From Google to Social to Generative AI: The Evolution of Search Journeys

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Remember when search ads were just a bunch of blue links? Believe it or not, that wasn’t that long ago – when a mention of search conjured a near-identical image in everyone’s minds. If you asked 100 people to describe their search journeys today, you might get 100 different answers. Those answers would almost certainly include image-based formats, a smattering of ad extensions, and probably a generative AI component. Some might even include platforms like YouTube and TikTok.

As the stalwarts incorporate new tech and social players enter the space, search isn’t as cut-and-dry as it used to be. That’s sparked some interesting conversation, especially around whether Google will lose its stronghold in the search space because of all this change. Our short answer? No, they won’t – because they’ll continue to meet the needs they’ve always met for users, and perhaps even meet a few new ones. Let’s dig into that a bit further.

Each “Search” Platform Meets Different User Needs

The main role of search, in the traditional sense of and, has been and continues to be serving hand-raisers. A searcher has a specific purpose in mind, whether they’re at the top or bottom of the shopping journey, and the engine delivers a buffet of relevant content to help the person find something, go somewhere, or learn something.

While search engines capture demand, social platforms largely create it. The user isn’t often arriving on a social platform with intent; they’re visiting to be entertained or inspired, and if they find something that piques their interest, then they want to seamlessly check out. The overlap in user intent between search engines and social is education – think cooking videos or makeup tutorials – but even those interactions often stay in the Google ecosystem thanks to YouTube.

ChatGPT, and generative AI more broadly, serves a new need: “do something for me.” It’s more sophisticated than search and inspires in a more customized way than social. It brings a new dimension of conversation, iteration, and compilation to search that was previously non-existent for the general public.

Will Google Face Any Challenges as the Leader in Pre-2023 Search?

Earlier this year, it looked like the answer was “maybe.” Microsoft had first-mover advantage with their investment in ChatGPT, but it was short-lived as Google soon thereafter announced and released their generative AI search experience. Our internal data showed that Bing never got a bump in traffic from the ChatGPT hype. Let’s assess a few of Google’s other potential threats:

  • ChatGPT as a stand-alone site: experienced several months of explosive growth, but it appears the site may have peaked. In June, worldwide traffic and engagement dropper month over month for the first time this year as some of the novelty wore off. User behavior is hard to change, and we anticipate that if searchers can meet their “do something for me” needs on Google and Bing, they won’t visit a separate site for those requests.

Threat level: Neutralized

  • Social as a replacement for search: We already squashed this one earlier – social and search serve different user needs, so we do not see social as a viable replacement for search engines.

Threat level: Neutralized

  • Apple: Wondering “why Apple?” No, they’re not in the search game (yet), but their enormous ecosystem poses the greatest threat to Google’s leader position. They have the biggest lever to change Google’s dominance with more than half of Google search business going through an Apple device. A move away from Google as the default search engine would create serious challenges for Alphabet. As Apple develops their own generative AI tools, it’s not hard to imagine a world where you ask an AI-powered Siri your questions instead of typing them into a search bar.

Threat level: Pending, but very real

  • Zero-click searches: This threat is a little different in that Google won’t lose the impression, but could lose the cost-per-click. ChatGPT has introduced an answer-first, commercialization-second model that users will expect when they visit Google to “do something for them.” If users begin to expect answers first in the Search Generative Experience (SGE) block, Google might not be able to monetize that search, even if a click occurs.

With this behavioral shift, more searches will likely become zero-click and searches that used to be highly lucrative paid opportunities will deliver less monetization per impression. Consider legal queries. In traditional search, a click on an ad related to legal services could generate north of $50 for Google. Now, a person seeking legal information may instead ask for “instructions to file a name change” or “steps for updating a will” and get the answers they need without assistance from a paid link. Monetization is Google’s lifeblood, so we expect they’ll find a solution, but the new search journey is a potential threat nonetheless.

Threat level: Less likely

So, What’s Going to Happen with Google and Generative AI?

The next few years in search will ultimately depend on whether large swaths of users change their behavior. Remember voice search and how that was going to change the search landscape? It never materialized because the experience wasn’t good enough. Generative AI shows more initial promise with its usefulness – but will users trust its outputs, and will they change how they query? If the landscape will change permanently, we’ll likely see a query evolution in how people search – from “road bikes with 56cm frame” to “show me road bikes that fit in the trunk of a ford fusion” to “chose the best road bike that fits in the trunk of a ford fusion and tell me why it’s the best.” We’re interested to track the data and, as importantly, how Google and other major players adapt. One thing’s for sure – it’s an exciting time to be a search marketer!

Matthew Mierzejewski is Head of Search at Merkle. Matt evaluates and supports Merkle’s adoption of new industry and search engine product opportunities and creates best-practices based on key performance goals for Merkle clients.