Google announced yesterday the launch of “shortcuts in search”, which will allow Android users (only in the US, for now) to access quick answers on a range of topics with the touch of a button.
Fittingly, Google has termed these “tappable shortcuts” and they will lead searchers to instantaneous information on dozens of topics, including sports, restaurants, local amenities, and entertainment.
The new feature is available within the Google app in the US, although users will have to upgrade the app to the latest version before the shortcuts are accessible.
As Google continues its relentless release of new mobile-first products, this announcement is entirely aligned with the search engine’s strategy to keep pace with – and anticipate – trends in user behavior.
Tappable shortcuts lend themselves to a search experience that is more open-ended in nature than traditional Google queries. Notably, they also remove a fundamental element of the Google experience: either typing or voicing a query.
In a wider ecosystem that now includes maps, the knowledge graph, and structured data, it is understandable that Google has chosen to make this move now. With the addition to their fold of hardware like Google Home and the Pixel smartphones, combined with an upgraded Assistant on all Android phones, Google seems closer than ever to unifying the digital user journey.
The following (very short) video was also released yesterday to demonstrate how ‘shortcuts in search’ will work:
But will this initiative take off, what will it mean for SEO, and how will Google manage to integrate paid ads into this new search experience?
Will Google convince users to get on board?
The first phase will be to convince its vast user base to transition across to this way of discovering information.
The actual functionality underpinning this change has not been updated; it is merely a more streamlined way to surface information. Google Now has offered access to many of these features for some time, but user behaviors can be slow to change.
One could even suggest that this launch is Google giving a nudge to the public to show them just how much is possible through their products now.
At SMX West yesterday, Google’s Jason Douglas summarised one of their core objectives as simply trying to find the “easiest way to help the user get things done.”
No doubt, achieving that goal would go some way to convince people to take the small step of updating an app.
A mass migration of users to this app would have myriad benefits for Google. By keeping users enclosed within its own ecosystem of information, Google gains access to their data and, just as crucially, keeps those users out of Facebook’s grasp.
With machine learning at the core of everything Google does now, all of that data will only serve to improve the accuracy of search results, and those improved results will convince users to stay on the app.
How will Google rank these results?
This is an important question for SEO professionals, although it is a little early to answer it conclusively. Its degree of importance will also, of course, depend on just how many users elect to search by tapping on shortcuts.
Intriguingly, Jason Douglas implied at SMX West yesterday that as part of the wider Actions on Google initiative, consumers will be able to set preferences, not just on their sports teams or favorite restaurants, but also on the brands they like most.
Douglas went on to add:
“We’re trying to decide now how sticky those preferences should be. In some cases, you can set some preferences in the app. We’re trying to learn as we go. For shopping, is it convenience or best price that matters most? There are a lot of new ranking and quality challenges.”
The ramifications of that statement could be far-reaching, and it is understandable that Douglas chose to equivocate slightly on these points, refusing to take a definitive stance on such an important point.
Nonetheless, it is certainly plausible that user ‘preferences’ on certain brands would factor into personalized organic search results.
Will Google offer paid placements?
Google has been open in stating that this new environment presents a huge challenge to its paid search business. Voice search is best suited to providing just one answer, which leaves little room for paid placements.
The inherent complexities for an auction-based bidding model like AdWords in this scenario are subtle and difficult to disentangle, but this is especially true if users state an overt preference for one brand over another.
For example, if a user has selected Kayak as a preferred flight aggregator over Skyscanner, how would that affect the price each would have to pay to rank first on that user’s travel searches? How would Google factor that into its auctions, at a grand scale?
If Skyscanner did choose to pay an inflated rate for first position, how would that sit with the user, who no doubt would recall selecting Kayak as their preferred brand?
These are challenges that Google is all too aware of, but there can be little doubt that ultimately, they will find a way to monetize this trend if it does take off.
What should we expect next?
We should expect any attempts to monetize this to be tentative at first – especially in the wake of the opprobrium raised by the recent ‘Ads on Google Home’ fiasco.
That said, Google’s decision to make these updates has been driven by what it foresees to be a new way of discovering information.
Therefore, we can first expect Google to entice users to use its new range of hardware and software through their ubiquity and ease of use, before making those first forays into transforming its paid search model to an interaction that no longer requires a user to search.
Clark Boyd is VP Strategy at Croud, a global digital performance agency, and a contributor to Search Engine Watch.
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