Google Turns 20: The 4 Big Announcements Shaping the Future of Search

As Google celebrated its 20th anniversary in September 2018, the tech giant didn‘t just throw a party and eat cake. Instead, Google hosted a major event to unveil some of its most significant updates and new features in years – changes that will dramatically shape the way we search for, discover, and interact with information in the decades to come.

Google‘s 20th anniversary announcements covered a wide range of topics, from visual search to AI to voice controls and more. But while the details were varied, the common thread was clear: Google is leveraging cutting-edge technology to make search smarter, more intuitive, and more essential to our daily lives than ever before.

In this post, we‘ll unpack the four biggest announcements from Google‘s event and what they mean for the future of search. Buckle up, because the way you find information online is about to change in some pretty mind-blowing ways.

1. Visual Search Takes Center Stage

One of the most attention-grabbing announcements from Google‘s event was the major expansion of its visual search capabilities. Google has offered reverse image search for years, but the company is now making visual search a core part of its flagship products.

So what exactly is changing? First off, Google announced that visual elements like images and videos will become much more deeply integrated into traditional search results. When you search for a topic, you can expect to see highly relevant visuals mixed in with the standard blue links and text snippets.

But Google isn‘t just surfacing more images – it‘s also making those images more interactive and informative. Notably, Google Lens (the company‘s AI-powered visual analysis tool) is being integrated directly into Google Images and the Google app.

Now, you‘ll be able to point your phone camera at any object, landmark, or image and get instant information and search results about what you‘re looking at. Google Lens can identify dog breeds, decipher foreign language signs, find lookalike products to buy online, and a whole lot more.

To grasp just how significant visual search is becoming, consider these eye-popping stats:

  • There are now over 1 billion monthly active users of Google Lens (up from 500 million just a year prior)
  • Google Lens can recognize over 1 billion products, up from 250 million products in 2019
  • Pinterest, a visual search and discovery platform, saw a 140% spike in visual searches in 2020

The growing adoption of visual search tools like Google Lens points to a major shift in search behavior, especially among younger, mobile-first users. A 2017 survey found that 36% of U.S. internet users had used a visual search tool, with adoption being highest among millennials.

Visual search opens up new ways for people to explore the world around them and discover information. Rather than trying to describe something in words, you can simply show Google what you‘re looking at and instantly learn more about it.

This more natural, intuitive mode of searching is a game-changer for ecommerce and online retail in particular. More than half of digital shoppers say images of the product inspired their purchase more than any other factor. Visual search makes it dead simple to find and buy exactly what you‘re looking for.

So what should businesses and marketers be doing to adapt to the rise of visual search? Here are a few key strategies:

  • Invest in high-quality imagery: To surface in visual search results, you need clear, professional images that highlight your products and services in their best light. Make sure to show your offerings from multiple angles and include helpful context.

  • Optimize your images for search: Google still relies heavily on surrounding text to interpret and rank images. Use descriptive file names, alt tags, captions, and surrounding copy to help Google understand what‘s in each image.

  • Experiment with new visual formats: Google is pushing new visual-first content formats like AMP Stories and interactive images. Get creative in exploring these emerging mediums to engage visual searchers.

  • Leverage structured data: Including structured data markup (like product schema) helps Google accurately classify your images and display them as rich results.

The future of search is visual – and the smartest brands will adapt their content and SEO strategies accordingly. As Vince Baskerville, SVP of Digital Activation at TPN Retail, puts it: "Visual search is one of the most important trends in digital marketing today. Retailers and brands must develop a visual search strategy to engage shoppers who increasing rely on this technology throughout the purchase journey."

2. AI Makes Search Smarter and More Conversational

Another major theme of Google‘s 20th anniversary event was the transformative power of artificial intelligence to make search smarter, more personal, and more conversational. Almost every new search feature Google showcased relied heavily on machine learning models and natural language processing (NLP) to better understand searcher intent and surface hyper-relevant results.

At the core of Google‘s AI-powered search enhancements is the Knowledge Graph – essentially a huge database of facts about people, places, and things and how they‘re all connected. For its anniversary, Google announced a major upgrade to the Knowledge Graph called the "Topic Layer."

Using machine learning, the Topic Layer can analyze all the content on the web about a given topic and automatically identify hundreds of thousands of subtopics. Google can then map how all these subtopics relate to each other and surface the most relevant information for a searcher‘s specific query.

Here‘s a concrete example to illustrate: in a search for "pugs," the Topic Layer can identify highly granular subtopics like "pug health problems," "pug temperament," "how to train a pug", and so on. If you searched for something like "are pugs good apartment dogs" Google could scan its Topic Layer to provide a direct, accurate answer.

This more granular understanding of topics is a big deal because it helps Google deliver much more targeted, trustworthy information in response to long-tail and highly specific queries. Google‘s VP of Search, Pandu Nayak, provided this illuminating insight:

"We can better understand that ‘jaguars and leopards are big cats‘ is a good match for ‘What are the differences between jaguars and leopards?‘ but ‘Jaguars and Leopards are luxury cars‘ is not…By building topic models, we can go beyond keyword matching to better understand conceptually how the words in a query relate to each other and better determine the most relevant results."

In essence, the Knowledge Graph is evolving from an encyclopedia-like repository of general facts into a highly-structured "ontology" that captures the many nuanced relationships and attributes associated with any topic. For searchers, that means you can dive deep into the most arcane subtopics and still get reliable, curated information.

The Knowledge Graph is also powering more conversational and multi-turn search interactions. At its event, Google demoed impressively coherent search conversations, like being able to ask for "hiking trails near me," "ones that allow dogs," and "pictures of the trails" in successive voice commands.

Behind the scenes, Google is using AI and the Knowledge Graph to maintain context across these different queries and piece together the underlying intent. The result is an experience that feels less like typing keywords into a box and more like asking an omniscient guide for personalized recommendations.

In many ways, this evolution mirrors broader trends in human-computer interaction. A 2019 report from Juniper Research predicted that voice-based ad revenue would reach $19 billion by 2022, spurred by the adoption of smart speakers and voice assistants.

And in 2020, the global natural language processing (NLP) market was already valued at $11.6 billion, with analysts projecting that figure to soar to $48.6 billion by 2026. From Siri to Alexa to Google, all the major tech players are racing to develop more sophisticated language AI models.

For businesses, this AI-powered future of search demands a shift in content strategy and keyword targeting. Some key implications and tactics to consider:

  • Focus on long-tail keywords and specific questions: As Google gets better at parsing complex queries, the long-tail of search is becoming even more important. Aim to create authoritative content that addresses niche subtopics in depth.

  • Optimize for featured snippets and structured data: To be the source Google pulls from for direct answers, make sure your content is snippet-worthy. Use clear page structures, succinct paragraphs, lists, and tables. Mark up your pages with relevant schema to help Google parse the content.

  • Explore emerging opportunities in voice search: With the rise of smart speakers and voice assistants, think about how your content can naturally fit into voice-based queries and conversations. Consider question keywords, filler words, and optimizing for "near me" searches.

  • Analyze searcher intent at a deeper level: It‘s not just about individual keywords anymore, but the underlying goals and needs behind a searcher‘s query. Invest in tools and processes to map out the intent behind the key phrases you‘re targeting.

As Duane Forrester, VP of Industry Insights for Yext, explains: "Moving away from one-word searches to queries that resemble actual phrasing opens the door for marketers to answer questions directly, and to become the source searchers rely on for specific answers."

The future of search is conversational, personalized, and intent-focused – and businesses that adapt their approach to ride this wave will have a major competitive advantage.

3. New Paths for Finding (and Re-Finding) Information

While the Knowledge Graph and NLP improvements are mostly happening under the hood, Google also showcased several new features that offer users new ways to surface relevant content and track their search journeys across sessions.

The most prominent new product here is the rebranded "Google Discover," which replaces the old Google Feed. Discover is essentially a personalized content recommendation engine, serving up a mix of evergreen articles, news, and videos based on your search history and engagement patterns.

But Google Discover isn‘t just surfacing random popular content – it‘s intelligently parsing the "topic layer" discussed earlier to identify the most salient subtopics and rising trends related to a user‘s interests. Discover then highlights content that provides fresh angles or goes deep on key aspects of those topics.

Here‘s how Google‘s Karen Corby, Group Product Manager for Search, explained it:

"We‘re using Topic Layer in Discover…say you‘re interested in hiking. We use Topic Layer to identify great subtopics to surface like budget hiking gear or solo hiking tips. We also use it to better understand how topics relate to each other, so we can recommend videos about the best hiking trails right after you‘ve read an article about hiking safety."

In a world of information overload, features like Google Discover aim to unearth the signal from the noise and keep you plugged into stuff you actually care about (even when you didn‘t explicitly search for it). It‘s proactive, personalized recommendations rather than reactive manual searching.

Tools for re-finding and continuing previously started searches are also getting more robust. A new "activity card" will now show up at the top of the search results page when you revisit a topic, showing pages you‘ve already visited and previous related queries. You can also save these past searches to a collection to pick back up later.

Here‘s why this seemingly small tweak is a big deal: research has shown that up to 40% of all search queries are part of multi-query search missions that can span hours, days, or even weeks. By making it easier to see your past search activity and save your progress, Google is acknowledging that many of our information needs are ongoing vs. one-and-done.

Features like the activity card aim to make Google more of a persistent, cross-session search companion, rather than just a transactional question-answering tool. As Google designer Shashank Gupta explained, "Your search history is brought to life, so you can start a search on one device, and pick up again when you return."

For marketers and publishers, the implications of evolving pathways like Google Discover and activity cards are significant. Some key strategies to consider:

  • Double-down on engagement metrics: With Discover and search journeys, earning that first click is just the beginning. To maximize visibility and traffic, you need content that holds attention and drives repeat engagement. Prioritize dwell time, bounce rates, pages per session, and other stickiness metrics.

  • Create content clusters and series: To cater to multi-session search missions, consider developing topic clusters and content series that help searchers progress through learning a topic. Aim to be the best ongoing resource to help a searcher pick up where they left off.

  • Optimize for email sign-ups and push: Building owned audiences is critical for earning repeat traffic outside of search. Place prominent email capture widgets and push notification opt-ins to supplement your search strategy.

  • Don‘t overlook older evergreen content: With Discover surfacing content based on relevance vs. freshness, your older high-quality content can enjoy a second life. Keep your evergreen pages updated and linked to newer related content.

As Dejan SEO‘s Dan Petrovic noted, "This is a significant shift which will change how publishers think about content. Static content doesn‘t just decay over time, but can be programmatically rejuvenated based on real-time information from Knowledge Graph topics."

4. Bringing It All Together: The Future of Search

Stepping back, Google‘s 20th anniversary announcements paint a picture of a future in which search is more ubiquitous, more personalized, and more indispensable than ever before.

The rise of smartphone cameras, voice interfaces, and AI-powered discovery tools are fundamentally expanding the universe of searchable media while simultaneously making the core search experience feel more natural and intuitive.

At the same time, ever-smarter knowledge graphs and more granular content parsing are equipping Google to directly answer the most nuanced, conversational queries and surface hyper-relevant recommendations. Search is becoming less about manual keyword entry and more about proactive discovery and recommendation.

When you think about how all these threads come together, it‘s not hard to envision a future where the idea of "Googling" something feels almost antiquated. Increasingly, Google may bring the information to you before you even think to search for it.

Of course, with that great power comes great responsibility (and plenty of valid concerns around privacy, bias, and transparency in Google‘s algorithms). As Google expands its reach and influence over our day-to-day information diets, the company will need to reckon with the many thorny ethical issues involved.

But from a business perspective, one thing is clear: doing well in search will require playing the long game and keeping pace with Google‘s AI and UX innovations. The agencies and brands that win in the decades to come will be those that adopt an agile, experimental mindset and continually find new ways to reach customers across proliferating touchpoints and interaction models.

As we look to the next 20 years of Google and beyond, the only certainty is change. The companies that stay out in front of the shifting tides and put searchers at the center of everything they do will have the inside track on an exciting (and at times tumultuous) future. Here‘s to the next chapter of the search evolution.