Are You Ready? Why Today’s SERP Will Be Unrecognizable In 5 Years

I hate to admit it, but honestly, I’ve been pretty down on search lately. After almost a decade as a search engine marketing guy, I’ve seen this industry grow, mature, and now, plateau.

Do I still think it’s a great marketing channel? Of course! It might be the second best form of advertising in the history of marketing behind word of mouth in terms of effectiveness. Its highly trackable ROI and bottom-of-the-funnel net ability to close all other types of advertising is unchallenged. There are strong reasons why SEM is now 51% of all online ad revenue in this country.

But a lot of the milestones in search have been mainly behind the scenes. Paid search quality scores, big organic algorithmic changes, etc have been major game-changers over the last ten years, but the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) innovation has been incremental at best.

Yes, we did see a shift to “universal search” in the last few years which added map listings, images, videos, products, etc to the page on occasion, but ultimately, the SERP is still a page of links:  static blue underlined gateways to the rest of the Web.

So, going into the Reinventing the Search Experience session last week at the Search Insider Summit, I wasn’t expecting to get absolutely blown away from what I saw from the senior-level engine representatives about the future of the SERP–but I was.

To give you a quick teaser,  Yahoo’s SVP of Search, Shashi Seth declared that “today’s SERP experience will be virtually unrecognizable in five years.”  Wow!

My fellow SEM professionals…I want to give you a moment to let that sink in. Today’s SERP will be virtually unrecognizable in a matter of years. In short, what I heard and saw made me realize that next industry game-changer has already been set into motion.

In five years, search will be reinvented to the point that even makes me wonder where SEO and paid search will fit into the picture. Of course, I only had a glimpse into what the Big 3 are up to. However, I’m sure they’re not even considering giving up their cash cow, but rather how to grow it.

Serving Content In SERPs

Later, commenting on the presentations, Internet pioneer Esther Dyson aptly cited the Bill Gates’ quote:  The future of search is in verbs.

What does that mean? It means that instead on just finding things with search, we’re gong to be doing things with search. Why transport people all over the Web and have that audience be serviced by someone else?

The key to this change (note – I’m unifying the vision here based on their individual and separate presentaitons) is that for a good portion of the top queries, there is a rather predictable set of intents. And if the engines know why people are searching for these terms, then they can present much richer content and features that handful of [very precise] links.

The search engine results page will become an actual Web experience, not just a digital version of the yellow pages.

The engines only gave us glimpses into what’s on their minds these days, but here’s an example on how I interpreted the vision:  think about what users are looking for when they search for a movie’s title. If it’s not out yet, they’re most likely looking to watch a trailer. While it’s in theaters, users are mainly looking for reviews, showtimes, and directions to theaters. If the movie is out of theaters and users are searching for it, they seem to be most interested in where they can rent, stream, or buy it.

So, if you were a search engine looking to rengineer the SERP experience, what would you do?

Well, before the movie comes out, how about showing trailers? Right now, that traffic is being shot off to movie sites where they are monetizing that traffic, not you. I bet if you were an engine, you’re probably be thinking “why am I sending people away when I can provide the same content right here on the results page?”

Right? Think about it. I bet the top slim percentage of queries represent a massive percentage of actual searches. If the engines can really map out the top intentions of each search and present not only the Web links but also highly relevant content to the searcher, then we have our game-changer, folks.

It’s not hard to think how the SERP could provide much deep content experiences for such queries as: used BMW, ipad 2, or American Idol. Heck, even chocolate cake.

Think about it. I bet that most people wouldn’t have to go very deep into the Web if the SERP had not just links, but actual real content such as chocolate cake recipes, images, nutritional info, and where to order one for delivery [and in your area]. It would be as though chocolate cake had a Facebook page. :D  That’s one I would definitely “like”.

The senior engine reps presented a few mock-screenshots of how they might best display this content to users. For example, in one presentation there was an image of a multi-tabbed large box above the search results where users could flip through various content categories, almost like a microsite.

I’m sure there are many ways they could lay this content out to best service the searcher and it’s not a stretch to think that it would probably even be very customizable and gradually personalized over time.

Ultimately, my guess it that the SERP will probably end up looking like Yahoo’s home page…except all of the news stories, images, videos, product feeds, links, tools, etc. will be related to the query the searcher just typed in.

Well, I’m not sure how this will all net out. The effect of the social revolution is changing everything online and with mobile set to emerge as the dominant gateway to the Internet, it’s inevitable that search will have to change with the times. I’m actually pretty excited to see how my dear, little industry will evolve over the next decade and how it will affect my role.

Are you ready?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing Toolbox


About The Author: has been a search marketer since 2003 with a focus on SEM technology. As a media technologist fluent in the use of leading industry systems, Josh stays abreast of cutting edge digital marketing and measurement tools to maximize the effect of digital media on business goals. He has a deep passion to monitor the constantly evolving intersection between marketing and technology. You can follow him on Twitter at @mediatechguy.

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  • footinmouth

    That’s not just a change in the SERPS, that’s a change in the definition of a search engine, and really a change in the mission of Google. They say the are “organizing the Internet so people can find what they want”, but I don’t see how becoming a content database and cutting out providers of information i.e. websites from the benefit of creating that content is a good business model.

    I.e. if Google is not going to send people to my website in the end, but is just going to display my information and gain revenue from advertising on my content, then why wouldn’t I just block Googlebot and be done with it?

  • Jim Huinink

    This article does not really meet the expectations set by the title. I thought this was going to talk about, I don’t know… 3D holographic search results, maybe?… Maybe a Google interface inside my contac lenses?… The ability of search engines to serve their own content seems much closer than five years. Of course if Google can serve better results than third party sites they will. But really, what else did they talk about in the presentation? That was it? I think I could have done better by daydreaming for a few minutes. Maybe it should have been led by someone from Google not Yahoo?

  • Dejan

    Great article. I was looking forward to see some cool mockups though. Anyone?

  • R.M.

    This is a topic with great potential. It just needs more focus on the user than how search engines will exploit various verticals for greater monetization because in the end users want to finish the process of search and not stay in it for too long.

    I think where you are (via geolocation and location data) and what you are doing (your social updates) will be factors on what you get in results as they get used more to establish intent. So, signals for relevancy won’t be just static but also dynamic. While personalization will continue to evolve, customization of your results will i.e. how you want them, will also come into play (the My Yahoo analogy is probably more in line here). The SERPs will be much more dynamic and contextual than today.

  • R.M.

    Just forgot to add, the customization aspect also means the potential for pushing relevant search results to the user.

  • I.N.

    So if I understood correctly, search engines are going the way of AOL in which they tried to give all the relevant content themselves without actually going to the WWW.

    A walled garden.

    It is a trend. When that happens, a technological revolution will probably occur in which people would want to get the content out of the walled garden.

  • Bruce Michael

    Google Comes up with new things every holiday :) and you are saying about 5 years definitely we will gonna see a different search engine in upcoming 5 years. If they can come up with street view and 3D maps then definitely they can do any thing with search we can’t predict any thing from Google yet. If this is related to Search Engine but if this is relate to a product which is really rising then we will definitely predict that Google or Microsoft gonna buy them :D

  • Mark Scholten

    Gustavsson-i, I am not sure I get it.
    Of course you are right that Google -as Mr Information Guard- could decide to let the search-and-result-traffic pass through or keep it for itself.
    However, at some point that would shatter their USP of being a (ok, sort of …) independent information broker.

    Besides that, why going throught the trouble of searching in the first place?
    Google’s top navigation bar showing ‘Google Banking’ would already stop the consumer from starting a search at all.

    Third, Google’s position is the be as high on the value chain as possible. They wouldn’t want to be bothered by more earthy matters as physical distribution and logictics.

  • Matt Stannard

    Very interesting – personally I quite like the SERP as they are, I don’t like clutter and think it could become a mess very quickly, especially if third party sites manage to take over the content snippets!

    I think as long as things can be controlled by the user – or perhaps even have the option to customise how you want the results to look that’s cool. Thus people who want the search engine to pull things into the SERP can turn it on / off.

  • Ian Goodall

    I guess this ties in closely with the development of the semantic web. Not only will SERPS be able to display results based on where you live but also the context that surrounds you. Basically, I imagine truly personalised search, where the search engine gets what you mean almost every time.

  • H.T.

    So the search engines are going to become “content farms” in their own right. They want to provide you with anything/everything about your search to keep you on their site. Irony at its best.

  • Scott Van Achte

    If it reached a point where Google was simply a content farm reposting MY content, I would likely block them and have my content removed – now that said, that is also assuming that I saw no benefit from it.

    Lets say that someone does a search, and Google puts a block of content up from my site, but with a link that says “for more info, check out Scott’s site at“. That could be a pretty damn good link, quite possibly better than a normal #1 organic ranking… Afterall, you would be pre-qualifying all traffic that clicks on that link. Depending on how the search engines present this content, the key to SEO may be finding out not what it takes to be #1 organically, but what you have to do to get Google to use your content.

    Regardless, it will be interesting…

  • Durant Imboden

    Your example of a movie trailer as a response to a “[movie title}” query makes sense. Similarly, a query for “death by chocolate cake recipe” could be answered with a recipe instead of a traditional SERP. But many–perhaps most?–search queries aren’t that simple. If someone is looking for “transportation from CDG Airport to Paris” or “treatment for stroke,” the answer isn’t likely to be served up as a video clip, factoid, or snippet on a Google or Bing page. For that matter, the searcher’s location and circle of friends may not matter, either. (If I want to know about the life of St. Francis of Assissi, whether I’m in Miami or in Melbourne, and who my Facebook friends are, are beside the point.)

  • jonalexander

    If search engines decide to focus on pure content e.g. searching for a movie and receiving trailers and cinema times.

    What will happen to PPC results for companies selling DVD’s of that movie surely Google, Bing etc aren’t going to risk jeopardising that revenue stream

  • Joe Youngblood

    Footinmouth had a great point. You could see the web dwindle in size from billions of pages to maybe a few million or just a few hundred thousand. If Google or Bing ever gets to the point where they scape my content, reward users for scraping my content and punish me while taking my revenue then i’ll just block them and move on with more traditional marketing and focus on other search engines (blekko, duck duck)

    oh wait.. google is already doing all of this…

  • A.T.

    If Google does begin scraping websites for content to post on search queries, It seems the question is how to adequately compensate sites that produce quality content in order to keep those sites from blocking Google. Google is smart enough to understand incentives, and I suspect this wouldn’t be as big of a hurdle as other comments make it seem.

  • David Vallejo

    Sounds like the search engines are looking to becoming portals (which Yahoo already is).

  • Matt Hyatt

    I’m not sure I get it.

    So, the new-look SERP will include Google turning into a provider of services rather than sending you elsewhere?

    How is this meant to happen?

    Example: if I’m looking for Nike trainers, Google either has to have it’s own separate business that sells Nike trainers (unlikely), or it just displays content from another website without actually taking me away from Google, correct?

    I presume the latter is the what we’re talking about here. How does that compare to today?

    If I search today for Nike trainers, I get a few results that display pictures and prices for actual products. I suppose the difference is that I never need to leave Google to buy them in future.

    If that is the case, then why would the retailers provide Google with the ability to do this?

    I’m struggling to get my head round it. Either Google turns its hand to totally alien industries, which it won’t OR it strikes deals with the providers of all the services under the sun for us to purchase these services or products without leaving the SERP.

    Why would any of these companies want, or agree, to traffic not landing on their own page, where they have total control of UX, user journeys and the chance to expose them to a range of other products / services?

    Also, this idea of a tabbed box already exists surely? I have video, image and map searches today. I suppose there is an extension of News but what else?

    I can understand that results could be presented in a far better way to keep users on the SERP for longer and actually preventing them from leaving when the request is for information rather than products / complex services.

    However, how will the Search Engines keep you on the SERP when the request is for something that they aren’t in the business of directly making / selling?


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