Rumor has it Google’s grip on the search engine sector may be loosening thanks to strategic moves among competitors like Yahoo and Apple. A partnership between the browser company Mozilla and a recently reinvigorated Yahoo helped to draw Google's market share down by 4%, and Apple’s plans for the future of its Safari browser could lead to even more change in the coming months and years. As the news story goes, Yahoo has won its way back into the race for second best in search by winning favor with Mozilla, which chose to make Yahoo the default search engine in its toolbar in 2014. And as Apple considers its next steps with Safari, the company is likely to drop Google's search function in a way similar to the occasion when Apple left Google Maps behind back in 2012.
Of course, the recent news is far from a seismic shift. Google’s share of the global search engine market went from 79.3% to 75.2% with Yahoo’s move, and the next competitor, Bing, holds just 12%. There’s a long way to go before Google’s dominance wanes. But it’s worth asking the question: What would happen to SEO if Google’s grip on search started to loosen? What would getting found online look like if Google dropped to 60% market share? Or 50%? As the search engine market evolves, a less one-sided market could take search algorithms down several twists and turns, leading to huge changes in SEO—and digital marketing, more generally.
Today SEO is All About Pleasing Google
Today, Google’s search algorithms—while very complex—follow a fairly simple idea (or doctrine, really): Search result pages should provide searchers with the clearest, most credible (and helpful) answers available online. That’s why Google's algorithm aims to award websites that provide well-written, helpful content, and it’s also why Google strives to penalize websites that focus too much on keywords and not enough on providing answers to visitor questions. But Google's no charity; they're in the search engine business for money, and for a long time now, they've been very successful at filling their coffers by paying close attention to what makes customers happy with their search experience.
This idea of delivering search results that focus on the searcher's interests above anything else is part of what drives Google's constant pursuit of an improved search algorithm. It's also what has changed SEO from a practice of keyword-stuffing to a content creation strategy over the past 10 years. Because of Google's domination of the search market, all of marketing has followed its singular ideology driving search algorithm, and the result, in many ways, has culminated in the evolution of content marketing.
Imagine SEO If You Had to Try and Please Multiple Engines
So, what would happen if Google did have a big competitor in the search arena? Would the same criteria—search results optimized to give searchers as much help as possible—still bring in the money for search? Would Google's competitors follow a similar algorithmic strategy as they do now, or would there be large disparities in search algorithms, each engine with its own spin on how to provide what searchers are looking for?
From my vantage point it seems likely that, if Google had a major competitor in the field, both companies would follow a very similar strategy for search. Like today, the differences might be in the nuances of how SERPs are ordered in various situations. Take Bing for example: there are plenty of ways Bing's approach differs from Google's in SERPs, but they're all subtle. For instance, Bing seems to award websites more for pictures and other graphics. There are also some who say Bing puts more of an emphasis on social media, given that its core algorithm was built more recently.
However small these preferences may seem, they're probably only the tip of the iceberg in how Bing or any other search engine would do things differently as the king (or one of the princes) of search. If Bing had more market share, no doubt the search engine would try to maneuver small distinguishing factors (such as a priority for images) to bend SEO practices to its advantage. If Google had a competitor on par with its search prowess, we'd likely see a lot of conflicting theories on the right way of getting found in search. Some would argue for taking a holistic approach that would aim to ride the common themes of all search engines; others would seek to find patterns in search usage and focus on one engine or the other.
What We Learn From Predicting Changes in Marketing's Future
While predictions for Google's downfall are probably pointless, it's important to consider where SEO is going in the future. Today's emphasis on building credibility, offering strong helpful content, and building a user-friendly, socially enabled website are all attributes defined by a situation where marketers only have to please one idea of how search should be: Google's. Generally speaking, you can ignore other search engines, and you'll still show up in their search just fine. However, as the market evolves and situations change, SEO could head in many different directions.
Today, the key to digital marketing is to stay ahead of the curve. Keep a few hours of your time each week to stay on top of the news, engage with recent insights, and learn from competitors. If research isn't part of your job description, add it. To me, researching what's ahead is like an insurance policy on your job. Marketing is moving so fast that your job could easily become obselete if you're not thinking ahead to what's next. By understanding the consequences of changes like a 4% dip in Google's ownership of the search market, you can anticipate what's ahead, adjust your strategy if possible, and prepare for new changes as they come.