Spike Jonze, Google Glass and the future of search
Earlier this month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released its annual list of nominees for the upcoming Academy Awards. Perhaps the most prestigious award up for grabs is the title of Best Picture, which this year will see a number of equally brilliant films battle for bragging rights – from Sandra Bullock floating around in space to Tom Hanks tangling with Somali pirates.
One picture drawing considerable attention is the quirky sci-fi romantic drama Her. Written and directed by industry favourite Spike Jonze, starring critical and commercial success story Joaquin Phoenix, and scored by indie rock superstars Arcade Fire – Her is almost perfectly engineered for awards season accolades.
However, the most truly compelling thing about Her is, arguably, its setting – a futuristic world in which people go about their daily lives constantly plugged into the World Wide Web (or some version of it), using voice commands to access news reports, communicate with friends and family and, of course, find pornography.
A decade ago, the world of Her would have seemed complete fantasy. The idea of constant-connectivity seemed nearly as out-of-reach as flying cars and time travel. Today, however, most seem to agree that this vision is far closer to becoming a reality. Critics, certainly, have come to the consensus that Her is not so much a sci-fi film as it is a glimpse into the not-so-distant future.
And recent trends in the technology and search world would seem to support that notion.
Voice commands and search engines: A match made in heaven
In October 2013, Google celebrated its 15th birthday by announcing the implementation of its most significant search algorithm update in years. The Hummingbird algorithm has been designed to enable Google to handle more complex queries and interact with users in a more human way, placing more emphasis on “searcher intent” and “conversational search”.
Many websites immediately rushed to adapt their SEO and content strategies to better fit the parameters of Hummingbird, adding ‘question-answer’ style content in an attempt to directly meet more conversational-style queries. And while they may not have realised it, many of these early-adopters were in the process preparing for a future with fewer keyboards and more voice commands.
Upon its release, many industry experts pointed to Hummingbird as an indication that Google was looking to capitalise on the booming mobile market, by adapting to meet the needs of mobile users. Hummingbird makes it easier to perform searches with your voice, rather than thumbing away at a small touch screen, and can easily be viewed as a response to Apple’s Siri smartphone voice command functionality.
These predictions were corroborated by Google’s engineering director Scott Huffman in December. In an interview with The Independent newspaper, Mr Huffman suggested that his team was hard at work on the idea of allowing users to have a “richer conversation” with Google.
“We use a fairly complex linguistic structure in conversation that Google today doesn’t understand. But five years from now we will be having that kind of conversation with Google and it will just seem natural. Google will answer you the same way a person would answer,” he said.
Search in the era of wearable computing
In the future, Hummingbird may be viewed as a ‘missing link’ so to speak, between the present-day, keyboard-operated search engines we know and love, and the voice-operated, predictive and conversational search engines of tomorrow. And, considering the recent advancements Google has made in wearable computing, that ‘tomorrow’ might arrive sooner than you think.
In case you’re not up to play with one of the most exciting and fascinating technological developments of the 21st century, Google Glass is an optical head-mounted display operated largely via voice commands, not too dissimilar to the smartphones and earpieces used by the characters of Her.
Google Glass has been met with a healthy mix of wonder and cynicism since the first prototypes were brought to light, but there’s no arguing the technology is a potential game-changer. While Google hasn’t said as much, it’s hard to believe they implemented Hummingbird and new voice recognition technology without considering Glass.
Of course, Google Glass doesn’t come with a built-in web browser. It isn’t designed for surfing the internet, and searches are not made in the traditional sense of sending users to websites that might potentially answer their queries. Instead, Glass is designed to cut out the middle man and provide information directly to the user.
Again, the Hummingbird update gives us a glimpse into the direction Google believes search is going. Hummingbird places additional emphasis on the Google Knowledge Graph – a project launched in 2012 which is designed to collate information from a variety of online sources in order to answer queries directly within the Google interface.
Glass is still very much in the experimental phase, with early adopters able to purchase an explorer version of the device for US$1,500. It may be some time before Google’s wearable computer sees widespread consumer uptake but when (and if) that day comes, businesses the world over will no doubt find themselves scrambling to adapt to a radically different SEO landscape.
The future of search
So, with all that in mind, what does the future hold for search, and what do businesses need to do now to ensure they are future-proofing their websites for the needs of the Google-users of tomorrow?
Well, if your website has already begun to adapt to the Hummingbird update and started implementing more authoritative, question-answer style content, you’re ahead of the curve. As search becomes more conversational and less keyword-focused, the more you can tailor your content towards the needs of users, the higher you pages will rank.
With the Hummingbird update, Google has sought to better understand users and provide access to very specific, highly relevant information more easily. Your website can play into this by seeking to understand the possible intents of your visitors and acting to meet those needs, by providing authoritative and informative content across the board.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to predict exactly how SEO will evolve in the coming years. Hummingbird and Google’s mobile offerings are only scratching the surface, and the pace of how search evolves and develops will largely depend on the progression of other technologies.
The best thing that modern businesses can do to keep their websites at the forefront of search is adapt and evolve as well. Keep on top of algorithm updates and look to understand how and why your consumers are finding and accessing your websites. The future of search is rapidly approaching, and you need to hang on tight, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
By Zak Wash