Contextual Discovery: Google Does the Searching for You

December 10, 2010

In an interview given in Paris on Dec. 8, Marissa Mayer of Google talked about an initiative that she referred to as “contextual discovery”, as reported on Techchrunch here. What it comes down to is the ability of Google to use what it knows about a user to make recommendations without requiring a search query to be entered. Which raises the questions: how much does Google know about us? And how do consumers feel about that information being used to target them without their explicit input?

It is a simple fact that the internet is no place for privacy. We live in a Facebook world, where we willingly give information about ourselves to anyone who is looking which we might have once shared only with a few close friends. The moment we express ourselves on the web, our thoughts are no longer our own.

To take an example from my own life: ten years ago, I still had some illusion that a private conversation carried over instant messaging was actually private. That ended on a day when I casually mentioned dog racing, and within minutes the banner ad on my messenger client changed to tell me about a local greyhound track. After testing a few times to convince myself that it was not a bizarre coincidence, I accepted the fact that my “private” conversations were in fact being used to attempt to market to me.

Ten years ago, I thought it an unsettling invasion of privacy. Today it is a matter of course. We all know that the ads on the edges of our Facebook pages are specifically catered to target us based on information we have shared with Facebook. It is probably inevitable that Google would evolve along similar lines.

Ethical questions aside, how much does the possibility of ‘searchless’ search affect SEO strategy? Probably not too much, if the results are being determined by the Google algorithm. Even if the keyboard is taken out of the equation, providing search results still requires a query. Whether that query is initiated by a human or by an algorithm is not as important as knowing how to answer it, which is where SEO really comes into play.

In any case, it isn’t as if user-initiated searches are in danger of ever being phased out altogether. Contextual discovery is just one more means to the same end, and one which reaches more potential consumers who are not actively searching.

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