Search engines have changed a lot since the earliest iterations surfaced close to 20 years ago. As the technology has improved, we’ve witnessed a progression from manual site submissions and an inability to use natural language queries, to complex algorithms that control the way sites are crawled and how search results are returned. However, search engines have evolved in ways beyond simply improving the search mechanism.
We are seeing search engines offer information and interactivity that has traditionally only been found on web apps and businesses’ own sites. For an example of web directories offering more in-depth content, one simply has to perform a Google search via a mobile device for a nearby restaurant. Due to recent integrations with Uber and OpenTable, hungry searchers can now book a table and see Uber wait times and price estimates directly on their Google app. The above-mentioned additions save consumers multiple steps in their restaurant discovery/reservation/transportation journey, as they no longer have to open a restaurant’s page in their browser or plug a restaurant’s address into their Uber app to reserve a table and weigh transportation options.
As consumers are expecting richer listings from their search directories, companies that provide unique content (such as ratings and deals sites) are discovering that they can offer this content to consumers in ways that make them seem more like search engines. For example, by redesigning their Places directory and introducing Postsearch, Facebook is providing users a method to easily discover reviews from their friends and fellow Facebook users. In making their ratings and review data available in this way, Facebook is creating a strong incentive for consumers to use their platform for local search, rather than more traditional search engines. Groupon seems to be taking a similar step toward developing a local search offering with the recent introduction of Pages, a product that allows consumers to search local merchants in the pursuit of finding deals.
As search result pages become more dynamic, and as companies with exclusive content move toward becoming more like search engines, the need for consumers to rely on local businesses’ sites for information lessens. This is a trend that Google seems to have identified, as their Pigeon algorithm update (released in July 2014) now gives more importance to local map and directory sites. In fact, it is now not unlikely to see a businesses’ Yelp and Facebook pages appear ahead of their own website in search results.
What does this mean for SMBs? Although it may mean that some local businesses lose the ability to have full control over their initial impression with consumers who may be searching for them, recent research seems to suggest that a surprising percentage (52%) of SMBs do not even have websites in the first place. Even more surprising, the same study found that a mere 6% of the 1,800 businesses sampled had sites that were optimized for mobile. It seems that the evolution of search pages may act as a sort of great equalizer for SMBs, but seeing as though many of these businesses are slightly behind the times technologically speaking, the above-mentioned changes are good for the segment as a whole.