The evolution of things is something that will occur naturally. It is not something that we can stop. As long as we as a human society do not come to an absolute standstill, there will continue to be progress filled with peaks, valleys, and trends. Certain things that were popular become less popular and then used for other purposes. Thinking about this makes me think, oddly enough, about search engines. The evolution of the search engine since the heyday of Yahoo search and the rise of Google search to now has been a phenomenal transformation. So much so that the simple search engine, the gateway to the internet, has become so much more than that and has also started to eliminate the need for several services on our mobile devices. Let’s take a look at what the search engine was then and what it has become today.
Humble Desktop Beginnings
Most people’s first interaction with a search engine was probably on a desktop or laptop computer. Navigating the web browser to Bing, Google, or Yahoo and then searching for whatever website or topic that came to mind. It was a very simple concept: the internet was a vast but very messy place and the search engine helped organize the chaos a bit. In many ways, the search engine was the modern reincarnation of the Dewey Decimal System that is used in libraries.
It is my belief that the search engine might be the most pivotal invention in the internet era as it made the contents of the world wide web so much more accessible to the masses. It was easy, it was simple, and it just worked. There have been many names that have come and gone in the industry. After all, anything related to financial sustainability on the Internet is a very fluid situation. But the main players that have remained are Microsoft with Bing and Google with Google Search.
It can be argued that Bing only still exists as a bit of irony, since Google search is so ubiquitous. In fact, it can be suggested that Google is to web search as Kleenex is to facial tissue. Both brands have become the de facto brand in their industries. However, Bing is still pre-installed on every Windows PC, is the default search provider for the Microsoft Edge browser, and has over 5 million downloads on Android alone. There is still value in using Bing, as to say that Google isn’t a complete search monopoly even though it may seem that way.
With that being said, the efforts of both Microsoft and Google around their search engines have driven the internet that we have today. Between the two companies, we utilize so many of their services such as Office, YouTube, OneDrive, Google Drive, etc. And these services have direct hooks into their search engines. Holistically, the search engine has always been about obtaining information in a timely manner. Finding the most relevant content to what the user is trying to find. This has started on the desktop, but as the mobile phone has supplanted the desktop/laptop as our primary computing device the nature of the search engine has had to change.
Focusing on Mobility
With the rise of the smartphone resulting in a pocket computer in virtually everyone’s pocket, search engines have had to make sure that they are tailoring their experiences to suit this reality. This has meant prioritizing web sites in search results that are more mobile optimized. The experience of a full desktop website on a device with a screen that is smaller than 7 inches is still not a great experience even in 2020. So as a result of this, Google and Bing have an emphasis on showing mobile first results(Google’s Amp articles are a good example of this) with content that is more vertical than widescreen in nature.
The lifeblood of the search engine these days is availability. This is why every Android phone has a Google search bar that is on the main home screen on every new device out of the box. It is why in the days of Windows Phone, every device had a dedicated search button that defaulted to searching Bing. Even on the iPhone, using Spotlight search would search either Bing or Google if you were to do a web search in Safari. This has created access. The emphasis of a smartphone is to have information at the user’s fingertips. Quick access to a search engine on mobile was crucial in achieving this goal.
As content became more mobile optimized, the focus then became on speed. Loading web pages faster, getting results to the user faster. This is due to the must have it now nature that we have all developed as a result of the internet always being on inside of our pockets. This development has forced Google and Microsoft to focus not only on their websites but to also put an emphasis on their mobile apps. And it is this emphasis that has led us to an interesting point. We have reached the point where these apps have become so good and efficient that they have started to render the needs for certain apps on phones redundant.
The Creation of the Post App World
Think about apps that we used to download on our phones 5 years ago. Or even apps that would come pre-loaded on Android phones and iPhones. News, weather, and stocks apps were some of the apps that could be expected to be on your brand new phone when you took it out of the box. Personally, I can remember the many Android phones that I had that included the Accuweather app out of the box (dark times my friends, dark times indeed). Google and Microsoft are very smart companies, so they thought well why couldn’t we just do that through the search engine app?
Through the years we have seen this transformation happen. As Google has added features that add more app-like capability to the search app and website, Microsoft has added something similar within Bing. If you look at a Google Pixel phone today, or even an Android One device, there is no built in weather app. Instead, there is the home screen widget that has a direct link to Google’s weather site that uses location services to give accurate predictions. In many ways, this has made the need for a third party weather app for most people unnecessary. There are still apps that give great notifications to the minute, but for the masses the forecast solution and discreet notification model is enough. Personally, I have not used an actual weather app in 3 years since the Google app just takes care of that.
There are other examples of this as well. Google and Bing offer very interactive sports scores and tracking to make apps like ESPN and Score Mobile feel a bit redundant. Even utilities such as language translators and dictionaries are excellent within these search apps. Google and Microsoft have both been very interested in the progress of web development over the past few years and these types of moves show you why. Years ago, we saw the search engine as the way to access the internet. In the beginning years of the smartphone, this concept was replaced by apps because the mobile web wasn’t there yet. In the past couple of years, Google and Microsoft are showing us that it is now ready.
The Mobile Web is King
On the desktop side of things, both Google and Microsoft are showing that they believe the future is in the web and cloud based applications. This is evidenced by the rise in prominence of Chrome OS and the ongoing development of Windows 10X. Both of these desktop operating systems have bucked the notion of needing native applications and instead operating most of the average work flow from within a web browser. This is the future that Google and Microsoft envision.
Both companies have invested heavily in web development and this has resulted in the rapid growth in more and more websites building Progressive Web Apps. This has allowed websites to feel more like native applications, and they are all accessed through these search engines. In many ways, this has been a cyclical situation. On our main computers years ago we defaulted to using search engines. We got away from that for some time, but now it has become the mission of the search providers to make this the new normal.
And for the most part they are succeeding. Search engines now are more than likely the app that has the most utility for the user. The one stop shop to get most of the information that is needed on a phone outside of using social media applications. As time goes on this will only increase as the development of web platforms is only increasing and becoming more accessible since the platform is uniform and not tied to specific hardware and software requirement limitations. The search engine was once the most important part of our digital lives. It has remained dormant for a few years, but it appears that it has returned. And this time it has more tricks up its sleeve, which is by definition a proper evolution.