Five stabs at the future of the internet
As the internet continues its exponential growth, leading search engines are facing an increasingly difficult job. Indexing and ranking trillions of pages of content is a daunting task, even for organisations with the vast resources of Google and Microsoft. With this in mind, here are just five of the many factors that will influence the online environment over the coming years:
Apps challenge search engines
Better handsets and faster connection speeds have encouraged more and more people to surf the web on their smartphones. Teenagers and young adults in some markets now spend more of their online time on a smartphone than on a computer.
One of the side effects of this trend towards mobile has been the growing power of apps – downloadable gadgets that give users quick and easy access to specific sites or tools. At the moment, the majority of web journeys start with a search, but the popularity of simpler devices like smartphones, tablets and netbooks could further drive the power of apps.
Search engines go niche
One of the appealing things about apps is their ability to pare down the ever-growing volume of content available online. If, for example, you want to find a hotel, you can run a Google search or you can use your TripAdvisor app. Crummy service from a big brand? Find a consumer forum with a Bing search or click on your Pownum app.
Niche search engines that focus on specific topics or types of content offer similar benefits. These smaller, tailored search engines may be better-placed to exercise editorial judgement to their indexing and ranking decisions. They may also be more willing and able to develop their services in partnership with their users, making for a more tailored experience.
Social media cuts through the fog
Goodbye Googlebot, hello community of fellow Facebook users. If Google struggles to cope with the size of the web, perhaps we'll all turn to our social networks for guidance on where to click and what to buy?
Social bookmarking sites already provide this kind of service, with members voting up content they like and influencing what their friends and contacts see. Some people use Twitter to find out what their favourite celebrities had for breakfast, but plenty of others use it to see what people and organisations they rate are reading and sharing.
One of my old business school lecturers once said "the answer is always China or Google". Wise words, but the answer might in fact be China not Google. The world's most populous country is getting richer and as it does, more and more of its people are getting online.
With all the censorship that caused Google to pack its bags last year, you could argue that the only decisions about what Chinese people see on the internet will be made by their government. But Baidu, the country's leading search engine is now a major global player and is already the sixth largest website in the world, according to Alexa.
As China, India and other emerging nations become established economic powers the future of the online environment may well be determined by what happens in Beijing and Bangalore, rather than Mountain View, California.
We keep on Googling
It's no mean feat getting your brand turned into a verb and it would be unwise to start predicting Google's demise just yet. The company may have its problems in China but in other markets it controls over 90 per cent of search activity.
Google also has its fingers in all of the pies mentioned in this article. It's into social media with Buzz and realtime search results. It has its own niche search engines from news and blogs to maps and local. And, as China continues to open up and its economy develops, the censorship will have to ease off, meaning it is unlikely that the world's fastest growing consumer market is closed for good.