reason – search engine optimisation (SEO) experts have killed their own game. To test this theory I just Googled “social media tracking” and “fitzroy melbourne cafe”. Neither search yielded useful results. The SEO industry has transformed from “help Google index my site better” to “how can I beat Google’s relevance algorithms to show people results they don’t want”. There was a time when Google was really good at showing the most useful results, I think that this time has passed.
As an aside – the PR geniuses who constantly get up to dishonest tricks online are also killing their own game. They create blogs and write favorable posts about the brands and products they’re trying to sell, or they pay bloggers to write favorable posts. As a result, I now only trust a handful of blogs – those that are recommended by people I know or that have built up a strong reputation and following.
Thirdly – the flow of information has changed. In times past, I was always seeking out information through Google search. Now the vast majority of the information I am interested in comes to me, rather than me having to go out and find it. Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are excellent examples of this. By choosing who to follow, each individual can create their own ideal flow of information that contains exactly what they are interested in.
Another great example of this is RSS – when I woke up this morning I had 850 items unread in my RSS reader. It took me an hour to get through them, but I absorbed a huge amount of information while doing this. Each post I read broadened my knowledge of various markets, ideas, and issues. I will collect this information and use it to make decisions and recommendations in the future.
This shift in information flow has fundamentally changed the way I think about products. If I haven’t heard of a business then as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t exist. I don’t care if it ranks #1 in Google. The only way to get noticed is to become part of my information flow. This means brands and products need to be awesome enough to be noticed by those from whom I collect the information.
What does this mean?
Just so we are absolutely clear – I am not predicting the death of Google, but the way people use it will continue to change. Search engines in various forms have been at the center of the internet’s information flows since the very early days, but social networks are starting to challenge this dominance. Perhaps the browser homepage of the future will be a “social search engine” that combines your social graph with traditional search.
This has big implications for brands: if your brand is not social then it doesn’t exist. Obviously, this applies less to companies like Nike and Coca Cola who spend billions of dollars on advertising every year to make their brands visible. But their game has already become much more difficult and expensive as media becomes far more fragmented. One thing is for sure – it’s only going to get harder.