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When Google’s In Your Brain: A Science Fiction Author’s View
How might the rise of neural implant technology impact the future of search? Futurist Ramez Naam shares his perspective as a search expert and sci-fi writer.
Sergey Brin once said that he wanted Google to be “the third half of your brain.” Larry Page has discussed a future in which Google anticipates your questions and answers them before you even ask. Google Chief Economist Hal Varian says he expects brain implants to connect people to the web by 2020.
Is that crazy? Are we headed for a world where people walk around with brain implants? What would that look like for search and SEO?
I’m in a possibly unique position to talk about this. I’m a search guy, having helped build Bing from the early days and having led program management for relevance, spam, and SEO of the site. I’m also a science fiction author, and my Nexus series is all about technology that puts your brain online.
The Future Is Closer Than You Think
Progress on neural interfaces is happening a lot faster than most people realize.
Scientists have already sent audio into the nervous system (via cochlear implants) and directly into the brain (via auditory brainstem implants). They’ve created bionic eyes that send video into the optic nerve.
More radical projects have sent video directly into the brain. They’ve used brain scanners to decipher what a person is looking at. They’ve emailed thoughts back and forth between people. They’ve repaired damaged memories in rats and even learned to record a memory, which they could play back any time later.
And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is heavily investing in improving the state of the art. They recently gave a paralyzed woman direct neural control of an F-35 jet simulator. They’re also funding next generation research into making implants smaller, better, and easier to implant. Some projects, like “Neural Dust,” even sound an awful lot like the wifi-brain-enabling nano-drug in my science fiction.
How Will Neural Interfacing Change SEO?
How do you market to someone who’s querying with a thought instead of a set of keywords? What changes?
Context changes, for one thing. Or rather, we can potentially get much more context. Today, search engines use keywords, location, device, and perhaps a few other signals — but there’s so much more we could use. What else was the person thinking of? What task are they in the middle of? What mood are they in?
Content could change even more radically. Today, search is primarily a tool for connecting customer keywords to web pages. When search is in your brain, the logical extension is to go much further and deliver knowledge directly to the person.
Behavior after “seeing” the content would become a much more important signal as well. Today, search engines have little idea what the user does after seeing a page they’re sent to. With an implant in the brain, that might be different. Does the user engage with what they see? Are they delighted? Satisfied? Horrified? Annoyed? Those are powerful signals that could help influence ranking in search results.
What Will Really Happen
I don’t actually think we’re on the verge of brain implants hitting the mainstream. It’ll be well beyond 2020 before people are routinely doing searches using their brains. Heck, it may be well beyond 2050 — but most of the changes above are going to happen well before then, even without that direct connection to searchers’ brains. Some are happening now.
Context is getting more powerful. Google and Bing both personalize results based on your geography. Google is getting aggressive about showing primarily mobile sites to searchers coming from mobile.
Additionally, there are a host of signals out there about the searcher that have not yet been integrated (that we know of), but could be down the road — everything from what they’ve recently searched on (hints about the current query) to what the user has been tweeting about or posting on Facebook.
Content is already heading down the road of delivering answers, rather than just posting a list of pages. Google shows fact-based answers on almost 20% of queries now, as well as structured data in snippets. Google researchers are working on ways to rank facts to deliver them at higher quality to searchers.
Search engines aren’t entirely naïve about user behavior as a signal, either. Moz’s Rand Fishkin has conducted experiments showing that that clicks can change Google ranks of pages within hours. That’s on top of the many ways that Google and Bing already personalize search results — using location, history, and social connections, among other signals.
Do Google and Bing pay attention to how long you stay on the page? If you’re using a Google or Microsoft browser or phone, do they gauge your emotions based on whether you scroll on the page and engage with the content, versus hitting the back arrow immediately? Some think so, though neither search engine has confirmed it. But eventually, won’t that be a high quality signal of whether people got what they want?
And how far is that from reading someone’s mind?
To Predict The Future, Keep An Eye On Present Trends
We’re already heading down the road of search engines reading your mind — long before we have implants in our skulls.
What’s an SEO to do? Watch the trends. Learn the tools and how to expose your own content in them. You can optimize content for quick answers. You can take advantage of structured data in snippets. You can learn about schemas and how to use them. You can learn specifically about Actions.
Me? Well, I’m not a search guy anymore. I’ll just keep writing about what it’s like when there’s software running inside your brain and how similar and different that world is to our current one.
Kade leaned back and closed his eyes. He connected to the phone with his thoughts, then tunneled through a cloud of anonymization servers to the broader net. Information streamed into his mind. Software collated it, organized it.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.