Universal Search: Not All Blends are Created Equal

Universal search — or blended search — has been an integrated part of the search experience since 2007. Heralded at the time as a revolution for searchers and marketers alike, the ensuing popularity has led to virtually every search engine today delivering blended results.

What originally began as simple weather updates and celebrity image results has evolved into a plethora of blended results options slicing and dicing your results pages into rather helpful sections.

Type in “San Francisco” and you’re met with local results, images, maps, news, weather and an endless number of other options outside of the standard destination links. Although you are casting a wide net with a search as broad as “San Francisco,” the engines are doing their best to offer you every possible option on the first page of results.

San Francisco Bing SERP

While universal search has clearly been a revolution in delivering information, there is a legitimate question as to whether it “works,” which of course depends on how you define that word.

The funny thing about these types of results is that these success metrics can be very different for searchers vs. marketers. Searchers type in [weather 10019” and get exactly what they need in the blended weather result at the top of the page. But a marketer, say in this case Weather.com, would prefer that the searcher click-through and visit their website so they can deliver ads against that audience and monetize their content.

On the other hand, if you type in [Avatar DVD”, although you’ll receive blended shopping/news/etc. results as a searcher, the real winners are the marketers that show up because they are getting what they want — to advertise with images/video to the consumer, and potentially get a shopping click-through and subsequent conversion.

Not All Blended Results are Created Equal

Every search engine must strike a balance between pleasing their customers as well as their clients. What is that balance? Let’s run the numbers on the Big 3 search engines (Google, Yahoo, and Bing).

In August, a full one-third of all searches performed contained at least one blended result on the SERP from the Big 3 search engines. Although we generally see a fluctuating number above and below 33 percent for Google and Yahoo, Bing stands out with more than 54 percent of their SERPs containing a blended result.

Consistent with Bing’s value proposition as a “decision engine” as opposed to a search engine, they are pushing hard with some of their blended result innovations to try to capture a grander share of the marketplace.

Give the searchers good results and they will come back. Bing’s blended result percentage has nearly doubled in the past year, so it would appear that blended results have been clear point of emphasis.

San Francisco Bing SERP

Clicks, We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Clicks!

Strictly speaking, clicks are the simple definition of success between the searchers and the marketers when it comes to blended results. If a search engine can answer a question for a searcher without a click being needed, the searcher is satisfied in the fewest actions possible.

But the marketers want the clicks (and resulting customer store visits) as they will inevitably convert a certain percentage of the searchers.

Using this click-based criterion, which blended results are best for searchers and which are best for marketers?

Best for Searchers

The three types of blended result pages with the lowest click-through rates (CTRs) (and best searcher satisfaction) are:

  • Stock quotes (66 percent CTR)
  • Maps (73 percent CTR)
  • Dictionary definitions/answers (80 percent CTR).

This intuitively makes sense, right? These three provide the precise information the searcher is looking for without requiring clicking through for additional information, thereby considerably driving down the CTR.

As for blended result pages with the highest CTRs, shopping dominates the space with a 127 percent CTR. (A CTR over 100 percent is easily achievable because searchers can run one search and click on multiple search results during that session — i.e., comparison shop).

Local results rank second at 107 percent, but anytime a search engine determines shopping blended results are relevant to you, the overall CTR shoots through the roof.

Best for Marketers

Even more interesting is the relationship these shopping blended results have with their paid search counterparts.

The average paid CTR on any search engine result page is about 9 percent. But if the SERP shows blended shopping results, the paid CTR will jump to 27 percent!

Of course the engines have determined the search is shopping related, and shopping searches have higher paid CTRs, but it’s enlightening nonetheless. A marketer’s dream, indeed.

Video and SEO

According to search engine optimization (SEO) firm, RankAbove, search results with video thumbnails have a 41 percent higher CTR than plain text results. The best part: every SEO position benefits. Regardless of the average position, video search results have a considerably higher CTR than their equivalent text result.

This differential in CTR is especially stark the lower the position on the page, driving incredible value for you if you’re stuck in the 9 or 10 position on Page 1. Merging video together with these results will exponentially increase your value by position.

The Moral of This Story

Searchers are more inclined to interact and engage with blended results than they are with text results. Different types of blended results drive different types of behaviors, but the value to the searcher vs. the marketer can be delineated prior to focusing your efforts.

Just remember to take into account how blended results can impact your search marketing and optimization efforts. The value isn’t in just being seen, but being found.

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