For a growing number of web users, search is no longer confined to search engines and no longer confined to a single device. They’re hitting up social media, news, video and even messaging apps to find the answers they need. As consumers’ on-the-go connectivity surges, their device choices evolve along with it. Smartphones (51 percent) have overtaken desktops (42 percent), according to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers‘s 2015 State of Mobile Marketing report. Search has had to evolve to be more convenient and easy-to-use to accommodate a shrinking screen.

This move to mobile has also changed the way users physically conduct their searches. A growing minority has dropped typing entirely, turning to voice search for quick-hit results about weather, traffic and directions. Search engines, like Bing and Google, have responded by providing instant answers directly in the search results pages – there’s no need to click through to a site to see who won yesterday’s game or what the weather is like. It’s all about helping consumers get the right information so they can quickly take action.

“When searching on mobile, users aren’t looking for the perfect answer but the best answer they can find,” says Damon Kiesow, head of product at The McClatchy Company.

Search goes vertical

Consumers are increasingly using their smartphones to make hugely important life decisions. According to a Pew Research Center survey of smartphone users:

1.) 62 percent used their phone in the past year to search for information about a health condition.

2. ) 57 percent used their phone to do online banking.

3.) 44 percent used their phone to search real estate listings or other information about a place to live.

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4.) 43 percent used their phone to conduct a job search.

And the answers aren’t just pouring in through search engines. Apps or sites relevant to users’ search topics are facilitating a chunk of this digital enlightenment. Social media apps themselves are also well-sourced reservoirs of knowledge, including Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Yelp and YouTube, Kiesow says.

“I do a lot of search for news in Twitter,” Kiesow says. His 13-year-old son, on the other hand, does most of his searches on YouTube. Even gaming consoles like Xbox allow users to search for a variety of content.

Steve Buttry, director of student media at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Communication, also uses Twitter as his go-to search app on both mobile and desktop. “It’s easy to find people tweeting about a topic or event [to get information],” he says.

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This consumer behavior, where users find information on apps or sites, is influencing search engines and their experiences. Search engines like Bing and Google are beginning to move beyond these traditional search pages and into curated experiences for specific verticals. Travel or retail searches on Bing won’t just return a list of links anymore, but rather deliver an interactive and engaging experience right on the page. For example “hotels in Seattle” will provide a carousel of information including pricing, ratings and filter options. The same applies to retail-oriented searches, where the search engines provide product ads with images and pricing right on the page.

In search of conversations

As consumers move their interactions and searches beyond the browser, search engines have to meet these consumers where they are. So where are they? Trends suggest, particularly among younger digital natives, that more and more search is being conducted the same way you and I are engaging – through conversation, whether through people, bots or digital assistants.

Already, Microsoft’s Digital Assistant Cortana has answered 10 billion questions since the launch of Windows 10. But conversational searches — often done through voice — are very different from traditional searches typed in a search box. Conversational or voice queries tend to be longer — often in complete sentences — while users tend to type just two or three keywords.

Yet, Kiesow and Buttry agree that voice search still needs improvement.

“If you’re typing a search and it doesn’t give you what you want, it’s easy to change a word and get a better result,” said Buttry. “I see more people trying to search with voice and then end up typing their query.”

Yet, voice search is constantly improving as Bing and Google experiment with natural language processing and machine learning. And, voice search isn’t just confined to smartphones anymore. The proliferation of virtual assistants — Cortana, Siri, Alexa — allows us to be online anytime we are in the vicinity of any connected device, including at-home assistants and gaming consoles.

It’s not surprising that voice search is increasingly popular. In fact, 40 percent of smartphone users only just started to use voice search in the last six months, according to a December 2015 study by MindMeld.

Where will people search in the future?

The future of search, said Kiesow and Buttry, lies in prediction: apps and search engines that anticipate our needs and interests before we ask them, similar to how Facebook and other platforms are able to recommend related articles.

Some apps and smartphone operating systems already give you a heads-up about the traffic as you start your commute home from work, he said. The more that apps are able to provide this type of service, the more they’ll push traditional search engine models into the shadows. But we all know those engines are still powering all those timely answers.

Eventually, instead of searching in a search bar, you might have a conversation with a digital assistant or a bot to get information. And unlike a search bar, a digital assistant or bot can look back on past conversations for better context so you don’t have to start from square one with every new search. Digital assistants are increasingly able to answer follow-up questions to previous searches without you having to repeat the subject again.

Eventually search won’t be just a two- or three-word phrase you type into a search box without context, but instead will be a conversation, similar to the back-and-forth you have with your friends and coworkers.

 

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