The process of searching and finding on the internet is changing right before our eyes. Billions of pages have been indexed and organized into relevant results to match billions of queries. The first goal of search engines was to gather as many pages as they could into an index. The next goal of each search engine included ranking the queries while delivering results as fast as possible. Searching and finding was meant to be a fast, efficient experience.
The introduction and subsequent proliferation of blended search results have changed the way searchers think while they search. Searchers are now being programmed to spend more time on the search results page. Their search experience is being enriched with more visual candy, and the days of providing a link and exit from the search page as quickly as possible are over.
Marketers have to learn how to function in the new age of search. Every inch of a company's web presence has the potential to be included on the main search results page. Video, images, and local business information (including maps) are now being included on search results pages. Smart marketers who recognize and embrace these changes will move ahead of their competitors and gain more revenue, mindshare, and brand equity.
Are you ready for the new search?
Search engine optimization used to mean garnering hundreds of back links into a website and then hoping that search engines would rank your site favorably. Prior to that, search engines only read text through robotic software applications called crawlers or bots, so optimizing was all about the text.
Search engine result pages predictably included miles and miles of text listings, along with sponsored listings that can be bought in an auction format. Thus, SEO was focused primarily on obtaining better rankings through popularity and clearly labeling your content to make sure listing results were accurate and timely.
Ah, what a grand time it was.
Today's search results are a complex labyrinth consisting of text listings and advertisements for websites, along with video, maps, images, news, and local information. Google's introduction of Universal Search, combined with moves by other major search engines like Yahoo and Microsoft to offer consistently "blended" search results, has changed the way results are offered to the consuming public.
Your thinking had better change with the results.
Your content must now be segmented and thought of as individual assets that can (and should) be optimized independently. In the past, getting someone to your website from a search engine meant healthy, vibrant content. Rarely did we think of ancillary content as a means of appearing in search results.
comScore's qSearch reports more than 30 percent of all search results contained at least one blended result in September 2008. That number has been steadily increasing over time, and I expect blended penetration to continue a steady upward climb over the next year. Also in September 2008, comScore observed that 85 percent of searchers saw some type of blended result.
So, if nearly one-third of results contain some type of blend, what do those blends look like? While your business category results should be scrutinized on their own, qSearch data suggest that video is the most popular segment of all blended results.
Other segments of blended results getting attention include: "news," "images," "shopping," "entertainment," and "travel."
The problem is this: A high-ranking website doesn't necessarily mean high rankings for, or inclusion of, other site assets. It also doesn't mean that your content will be featured in an associated search for your brand, products, or services. Therefore, challenges facing the search engine marketer going forward will include stiffer competition for getting assets included from competitors, amateurs, and related providers.
Understanding where engines place emphasis is mission-critical.
Google is blending everything from news, images, and shopping to maps, stocks, weather, and travel. Google stands alone in including "books," "blogs," and "groups" information in its blended results.
Microsoft's Live Search is including health information as well, but unlike Google, MSN is taking a pass on "multiple" types of blended results and the likes of "books" and "groups." Yahoo is not including "books," "blogs," "groups," or health information in its blended results.
Every search engine is including local information, news, and video in its blended results. Local business information is also included with maps and weather, so local ads and assets are becoming more important than ever. Are all of your local addresses and telephone numbers correct? Get on it.
Another interesting development is the inclusion of "answers" and "definitions" categories in blended results across the top three search sites. These are most often in response to information gathering, as opposed to immediate commerce-driven searches, but that doesn't mean people aren't searching for technically specific information in searches. Technical information about an electronics item or the national switch to digital television, for example, may be high in the purchase funnel, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be there.
A searcher looking for information on "sarcoidosis" might be looking for information on diagnosis, but they could also be a potential medical drama audience member. Why shouldn't a 20-second clip from the television series "House" appear in a "sarcoidosis" search result alongside the mountain of pharma ads and "answers?"
A mid-tail search like "foam ear pads" for in-ear headphones might appear benign enough, but what about the commercial impact of images in results? If I am peddling $500 in-ear noise isolating headphones like the Shure SE530, I'd want to make sure my images (as opposed to only amateur images) appear in search results.
Any way you slice the blend, search is getting more personal.
As search results become more personalized and relevant to the unique searcher, competition will increase for paid search market share. Searchers are either unaware or could care less about providing information to search engines about how they search.
My iGoogle page has local information news and fun gadgets. Yahoo and Microsoft also offer customized search solutions driven by the natural human desire to make everything one's own. Google even introduced an experimental project that allows users to rate search listings and suggest alternative sites. Yahoo's Search Monkey is another example of the search personalization phenomenon. Search Monkey is an open platform that Yahoo hopes will make search more useful and visually compelling.
Why would people invest time in helping Google make money? Why aren't people just searching and finding? The basic human need for recognition is a flame that has burned since the dawn of modern man. The internet and personalized search have poured napalm on that flame.
In the early stages of video's inclusion in blended results, one could watch the video on the results page. Watching video in results was quickly eliminated for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the need for search engines to have searchers click off the page, as opposed to loitering on it.
While many of the projects search engines are engaged in to make search more efficient may be temporary, we will see components of these experiments incorporated on future search pages.
Information gathering is not a new phenomenon for search engines hoping to create a more relevant experience for searchers. The impact this information gathering has on the results page has never been more pronounced.
Personalization and customization will serve to facilitate increased blended search and thus serve to increase competitive activity in paid results. Recreating the search results page as a temporary destination, as opposed to a quick clicking-off point, will work against you if you do not shift your search engine marketing strategy to accommodate the change.
The search model has changed; how shall I begin to change with it?
Now is the time to use every aspect of what you know about your existing and potential audience. You must apply that knowledge to your search strategy. You can't optimize everything out of the chute, so focus on the top-blended search categories initially.
Whether searching for "sushi" or "puppies" to the latest on "Beyonce" and "Britney," along with everything in between, the social components of the web are beginning to appear in search results. If you can't afford to start shooting video with your latest and greatest information, chances are your fans and detractors already have created brand love or hate content. Amping up social media marketing strategies with a search priority should be another driver for embracing the new search.
Video, local, news, and maps are among the highest categories represented in blended results, but niche interests are also represented. Consider the random and obscure search for a "coach gun scabbard." Embedded within the results page for coach gun scabbards was an amateur video reviewing scabbards made for -- you guessed it -- coach guns.
Make sure images, video, and local information are both accurate and included. Tagging video information is very important, but so are popularity rankings, so make sure you are putting your best foot forward.
From top-end search traffic to obscure mid- and long-tail searches, blended search has changed the way we find everything on the web. It is still early enough in the game to achieve some big and quick wins with modern audience optimization tactics -- so what are you waiting for?