What Does Universal Search Mean for SEM?

Last week, Google announced a major change in the way it delivers search results, moving from “siloed” searches for blogs, videos, news and other categories to a “universal search” model, incorporating all of those categories in a single page, ranked against each other for relevance.

Many search marketers are trumpeting the move as a win for searchers, with an expectation of increased relevance of search results; and a win for Google, which can finally bring together the various vertical search properties it has been developing separately.

Universal Search = Relevant Search?

“Google Universal provides increased relevance in that it provides a seamless pathway to connect users to a variety of information. It is still in the early roll-out stages, but Google Universal supports the vision that we have been putting forward for some time now, that search is common pathway on which users engage in all new media,” said Jeffrey Pruitt, executive VP at iCrossing.

Pruitt points out that even incremental improvements can have a big impact, given the number of searches taking place each day. Google has promised that this is the beginning of a larger, ongoing initiative, but these early results show the promise of getting people to what they’re looking for faster, he said.

While the results may or may not be more relevant, what matters more is the perception of relevance, and Google is already way ahead on that, according to Matt McGee, SEO manager at Marchex.

“I don’t think universal search will necessarily make the SERPs look more relevant, but it should be a different kind of relevance – one with a bigger variety of possible matches. The question, then, is whether or not the user perceives this to be more relevant than before,” McGee said. “If a 14-year-old is researching a science project, is she better served with 10 Web pages or with a mix of Web pages, YouTube videos, and blog posts? Time will tell.”

Universal Search = Google Cross-Selling?

Relevance is not the only potential benefit of the new universal search model. For Google, universal search is also a way to promote its suite of services. It’s gone to great pains to buy or build vertical search products, like video search, image search, book search, blog search, news search, product search, etc. While some of those products have been successful on their own, there is still a sizeable audience that has not been exposed to them, and this will serve to highlight those technologies.

“For example, YouTube is immensely popular, but there are huge segments of the online population (probably older) who search via Google regularly, but have never visited, and are unlikely to directly visit YouTube.com. Universal Search could help them reach that market,” Pruitt said.

Many times, the changes in results Google returns will be subtle, but other searches will offer surprises that will serve to highlight the strength of Google’s vertical search properties, according to David Berkowitz, director of emerging media at 360i.

“For instance, for a search on [iPod”, categories appear up top that include the Web default along with patents, products, and news. Do that many searchers really care about patents? Probably not,” Berkowitz said. “More likely, Google uses opportunities like that to showcase just how robust its vertical search offerings are, which means that just as universal search replaces vertical search in some regards, it highlights the value of vertical search in other circumstances.”

Most all industry watchers agree that this will have an impact on search marketers, since searchers will now be presented with more than just Web page results.

“The moral for search marketers is they need to take a holistic view of search,” Berkowitz said. “For those who get it, this gives them an unprecedented chance to dominate entire search engine results pages and gain sizeable competitive advantages. Marketers need to consider every digital asset of theirs as an opportunity to gain more visibility in Google, whether it’s an image, video, press release, store listing, blog post, or anything else.”

McGee also said the changes will impact search marketers, but noted that many search marketers have seen this coming, and will be prepared.

“I don’t think it changes a thing for the top search marketers. The best have already been using all these verticals to drive traffic — video optimization, image optimization, local search, blogs, news/press releases, and so forth,” McGee said. “The search marketers who’ve been sticking with the basics, like on-page optimization and simple link building, have some catching up to do. I’d say they already had some catching up to do, even before the Universal Search announcement.”

On the search advertising side, there could be changes as well. Although Google has not shared any plans to add rich media ads to the SERPs, they are not ruling that out either. At the Searchology event where Google’s universal search plans were announced, Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of search products and user experience, responded to a question about the potential effect on ads with, “This opens the door for introducing richer media into the search results pages.”

Berkowitz points out that the addition of video to the SERPs, especially video from Google properties Google Video and YouTube, should be considered a move toward rich media ads in Google’s results.

“It’s a short skip from videos playing within search results pages to ad-supported videos on those pages, whether some form of pre- or post-roll, or perhaps a ticker at the bottom of the video with an ad displaying while the video plays,” he said. “From this point on, anything’s possible.”

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