In 2009, Bill Gates gave a speech at a pri­vate din­ner where he famous­ly said “the future of search is verbs.”

Gates wasn’t talk­ing about the words peo­ple type into search box­es, he was instead talk­ing about why peo­ple search.

Before we can under­stand why search is impor­tant, we need to take a step back and under­stand why peo­ple search.

Why People Search

In the ear­ly days, peo­ple searched to find a list of doc­u­ments that con­tained the words they typed in. That’s no longer the case.

Today’s searchers search to solve prob­lems, to accom­plish tasks, and to “do” some­thing. They might be search­ing to book a flight, buy some­thing, learn the lat­est Tay­lor Swift lyrics, or browse cat pho­tos – but these are all actions. Or, as Gates referred to them, verbs.

When a user starts a search, they’re real­ly start­ing a jour­ney. Mar­keters love to talk about some­thing called “the con­sumer jour­ney.” It’s just a fan­cy way of ref­er­enc­ing a user’s path from the incep­tion of their task to the com­ple­tion – and most of these jour­neys start with a search.

The con­sumer jour­ney has been grad­u­al­ly play­ing a larg­er role in search over the last decade. Orig­i­nal­ly depict­ed as a fun­nel where­in users move from aware­ness to con­sid­er­a­tion to pur­chase, this old con­sumer jour­ney has become out­dat­ed (although we still use this mod­el for illus­tra­tive pur­pos­es and to make per­sona research eas­i­er).

The Evolution of Search & the Consumer Journey

The mod­ern con­sumer jour­ney no longer rep­re­sents a fun­nel, but looks more like a crazy straw – with var­i­ous twists and turns rep­re­sent­ing the var­i­ous chan­nels, medi­ums, and devices that users inter­act with today.

In order to fit this new mod­el, search has had to evolve from sim­ply words on the page to under­stand­ing the user intent at each phase of the jour­ney. Search is no longer just about key­words, but has evolved into pro­vid­ing the right con­tent to the right user at the right time in their jour­ney to help them accom­plish their task.

For the users, it’s all about the verbs. For search mar­keters, it’s all about help­ing the user on their jour­ney (and, ide­al­ly, influ­enc­ing them a bit along the way.)

Stick­ing with the crazy straw mod­el, today’s con­sumer jour­ney no longer hap­pens on a sin­gle device. Users may start a search on their mobile device, con­tin­ue research­ing on their tablet or work lap­top, and ulti­mate­ly pur­chase from their desk­top at home.

Search isn’t just lim­it­ed to com­put­ers or phones. Users can now search from a vari­ety of devices, includ­ing watch­es, smart glass­es, blue­tooth speak­er assis­tants, and even kitchen appli­ances. In today’s world, even my fridge has its own Twit­ter account – and search mar­keters need to be cog­nizant of how var­i­ous devices relate to each oth­er and play a part in a user’s search expe­ri­ence.

There’s some healthy debate as to whether this has always been the case, but in today’s always on hyper-con­nect­ed world, SEO has mor­phed into what we’ll call “real mar­ket­ing.”

Gone are the days of hacks, tricks, and attempt­ing to reverse-engi­neer algo­rithms.

Today’s SEO focus­es on:

  • Under­stand­ing per­sonas.
  • Data-dri­ven insights.
  • Con­tent strat­e­gy.
  • Tech­ni­cal prob­lem-solv­ing.

The 3 Main Tenants of Any Marketing Strategy or Campaign

Search touch­es all three of these areas:

  • Attract.
  • Engage.
  • Con­vert.

But search con­cen­trates heav­i­ly on the first phase: Attract.

If you build it, they will come” may apply to base­ball fields, but it doesn’t work with web­sites.

It’s no longer enough to have an awe­some prod­uct. You must active­ly attract cus­tomers via mul­ti­ple chan­nels and out­lets.

This is why, despite some claims to the con­trary from clients or design agen­cies, every web­page is, in fact, an SEO page.

If a web­page is involved in attract­ing vis­i­tors, engag­ing vis­i­tors, or con­vert­ing them, there should be an impor­tant SEO com­po­nent to that page.

Why Is SEO Important?

OK, users, jour­ney, search, verbs – got it. Users are impor­tant and many of them start with a search, so search is impor­tant.

But why is SEO impor­tant? Isn’t SEO just a devel­op­er thing? I heard there was a plu­g­in for it. Can’t Google and Bing just fig­ure out my web­site?

We start­ed this sto­ry with a Gates quote, but it was Google rather than Microsoft that took the phi­los­o­phy to heart.

Things like Hum­ming­bird, Pan­da, Pen­guin, RankBrain, Mobi­leged­don, Pos­sum, Pigeon, enti­ties, and AMP essen­tial­ly have all been attempts by Google to adapt its search algo­rithm to move from words to actions – and help users accom­plish what­ev­er tasks they may be focused on – but they aren’t that sim­ple to under­stand.

SEO has come a long way from the days of meta data. Sure, there’s a lot of best prac­tices involved that “should” be cov­ered by the devel­op­ment team or a plu­g­in (or built into a frame­work *cough cough* angu­lar, react, I’m look­ing at you guys) – but often they aren’t.

Today’s web­sites are more appli­ca­tion than they are a web­site, and appli­ca­tions come with lots of fan­cy fea­tures that don’t always play nice­ly with search engines (hi again, angu­lar and react.)

Good SEO Today

A good SEO can not only focus on con­tent, but also help:

  • Nav­i­gate through mul­ti­ple ver­sions of the same page.
  • Solve tech issues that ren­der con­tent invis­i­ble to search engines.
  • With prop­er serv­er set­tings.
  • Inte­grate with social media, con­tent, cre­ative, user expe­ri­ence, paid search, or ana­lyt­ics.
  • Find ways to speed up your site.

A good SEO pro­fes­sion­al not only under­stands the searcher, but the com­pet­i­tive land­scape as well. It isn’t enough to just under­stand the user’s task, search mar­keters need to under­stand what oth­er options are in the mar­ket­place, and how they can fill the gap to pro­vide a bet­ter solu­tion for the user’s task.

We’ve come a long way from key­words on pages to full-ser­vice mar­ket­ing. SEO pros get to wear mul­ti­ple hats as they help con­nect devel­op­ment, infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture, user expe­ri­ence, con­tent strat­e­gy, mar­ket­ing, social, and paid media teams. It’s a game of give and take – all in an attempt to cre­ate some­thing that works for search engines and users.

There are plen­ty of cau­tion­ary tales about things as sim­ple sound­ing as a site redesign or new CMS sys­tem caus­ing a site’s traf­fic to drop or dis­ap­pear leav­ing busi­ness­es scram­bling. The sim­ple fact of the mat­ter is, most web­site changes these days affect SEO – and only by includ­ing SEO up front and through­out the project can a busi­ness hope to see pos­i­tive results.

So Why Is Search Important?

Search mat­ters because users mat­ter.

As tech­nol­o­gy con­tin­ues to evolve, SEOs will con­stant­ly deal with new ways of search­ing, new devices to search on, and new types of search­es (like voice search, or search­es done by my oven) but the one thing that will remain con­stant is why peo­ple search. The verbs aren’t going away.

One day we might be over­run by AI or upload our con­scious­ness into the sin­gu­lar­i­ty – but until then we’ll still need to solve prob­lems and accom­plish tasks – and some form of search will always be involved in that.