How Search Habits Are Changing: The Future of Paid Search

The Future of Paid Search

Recent developments in tech, consumer behaviour and players have meant that the paid search landscape has significantly evolved in quite dramatic ways and shows no signs of slowing down. In our Future of Paid Search series, we unpack the latest developments and what they mean for marketers. Today’s topic: how search habits are changing.

How Is the Search Landscape Changing?

The typical search funnel

An integral aspect of paid search has always revolved around understanding the intent behind a search query. Typically search marketers categorise intent into four stages, mapping each phrase within the customer’s purchase journey. These stages typically include:

  • Informational search queries that are positioned at the top of the funnel seeking information on a topic, often presenting their queries in the form of questions and long-tail terms
  • Explorational search queries where users are more informed and aim to delve deeper, comparing various options in their search
  • Navigational search queries involve users seeking direct guidance to a specific website
  • Transactional search queries at the bottom of the funnel, users in this stage show a clear intent to purchase

The search funnel in 2018

In 2018, the search funnel was much more clear-cut compared to today’s complex journey, which we will be getting to. SEO came at the top of the funnel for broad, informational searches and PPC at the bottom for targeted, transactional queries.

At the top of the funnel, users are in “discovery mode”, driven by curiosity. They’re asking questions and researching options using informational keywords/phrases such as “What are the best digital cameras?”. These queries were answered by SEO-optimised blog posts and user reviews. As intent progressed, navigational keywords/phrases such as “Nikon D3500” and transactional keywords/phrases such as “Buy Nikon D3500” triggered PPC campaigns, guiding users to specific landing pages to complete a purchase.

The search funnel in 2022

In recent years, a significant transformation has occurred in the search landscape: a departure from traditional search engines. Platforms such as YouTube, TikTok and Instagram have emerged as influential players, reshaping the search funnel. Users increasingly turn to these platforms to discover engaging videos featuring activities, restaurants and travel destinations, making them powerful tools for capturing attention and influencing decisions.

TikTok, YouTube and Instagram Reels have now become integral to the initial stages of a searcher’s journey, standing alongside traditional SEO. The allure of these video discovery platforms lies in their ability to offer short, fast-moving content that is easily consumable, social proof through creator recommendations, a robust algorithm curating tailored content and a time-sensitive, addictive, scrollable format.

TikTok as a search engine

The seismic shift in search behaviour becomes apparent when considering the preferences of different generations. While Boomers and Gen X still lean towards search engines for brand research, millennials show a narrowing gap. Gen Z, however, is the first generation to cross the crucial threshold by being 34% more likely to use social networks over search engines for discovering and researching brands, according to our research using Global Web Index (GWI), a survey-based insights tool.

Search habits are changing and here are the results

The illustrated trend in the chart further emphasises this shift, with index numbers revealing a preference for social platforms over search engines among Gen Z. Within the 16-24 age group, Gen Z exhibits a 30% lower likelihood of turning to search engines for brand research, firmly directing their attention to social media. Within the 25-34 age group this decreases slightly to 14% less likely to turn to search engines for brand research which is still significant.

This isn’t just a blip on the radar, it’s a seismic shift in how younger generations consume information. Businesses can no longer afford to ignore the power of social platforms in shaping brand discovery and engagement. The search engine landscape is evolving and Gen Z is leading the charge with a click, a tap and a swipe.

The search funnel in 2024

As we move forward, the search landscape will only become more intricate. Emerging as key players are AI technologies like Bard and ChatGPT which are shaping the way we interact with search results. Notably, in 2024, Google itself will deliver search results through AI (more on Search Generative Experience later), reducing the necessity for users to click on websites. This transformative shift not only affects organic search, but also extends into the realm of paid search.

Building upon the trends observed in 2022 where TikTok and YouTube held positions at the top of the funnel, recent developments such as TikTok Shop and YouTube Shopping experiences have reshaped the landscape. Users can now seamlessly make direct purchases within these platforms, eliminating the need to leave the app. Consequently, the diversity of transactional search intent has expanded, allowing users to initiate and conclude their search journey without leaving their preferred platforms.

The capacity for users to explore and complete transactions directly on these social platforms – bypassing the need to visit external websites – disrupts the market share traditionally held by paid search, particularly in the lower stages of the sales funnel.

Looking at the search intent funnel, AI-powered chatbots offer personalised support and guidance throughout the search journey, particularly during the informational and explorational stages. For instance, searching “3-day Paris itinerary” on Bard yields a comprehensive itinerary with detailed plans for morning, afternoon and evening, complemented by visuals and links. Bard’s primary goal is to provide information in a concise manner, setting itself apart from a traditional SERP.

How social platforms and enhanced SERPs impact websites

The rise of social shopping and AI-powered search engines like Bard shake the very foundation of paid search and website dependence. Users, drawn to seamless in-app purchases and personalised AI guidance, can skip websites altogether, especially during initial discovery. As paid search navigates this evolving landscape, questions arise about the fate of websites: will they become obsolete? While one might assume so, the data suggests otherwise.

Is this the end of websites?

Looking at GWI, we can see that consumers typically find out about new brands and products mostly through traditional media, followed by search engines and then ads on social media.

The below shows the change in this response from 2017 until 2023. Traditional media has suffered a 13% decrease in being a channel where consumers find out about brands and products and search engines has similarly suffered a 12% decrease. However, ads seen on social media has gone up by 11%.

Looking again at GWI, but asking the audience which online sources they mainly use when they are actively looking for more information about brands, products, or services shows that search engines are increasing in importance (up by 5%). This demonstrates that websites are still relevant, as consumers increasingly navigate the SERP and their hosted websites to find out more information.  

Search engines remain vital for brand discovery and research, although new players have entered the mix in recent years, the overall picture is that consumers still rely on websites across the customer journey.

The evolving role of websites in the digital landscape

While the digital landscape evolves, data speaks volumes, despite the allure of social shopping and AI search, well-crafted websites remain vital for brands seeking enduring success. But they must adapt. These online sanctuaries will no longer solely serve as entry points, they’ll become hubs for deeper brand experiences, fostering post-purchase support and building long-term loyalty.

Embrace the shift, not the demise. Think of it as a journey where users may discover and transact on social platforms, but migrate to your website for trust, community and that deeper brand connection. A good website remains crucial, not for every click, but for building lasting relationships that drive meaningful growth in this transformed digital age.  

If you’re interested in applying these insights to your 2024 marketing plans get in touch with us today and let’s start building your brand’s success in this exciting new era of paid search. Together, we’ll ensure your brand thrives, not just survives, in a rapidly evolving digital landscape.