For all its behind-the-scenes innovation, Google Search has looked more or less the same for the last 20 years: You type some words in a search box and get back a list of links.
The company’s added lots of bells and whistles over the years, but the core concept has remained the same and the experience has pretty much looked the same.
But that will soon be changing.
At an event marking the 20th anniversary of search, Google revealed a suite of updates that are meant to fundamentally change the way we search, and how search results look and feel. You’ll still see lists of links but, increasingly you’ll also see features typically thought of as being squarely in the territory of social media companies: news feeds, vertical video, photo-centric content, and, yes, Stories.
A quick recap of some of the specific updates:
Google’s personalized feed feature, now called “Discover,” will be rolling out to all mobile users and to its homepage on desktop. The feed surfaces content based on your interests and search history. You can also save stuff from your feed to topic-based “collections.”
The company is “doubling down,” on Stories, which will start to appear more frequently in search results. In addition to the publisher-created AMP Stories (Mashable is a partner on the initiative), Google will now use AI to automatically create tappable Stories about specific topics, like celebrities.
Google Images is getting a total overhaul, including a new ranking algorithm that will emphasize “evergreen content,” like recipes and DIY content.
Google Lens will be integrated directly into Google Images so you can search for specific items within photos.
Launch the Google app or google.com and the first thing you’ll see is a personalized feed based on your interests. Start searching and you could be taken directly into vertical video via AMP Stories or get Pinterest-style DIY recommendations in image search.
In other words: You’ll start to see the same style of content you see on Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook and Pinterest. Instead of scrolling though a static list of links or images, you’ll be able to tap through photos, video snippets, and, yes, maybe scroll through some text.
It’s a significant shift for Google, which has a messy history with social networks. To be clear, Google is not trying to reinvent the social network here. But it is overhauling search so you can navigate search results as easily as you would a social network.
Much of this shift is being driven by millennials and younger users who have fundamentally different expectations of how they should be able to interact with the web, says Cathy Edwards, who leads Google Images.
“They just expect to see more visual [content]. To them, the 10 blue links looks weird,” Edwards says, referring to traditional search results.
Edwards acknowledges that not all content is suited for this format, but she says we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift and that, more and more, the best answer to a question is a photo or video, not a bunch of words.
“There are going to be topics where you need to dive in deeper, but anything where you need that bite-sized visual answer, [this] is going to be really powerful.”
In some ways, it makes a lot of sense. To the younger generations, who have never known life without social media, why should search results look like they did 20 years ago?
It also helps Google keep up with social media companies, which have slowly been encroaching on Google’s turf when it comes to search. Snapchat, which has been steadily adding camera-friendly search features to its app, just announced a new partnership with Amazon to make product search available inside of its app. And Pinterest, perhaps the most dominant platform for photo-centric DIY content, has been investing in AI-powered visual search for more than a year.
Google may not need to compete with these companies’ as a social network, but it does compete with them for ad dollars, which are largely driven by search. And as these companies start to invest more and more in search, Google can’t risk the perception that a competing company is better at creating mobile-first search features.
Emphasizing photos and videos is also more feasible now than ever before purely on a practical level, Edwards notes. As mobile devices have gotten more powerful and connections speedier and more reliable, presenting search results is no longer the frustrating experience it was even a few years ago.
It’s not a change that will happen overnight. Some of the new features, like the Discover feed, are rolling out in the next couple weeks, while others, like the new AMP Stories, will come later.
But the message is clear: The future of search is here and it looks like a social media app.