Even though Google would prefer not to be a verb, the search giant is just that and more. To Google is to search for products, maps, healthcare plans, cars for sale, images of Britney Spears, coupon sites, new mobile phones, the population of Moscow, blogs on gardening – the world really. And more so now.

As of last May, Google changed the way it serves results pages. It isn’t one of the ongoing tweakings to its famed algorithm to help you find what you are really looking for, but a much more significant change.

Search results pages are no longer sectioned off into categories for more targeted searches – its tabs for news, video, blogs and maps are still there but its main search results now pull all of those categories together into one results display. This is called Google Universal Search.

Google wants to provide more relevant search results by offering not more choices but better choices in the possible niches a user may be searching for. If you type “healthcare” into Google, you don’t just get providers of healthcare, but also blogs on healthcare and even local providers by ZIP code. Universal Search is supposed to make it easier to find what you want – a mandate that is the heart of Google’s mission.

“With universal search, we’re attempting to break down the walls that traditionally separated our various search properties and integrate the vast amounts of information available into one simple set of search results,” writes Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience of Google on the company’s blog.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said in the press that Universal Search is the first major revamp of the site and its underlying architecture in several years. He said the work began more than two years ago and that more than half of the company’s “search efforts” developed it. He said the changes will give people more exposure to “underutilized” Google services such as Book Search and Video Search, and that they will help raise Google’s market share. Brin finished off by saying that “our data says we not only are the best [search engine] but we’re widening the gap.”

In Google’s Shadow

The myriad of niche search engines on the Web, however, take issue with this new feature. Marketers and custom search engine companies believe this reform to the results pages will cut into their business. “There is a lot of money being thrown at the category, and so many players, they are not supportable in the long run,” says Chase Norlin, CEO of Pixsy, which hosts custom image search engines for other sites. Marketers are simply afraid that all their SEO efforts will have to change dramatically to retain their hard-won rankings, being pushed lower by popular blogs and YouTube.com videos of cats. Currently, Pixsy gets 60 percent of its traffic through Google.

“I don’t think it changes a thing for the top search marketers,” says Matt McGee, SEO manager for Marchex at SearchEngineWatch.com. “The best have already been using all these verticals to drive traffic – video optimization, local search, blogs, news and press releases, and so forth. Search marketers who’ve been sticking to 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.”

John Tawadros, COO of iProspect, suggests marketers relax and focus on the opportunity Universal Search presents – a call to diversify your digital content to include more additional media types, adding that a truly good search strategy goes beyond just changing your ways to suit the engines. Kris Jones, CEO of PepperJam, supports that view. “I have watched advertisers double their sales volume via search by focusing on marketing initiatives outside of search. Conversely, I have seen advertisers in just about every vertical space leaving massive dollars on the table by refusing to see the big picture,” he says on his blog.

“The moral for search marketers is,” says David Berkowitz, director of emerging media at 360i, “they need to take a holistic view of search. For those who get it, this gives them an unprecedented chance to dominate entire search engine results pages and gain sizable 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.”

Norlin points out that since Pixsy has a large business-to-business component, Universal Search does not largely have an impact on those current customers. In fact, there is a healthy amount of vertical search in the business-to-business space. Research firm Outsell recently stated that the business-to-business vertical search market would probably top $1 billion in revenue by 2009. Also, vertical search engines that use different “contextual crawling methods” or integrate specialized databases that are not routinely interpreted by a Web search crawler may be unaffected by Universal Search.

Finding a Niche

Wil Reynolds, associate at SEER Interactive, thinks niche search engines still have a place and are not going to be crushed by Google. “We don’t need to be the biggest SEO company out there, for example. We only need a piece of the pie. [Search companies] go out there fighting for a third of a percent and that can be profitable for them.” Mike Solomon, vice president of Search123, says that they do well because “we know who we are and what we do well. We see business that Google and Yahoo have left behind in the second-tier clients. ” We are not saying one size fits all. Google says ‘this is one size fits all and if not, too bad.'”

Image search engine sites such as Like.com, Picsearch.com and Pixsy will probably never catch Google, but they may not need to. “We don’t really compete with Google right now,” Norlin says. “Universal Search isn’t really a big deal.” He says that Google is too concerned with having a negative impact on their revenue to change results that dramatically. “They have too much to lose. That’s what happens when you are up.” He adds that an engine like Ask.com has nothing to lose and, therefore, is the most innovative in terms of universal search, Norlin believes.

Search sites such as Ask.com and Snap.com are trying to appeal to the Google masses by displaying search results in an interesting way. Ask.com has incorporated a preview in which thumbnails of the home page of a site pop up when the cursor slides across the result listing. Snap.com’s preview has a bigger pane that slides to reveal the home page without having to click through at all. Ask.com also combines search results à la Google Universal Search but presents the results in three ways – as Web links; as news items, pictures, video clips, weather reports and local results; and finally, a pane to help you refine your search. Snap CEO Tom McGovern says, “We’re not delirious in thinking that we are going to displace Google. We want to be the secondary search engine of choice.”

Since Universal Search’s launch, there has been a change in traffic patterns on the Web. According to Hitwise, Google Maps saw visits rise by 20.34 percent from May 12 to June 2. Google’s video results meant YouTube got 8.26 percent more visits in the same period and Google Video was up 1.41 percent. The Google Image Search and Google News areas actually lost traffic by 7.22 percent and 7.84 percent respectively. As of June 2007, Google still gets 52.7 percent of all searches, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

SEER’s Reynolds believes that Universal Search is just an outgrowth of a really innovative company. “At Google,” he notes, “they really allow you to invent there. They encourage their employees to try new things. The result is Google has built an engine of ideas.” He says that Google Maps was a side project of certain Google teams and “now look at it.”

The Size vs. Substance Issue

Some experts think the one-size-fits-all model can actually help vertical sea

rch firms. Products that never ranked high can now see better traffic and buyers from placement in a Universal Search result. It means the broadening of SEO efforts instead of the daily micromanaging some businesses still do to their sites. It will force marketers to unify their different channels so that everything ranks equally. Some pundits think this was a long time in coming. Finally, the most obvious benefit to Universal Search is that with more personalized results comes better traffic for everyone. Norlin says that there are “only so many kinds of destination sites. These are the early days of Universal Search. Personalization of search and automation of that is the next trend.”

The innovative ways Ask.com and Snap.com have used Web 2.0 technology to craft interesting user experiences, experts agree, is a trend, and could chip away at Google’s business. FlickrStorm, for example, allows you to search Flickr image tags and displays thumbnails of all the pictures with that tag. You can then choose to view the full-size image at Flickr or add to your personal slideshow. FundooWeb.com presents search results from Yahoo, Yahoo News, Yahoo Answers, Yahoo Maps, Amazon and Flickr. If you search from all sources, the results are paned as collapsible headlines and a Flickr photo strip.

Other vertical search engines using Web 2.0 include Whonu, which pulls from more than 300 search sources and an interface that contextualizes what you enter. For example, type in a ZIP code and you get a set of links to maps, weather maps and even public events in Google Calendar. KwMap calls itself a “keyword map for the whole Internet.” Type in a keyword or phrase and an interface lists related key phrases with a graph that shows related terms. Clicking on a term reveals another layer of related terms. Like.com is a “visual shopping” engine that displays images of products or people. Click on an image and the engine shows related products by analyzing the image and not text tags. The interface lets you focus on areas of an image to find similar products by shape or color. Blinkx TV is a search engine that searches audio, video and podcasts using keywords and phrases but also content from inside the clip that you’re looking for – be it a phrase sung in a song or a product name mentioned in a podcast.>

While marketers will probably have to learn new methods to keep their results high in Universal Search, it seems clear that niche search engines can offer unique ways to appeal to everyday searchers, too. SEER Interactive’s Reynolds trusts the Web audience is a savvy one. “When you get to very specific niche engines, the consumer is very knowledgeable. They are more likely to convert. ” Google got people hooked for years before they started serving ads.”