Beyond their shared passion for computer science and entrepreneurship, Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin also had a thing for wordplay. In 1996, the pair began collaborating on a search engine that analysed the internet’s backlinks to understand what a website was about, how relevant it was, and what other websites it related to. They named their debut foray into search engines BackRub.

After just one year it became apparent to the pair that BackRub wasn’t quite right. Crucially, it didn’t really communicate the rapidly rising quantities of information it indexed. So, what word could do justice to the huge amount of data they were dealing with? The number googol came up in a brainstorm – which is a digit followed by 100 zeroes. A small tweak and a domain purchase later, was born.

The rise of Google

Now 20 years on, it’s clear the friends were wise to aim numerically big in their naming of the site. Google averaged around 10,000 searches a day in its first year – today, it processes over 40,000 queries every second, which adds up to 3.5 billion searches a day and 1.2 trillion per year.  

The rise of Google and the internet has revolutionised our relationship with information entirely – and has forged new avenues for brands and marketers to attract and engage with consumers that were previously unimaginable.

For the consumer of today, search is our constant companion. It’s not just a product anymore; it’s a behaviour. With smartphones holstered at our hips, the sum of humanity’s knowledge is never far from our reach. Alongside this increased capacity for search is an increased expectation from search; people today expect to be able to access relevant information anywhere and everywhere, quickly and easily.

The age of digital assistance

Facing a more demanding audience that expects immediate results, we are entering a new era of search: the age of digital assistance.

This age is underpinned by the progression of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies now capable of analysing highly complex patterns of consumer behaviour. These tools are increasingly able to surface actionable insights that help us to understand and assist the consumer in ever more effective ways.

The core of Google and search is providing users with the most useful answers – but providing the most useful answers means you need to clearly understand what the user is asking. Earlier this year, I wrote for PerformanceIn on the growing potential and use of voice search and the developments in natural language processing that are allowing users to engage with search in a faster, more human manner.  

When it comes to understanding the search or query, voice has advantages over classic text-based search. Like humans when learning a language, voice search can infer meaning from the context, the tone and the structure of a sentence.

In search, all we have is the query and often that query is just a single word. It’s up to the algorithms to figure out if ‘turkey’ means the country, the bird or maybe the dinner. This is a fundamental challenge that we have been working on with search since the day it started. Over 20 years, we’ve developed rules – around synonyms and matching – that have drastically improved the usefulness of search results for consumers and brands alike.

The future of search

Just as the last 20 years have seen search transform our relationship with information, the next 20 will see developments in machine learning revolutionise marketing as we move further into the age of assistance.

Google’s recently launched Smart Campaigns is evidence of this. The tool allows SMEs to apply marketing expertise through AI. Users can select specific goals like driving footfall or increasing sales, and the automated tool creates relevant ads by pulling information from the company’s website and Google Business listing, as well as generating suitable keywords, bids and ad placements.

The feature even works for businesses that don’t already have websites, creating and hosting auto-generated and optimised landing pages that match the ad creative and have reporting built in.

For brands and marketers, it’s essential to understand the transformative technologies that are playing an increasingly fundamental role in how we interact with each other and with consumers. If there’s one lesson from the last two decades of search it’s this: the winners in this new age of assistance are the businesses that are ready to embrace the latest technologies that bring them closer to their audience.  

The next 20 years will likely see machine learning technology grow to ensure every interaction with a consumer is optimised to be seamless, allowing businesses the chance to be constantly available and be truly assistive.