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Search…in the New Communications Economy

In the second of our article series, Geoff de Burca – EssenceMediacom’s Chief Strategy Officer for the UK – explores the changing global search landscape. 

Most people aren’t paying enough attention to search. That’s despite the fact it has the biggest share of the advertising market – not far off 40% of total UK adspend…and the numbers will be similar in many markets.  

It’s one of the least discussed channels on the planet – probably because, despite its scale, it’s seen as the constant, dependable workhorse of performance plans, delivering great results (typically the second biggest driver of media-driven sales after AV), with none of the controversy surrounding some other digital channels and with less visibility than big broadcast formats. 

I think we all need to be paying much more attention, however. Because search sits at the confluence of many recent trends in global media: universal mobile phone usage, the rise of generative AI, the growth of online commerce and the explosion of TikTok. 

Google has driven this market for years with a series of powerful innovations, something that will definitely continue – from fun things like hum to search and the recent ‘circle to search’ image function – to increasing integration of generative AI technology to improve the quality of answers both in main search and apps. 

For example, in Google Maps, instead of searching for a category you’ll be able to ask questions like ‘what can I do with my kids on a rainy day’ and Google will use its AI capabilities to provide better answers.  

That kind of global innovation is increasingly important because the consumer experience of SEO is getting poorer. 

Sixteen companies – owners of titles such as BuzzFeed, Rolling Stone, Forbes, Popular Science and Better Homes & Gardens – have come to dominate SEO for many product category searches. These 16 companies own at least 562 consumer publishing brands and received more than three billion clicks per month from Google in the US.  

Across 10,000 terms where affiliates are ranking, covering products in every niche you can think of (home, beauty, tech, automotive, cooking, travel, sports, education and many more), these 16 companies ranked on the first page of 8,421 (or 84%) of them.  

To further degrade the consumer experience, these affiliate pages are often poor quality, with no original research, scraping Amazon reviews, stock photography, and biased to whoever pays the best affiliate fees. 

Search is now a fundamental human behaviour 

We’ve lived with search for 30 years now – Millennials and Gen Z don’t remember life without it, and Gen X discovered it in their early 20s. It is now a basic human behaviour. When we want an answer to something, we expect to be able to search.  

Search as a behaviour is much bigger than just Google and other companies are taking advantage and stealing share of an ever-growing pie of global searches, especially as the quality of answers on Google seems to be degrading. 

Microsoft has now embedded its co-pilot AI capabilities in the Windows desktop search bar – prompting searches before even opening a browser. 

Start-ups such as Arc are using AI to give you a single answer rather than a long list and embedding the possibility of asking questions on any site.  

Over 40% of product searches now start on retail sites, especially Amazon. 

Reddit isn’t a natural search engine, but now that people want real human answers more than SEO and AI optimised ones, it has shot up into the top 10 rankings of 66% of the top 1,000 category searches. Pinterest and Quora are other sites that do the same thing well. 

And we can’t forget the massive role of social search. TikTok is now promoting search heavily in the UK, with both blue suggested search links in the app and a TV and poster campaign making suggestions such as = ‘running for beginners’. It is already testing search ads, and more will be coming soon. Instagram is huge for many different categories, which has clear implications for getting your visual distinctive assets clear. 

So what should advertisers be doing?  

First you need to map what search and discovery behaviours look like in your category, especially in mid-funnel areas – these changes have made the ‘messy middle’ even messier.  

Then you need to defend your SEO as more and more AI content starts to try and game the algorithm. Make sure you fully optimise your Google search, taking advantage of their full funnel capabilities and AI tech. 

It’s also time to invest in retail search – both SEO and paid – to take advantage of less nimble competitors and experiment with TikTok to see what works for your brand, in anticipation of future commercial products. 

But whatever you do, whichever market you are in, pay more attention to search.