The modern search landscape: How and where to reach your target audience
Imagine you’re on vacation, it’s approaching noon and you’re starting to feel hungry. You’re eager to enjoy the best local cuisine your destination has to offer. So you go to Google Maps and search for “best lunch restaurant near me”, a topic that’s more than doubled in search volume on Google in the last three years alone.
Over 80% of searches worldwide occur on Google based on the latest search engine market share data. You might think that you’ve just completed the most common search journey to lunch.
However, nearly 40% of U.S. searchers between the ages of 18 and 24 go to TikTok or Instagram when looking for a place for lunch, according to Google’s own internal research.
In other words, if a restaurant in the area wants to attract this audience, their marketing strategy needs to extend beyond Google to include these platforms.
Now imagine if you were crunched for time and had decided you’d rather order lunch in your room than go out to eat.
If you’re vacationing in San Jose, consumers in your area are statistically more likely to find lunch on DoorDash, whereas New York consumers are more likely to order through Uber Eats.
Ultimately, these scenarios illustrate that when building a search marketing strategy, marketers need to consider the context behind a search, such as:
- Demographics and psychographics of searchers.
- Their location when conducting a search.
- The goal of their search journey.
We need to erode the distinctions we have historically made between traditional search marketing domains (e.g., Google and Microsoft Bing) and the broader ecosystem of digital platforms.
Search is one of the most common human behaviors in the digital space. It’s no surprise that Google is the most-visited website across the globe and all the top 10 most-visited websites worldwide feature a search experience that is core to the user experience.
Search is also one of the most valuable user behaviors for marketers because it is an expression of users’ needs and intent. Search data is not only a key input into content and advertising strategies, but also it provides valuable insight into the mindset of high-value audiences (HVAs).
As a result of technological innovation and shifts in user behavior, modern search marketing strategies must now consider a significantly broader set of platforms than ever before to effectively understand and market to target audiences and capture true search demand.
The following are just a few examples of the variable nature of users’ search engine consideration sets, and the platforms that should be on every search marketer’s radar.
Traditional search engines
Perhaps apart from Wikipedia loyalists, traditional search engines remain the dominant destination for users seeking information online.
Google announced a new technology in 2021 called Multitask Unified Model, or MUM, which aims to more efficiently answer complex queries that may previously have required multiple searches. MUM is multimodal, which means it understands information across text and images, and in the future, can expand to video and audio.
This ability to index multiple content formats and provide dynamic, relevant search results pages is why traditional search engines will continue to be a catch-all destination for searchers.
Google, Bing, and Yahoo make up 95% of the worldwide desktop market share of search engines. Despite that global dominance, it’s important for search marketers to also consider other traditional search engines.
For example, the following search engines attract the largest share of searches within their primary region:
- Baidu in China (66% market share).
- Yandex in Russia (48% market share).
- Naver in South Korea (56% market share).
Each of these engines requires a customized SEO strategy and paid advertising can be bought through the engines directly.
There are also more recent entries into the landscape globally that are worth monitoring, including:
DuckDuckGo launched their search engine in 2008, which aims to protect users’ privacy by not tracking their search history. DuckDuckGo has been steadily growing in use since its launch and now processes 3 billion searches per month. It had a 0.6% search engine market share worldwide and 2.52% search engine market share in the U.S. as of August 2021.
DuckDuckGo doesn’t require a custom SEO strategy, though you can set yourself up for success by following best practices for Bing SEO and claiming your local listings on Apple Maps, if applicable, based on the sources from which DuckDuckGo compiles its organic results. Paid search ads can be bought via Microsoft Advertising’s partner network.
Ecosia launched in 2009 and like DuckDuckGo, it promotes privacy as an alternative to more mainstream search engines. Ecosia’s privacy features include:
- Anonymizing all search data within one week.
- Not selling data to advertisers.
- Avoiding the use of third-party trackers.
- And more.
Its main differentiator, however, is its climate-conscious mission. Ecosia uses its profits from advertising to fund climate action and has already planted more than 150 million trees around the world.
It held a 0.11% worldwide search engine market share as of September 2021, including a 1.03% share in Germany, where it was founded.
Organic and paid results are sourced from Microsoft Bing, so Bing SEO best practices and a Microsoft Advertising account are the primary tools required to target Ecosia searchers.
Brave Search, another “no-tracking” search engine, exited its beta phase in June 2022, a year to the day after launching. It surpassed 2.5 billion queries in its beta phase and is projecting queries to double over the next year.
Unlike DuckDuckGo and Ecosia, Brave Search has its own ranking algorithm that serves results from its own web index.
Searchers can personalize their organic results using the newly released Goggles beta feature and engage in conversations related to their queries across forums such as Reddit and StackExchange through the Discussions search engine results page (SERP) feature.
In the future, Brave Search will feature ads that are part of the Brave Rewards program, which allows users to earn a portion of the revenue Brave earns from advertising. In the meantime, searchers can subscribe to Brave Search Premium for $3/month to enjoy an ad-free search experience.
Yep is a search engine currently in beta being built by the SEO tool company Ahrefs, which announced an initial $60 million investment in June 2022. It is committed to user privacy in a similar manner to many of the other search engines that are positioning themselves as alternatives to Google and Bing.
What makes it stand out, though, is its proposed revenue-sharing model. Yep plans to share 90% of its advertising revenue with content publishers. It does not yet serve ads in its current beta state, so no distributions have been made to date. Yep has its own web crawling technology, index, and ranking algorithm.
That said, it’s too early in its development to warrant separate consideration in website optimization strategies unless a publisher wants to promote the use of Yep to its users as a means to earn potential revenue from the revenue-sharing model when it launches its advertising solution.
You opened in public beta in November 2021 and announced a $20 million funding round at that time led by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. It has since closed an additional $25 million round of funding in July 2022 to develop “premium features” and expand on its unique apps feature.
You offers users a customizable search engine experience by supplementing web results from its own ranking algorithm with custom apps that appear in the SERP.
Apps range in functionality from providing results sourced from a specific website (e.g., Wikipedia) to its YouCode app, which allows users to generate code based on a search query. You touts its privacy features as a key selling point for users and does not currently serve ads.
Richard Socher, co-founder of You and former chief scientist at Salesforce, claims that You has a rapidly growing user base in the hundreds of thousands. He also reported that 50% of users continue to use You after setting it as their default search engine.
It’s likely still too early for You-focused optimization efforts to yield any meaningful results, but its expanding library of apps is worth monitoring, especially for publishers who may want to partner with You to launch a custom app.
Finally, while Apple has yet to formally launch their own search engine, there have been multiple rumors over the past few years that they are planning to develop a Google Search competitor. Among Siri, Spotlight, Camera, Shazam, and more, Apple already has a variety of search entry points seamlessly integrated into its operating system.
Google is currently the default search engine powering the web results on Apple devices and will pay Apple an estimated $18 billion to $20 billion in 2022 for that privilege. The agreement between Apple and Google requires that the former won’t compete against the latter in the internet search business, so Apple would be violating its agreement with Google if it were developing its own search engine.
Despite that considerable barrier, Apple will continue to be a massive presence on the fringe of the traditional search engine conversation positioned to capture a meaningful share of searches were they ever to launch their own.
Sensory search engines
Sensory search refers to the growing trend of using senses beyond typed keyword inputs to conduct searches.
Voice search and visual search are the two most common forms of sensory search today. The leading platforms in sensory search vary based on the sense being activated by the searcher.
The human brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds. Compare that to the measly 36 words per minute the average mobile phone user can type into a search bar and it stands to reason that 62% of Gen Z and Millennial consumers want visual search capabilities, more than any other new technology.
Google, Bing, Amazon, and Pinterest are currently among the leading visual search engines. Google Lens usage has tripled in the last year with Lens now being used nearly 8 billion times per month.
As augmented reality and computer vision technologies advance, the lines between searching and browsing will blur. For example, Google Lens’ “scene exploration” capability will allow users to search multiple objects captured within a wider scene in real time.
Prabhakar Raghavan, who oversees many of Google’s businesses including search, described the following use case:
“Imagine you’re trying to pick out the perfect candy bar for your friend who’s a bit of a chocolate connoisseur. You know they love dark chocolate but dislike nuts, and you want to get them something of quality. With scene exploration, you’ll be able to scan the entire shelf with your phone’s camera and see helpful insights overlaid in front of you.”
Expect these examples to become commonplace as technology improves since a 2019 study by the Intent Lab found that visual information is preferred over text by a majority of respondents across all categories except for electronics, household goods, and wine and spirits.
The keys to success in visual search are:
- Feed management.
- Image optimization.
- Structured markup.
- Content quality and uniqueness
The average English speaker talks at a rate of more than 100 words per minute. While speaking a search query isn’t as efficient as snapping a photo, it’s still more efficient than typing.
Google processes hundreds of millions of voice search queries per day. Voice search adoption is most prevalent among new internet users. In India, nearly 30% of all Hindi search queries are spoken.
Google, Apple’s Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa are the most prominent voice search engines, often referred to as digital assistants.
One of the more unique nuances of voice search is the diversity of devices used to conduct voice searches. While phones and smart speakers are the most obvious voice search devices, in-car voice assistants are the second-most used surface for voice assistant technology in the U.S.
This device distribution expectedly presents a challenge when optimizing content for voice search, but the best practices are actually quite straightforward:
- Analyze user search behavior.
- Create content that directly answers user queries.
- Ensure technical code and visual elements such as images are properly optimized for devices with no visual output.
Some businesses will find more industry-specific opportunities, as well. For example:
- The optimization and syndication of location data across digital platforms for brick-and-mortar businesses can attract in-car voice searchers to a nearby store.
- Paid media and the optimization of product detail pages on Amazon.com can drive purchases among Amazon Echo searchers.
There’s a lot of overlap behind how the technology of voice search and audio search works.
- Is activated through some user action (e.g., say “Alexa” to an Echo, click the microphone icon in the Google search bar, etc.).
- Listens for the audio input.
- Then returns a result based on machine learning to match queries to results.
Voice search is the most notable form of an audio search, but there are some audio search engines that don’t feature voice search capabilities.
One such engine is Shazam, the music recognition app purchased by Apple for about $400 million in 2018. Launched in the U.K. 20 years ago as a text message service, Shazam surpassed 70 billion song recognitions in August 2022 and boasts 225 million global monthly users.
Many of the commercial use cases for the app are focused on the music industry, such as the recently launched concert discovery feature.
Additionally, Shazam launched a feature in 2011 that allowed users to capture audio from TV programs and ads and receive related marketing messages and special offers.
This technology and the rise of sonic branding in marketing through sonic logos, “earcons”, and other forms of branded audio content provide creative opportunities for advertisers to connect with audio searchers.
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Media and entertainment search engines
Activating the senses in the search journey isn’t limited to inputs. Searches for multimedia content (e.g., images, videos, audio, etc.) are a major driver of behavior across digital platforms.
The platforms on which multimedia content seekers search differ by the content format sought. The paths users take to ultimately consume multimedia content are even more varied.
Approximately 720,000 hours of video content is uploaded daily to YouTube alone, so there’s predictably huge demand for video search engines. It is the world’s second-largest search engine and second-most visited website.
In the U.S., viewers spend an average of 31 minutes per day watching videos on YouTube. Content creators who upload videos to YouTube can apply YouTube SEO best practices to enhance discovery across YouTube and Google Search and can promote their videos on YouTube through paid advertising.
Vimeo is another major video search engine with usage that pales in comparison to YouTube but still is the 589th most visited website worldwide. It rolled out a series of optimizations to its platform in May 2022 aimed at improving the visibility of Vimeo creators’ videos within Google’s organic search results.
The Vimeo team also highlighted some video SEO best practices for its creator community to implement in its announcement about the platform’s SEO updates. Unlike YouTube, Vimeo does not have advertising and instead positions its core offering as a streaming video on demand (SVOD) service.
Search plays a big role in the streaming video space and is a core platform function across Amazon Prime, Disney+, Hulu, Netflix, and many of the other major providers. There are even streaming video search engines that search across platforms and can personalize results based on a searcher’s active subscriptions.
JustWatch and Reelgood are two engines in that category. While search discovery and advertising opportunities across these streaming search engines are limited in relevance if you’re not a content producer yourself, there is value in the search data available for analysis from these engines to keep a pulse on pop culture and inform potential content partnerships or ad targeting across streaming platforms.
Digital audio content commands a massive share of attention with U.S. adults spending an average of one hour and forty minutes per day consuming this medium.
- Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube Music, and Deezer are just a handful of the many mainstream audio streaming services with extensive libraries of music and podcasts.
- Soundcloud and Bandcamp are among others that skew toward more niche and indie artists.
- Audible and Audiobooks.com are purveyors of audiobooks and other spoken word content.
Search is a core function of all these platforms. The search for audio, however, isn’t limited to digital audio streaming services.
If you conduct a search in Google for "taco bell commercial song" (97k searches in the last 12 months) or "applebees commercial song" (79k searches in the last 12 months), you might end up on YouTube or iSpot.tv.
If you think this type of search is an anomaly, consider that "att lily" has been searched 2.4 million times in the last 12 months.
This behavior extends to all forms of media. For example, if you can’t open Shazam quickly enough to record the ballad playing in the 13th episode in the 4th season of Roswell, New Mexico (*spoiler alert*) during the montage of Michael and Alex getting married, a quick Google search may direct you to Tunefind, where the community has confirmed that song is "I’ll Be" by Edwin McCain.
Most advertisers produce at least some content that includes audio, and many drive brand awareness through the promotion of that content supported by massive budgets.
To maximize the return on that investment and ensure that content is discoverable, it’s imperative that all content is:
- Hosted publicly (on a brand website, YouTube, or other platforms).
- Properly marked up to include key details that someone previously exposed to the content may search.
Commanding one hour and fifteen minutes per day among U.S. adults, social media competes for attention by building immersive sensory experiences.
Scrolling is probably the action most associated with social, but search plays a significant role across platforms, as well.
Pinterest boasts 433 million active monthly users who conduct an average of 8 searches per month on the platform. That equates to nearly 42 billion searches per year of which an estimated 97% are unbranded. It was already processing 600 million visual searches per month in 2018 and continues to be a leading visual search engine.
Search is so central to the Pinterest experience that the company rolled out Pinterest Trends in 2019, which features topics with high search volume over a rolling 7-day lookback period. Pinterest search data drives the company’s trend prediction engine Pinterest Predicts, which boasted an impressive 80% success rate in its predictions from 2021 coming true.
Search volume data across social platforms is much harder to come by than other engines that share absolute volume or trending estimates. Even outdated data, however, indicates the immense scale of social media search activity. For example:
- As of 2011, Twitter was processing 1.6 billion search queries per day.
- As of 2016 Facebook was processing 2 billion daily searches.
Not all these searches have meaningful commercial intent nor do social platforms typically offer advertisers the ability to target on-platform search queries.
For organic discovery, hashtags can improve relevance for target search queries and the content of the posts themselves should incorporate keywords relevant to their target audience.
Social platforms such as Instagram and Facebook have shared more information in recent years about their personalized search ranking algorithms. Interest in TikTok SEO has grown significantly, with more than 84 million views of videos on TikTok with the #tiktokseo hashtag as of early September.
As evidenced by Gen Z’s search journey for lunch in the U.S., many searches conducted across social media have inherently local intent.
It’s no surprise that many social platforms have responded to this intent by incorporating more local features into their search and discovery experiences.
- Snap and Instagram feature maps with details about nearby businesses overlayed.
- Facebook hosts a robust network of location pages.
- Twitter recently launched a Location Spotlight tool that allows brick-and-mortar businesses to post details about their location on their Twitter profile.
As social platforms expand these local features, they will continue to compete for local search market share held by traditional maps apps (like Google Maps, Waze, and Apple Maps) and local directories (such as Yelp and TripAdvisor).
Advertising opportunities supplement an organic social strategy and local listings management in driving discovery across these platforms, preferably leveraging a technology provider to syndicate consistent updates across publishers.
Online shopping and ecommerce search engines
BloomReach made waves in the search industry in 2016 when they released the results of a study they commissioned that found 55% of U.S. shoppers start their product search journey on Amazon. Since then, a multitude of surveys has reinforced that Amazon is the top destination for product searchers.
Trailing behind Amazon as the go-to product search engine are:
- Traditional search engines (e.g., Google, Bing).
- Other retailer search engines (e.g., Walmart, Target, etc.).
More recently, online shoppers have reported starting their product searches on social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit.
This emerging trend skews toward a younger audience with 18% of U.S. online shoppers between the ages of 18 and 24 years old reporting that they typically start their product search journey on TikTok, third behind Amazon and Google.
Content optimizations informed by shopper search behavior and syndicated across retail partner websites will help brands gain organic visibility across the digital shelf.
Amazon Ads and Walmart Connect are the two largest retail media ad networks by spend, but an increasing number of retailers are entering the retail media landscape with their own offerings.
- Kroger Precision Marketing powered by 84.51°.
- Sam’s Club’s Membership Access Platform.
- The CVS Media Exchange.
- Target’s Roundel.
- Instacart Ads.
- eBay Ads.
- Best Buy Ads.
- Wayfair Media Solutions.
- Macy’s Media Network
And the list keeps expanding. Advertising partners such as Criteo and PromoteIQ enable advertisers to efficiently target searches across a broad network of retailer sites.
Specialized search engines
As illustrated in the scenario at the outset, the search for lunch occurs on a wide array of engines beyond Google and Microsoft Bing. Many other verticals follow this same pattern.
OTAs (e.g., Expedia, Booking.com, Kayak) act as one-stop shops for travel search needs.
Disruptors like Airbnb and VRBO compete with accommodation network websites (e.g., Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt) for searchers looking to book stays.
Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com, and Redfin are among the leading search engines for buying and selling homes.
Apartments.com, HotPads, and regional engine StreetEasy in New York attract apartment hunters.
Allrecipes, Taste of Home, and Epicurious are prominent engines in this space, though traditional search engines and social media platforms capture a high volume of recipe search demand as well.
Cars.com, Autotrader, CarMax, Edmunds, and Carvana are just a few of the major players in this competitive search space.
Google Finance, Yahoo! Finance, Bloomberg, and brokerage firm websites facilitate traditional investment searches. Nerd Wallet, BankRate, and Credit.com power credit card searches.
CoinMarketCap, CoinGecko, and exchange websites (e.g., Coinbase, Crypto.com, Binance) cater to cryptocurrency searchers.
WebMD, MayoClinic, and Healthline are among the reputable sites with search experiences built to surface important health information
Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer.com help businesses of all sizes source freelance talent, while helping freelancers search for work
Angi (formerly Angie’s List), HomeAdvisor, and TaskRabbit are among the major search engines in this vertical
Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and Google are a few of the top search engines for job seekers
Note: This list could go on and on as there are specialized search engines in virtually every vertical.
What this list and the preceding examples ultimately illustrate is that search is fragmented now to the point where the line has blurred between search platforms and digital platforms with search as a key function.
As the quality of site search solutions available to website owners continues to improve, this line will only get blurrier.
Maximizing the value of search
So, what’s a marketer to do? How do companies maximize the value of their search programs in the context of their broader communications strategy?
The following guidelines provide a framework that reflects the role search should play in the comms planning process:
- Analysis of search behavior across relevant search engines contributes to the development of high-value audiences (HVAs).
- Understanding the digital platforms most frequently used by each HVA is key to mapping their respective search journeys across platforms.
- An assessment of the key digital platforms will qualify the importance of search as both a driver to and function within each platform, and lead to a search strategy that will incorporate some permutation of the following tactics:
- Optimizations that can be made to an on- and/or off-platform owned experience to drive organic search discovery within the platform.
- Advertising that can be purchased to target users’ on-platform search queries.
- Advertising and/or experiences – both paid and earned – targeting off-platform searches that attract users to the platform.
- Analysis of platform search data to generate insights that deliver a better understanding of target audiences and inform other strategic initiatives.
- Search strategists should be included throughout the entire comms planning process to ensure that marketers are present during all stages of users’ increasingly fragmented search journeys.
Interested in learning more? Well, there are search engines for that. Which ones will you use?
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