Since June 2005, when Google unveiled its plans to make personalization the default setting for Google Accounts, and continuing through April 2007, when Google integrated its vertical search properties (e.g., video, maps, image, news, blogs) into Universal Search, the search blogs have been abuzz with doomsday prophecies about the impending death of search engine optimization (SEO).
Today personalization puts more of an emphasis on relevance than on simple page rank – by eliminating the standardized search engine results page (SERP) and showing search results based on an individual’s prior search and Web history. By focusing your website on relevance and user experience, users will be more apt to return. Through these criteria, a brand can reach qualified individuals who are actively seeking their specific product or service. And that positive interaction will, in turn, determine rankings and allow potential contact with other individuals who have a similar profile.
Universal search, which introduces additional types of digital content (e.g., press releases, images, videos and blog posts) into search results for virtually all query types, effectively eliminates the text-based SERP and changes the optimization game by giving alternate forms of content their own listings alongside links to Web pages. In this environment, a brand’s website may compete with an image or video for the searcher’s attention.
Although the deployment of universal and personalized search has practitioners of primitive SEO running scared, it’s hardly the end of SEO. It does, however, change the way marketers need to think about SEO in order to compete. One viable strategy for SEO success is achieved through distribution and syndication of all digital content to expand your brand’s findability.
Simply put, universal search (also called “blended”) refers to the act of using Google’s Web search engine to search its vertical search engines and their results simultaneously. While universal search is a Google-specific term, the other major search engines all incorporate some sort of blended content into their search results as well (see Figure 1). For example, if a searcher is looking for video content, it is no longer necessary to go to a video search engine to find it, as those results will appear alongside traditional Web page results. Therefore, the search performed is not just a Web search, video search or news search. Instead, it’s all of these at once – a “universal” search.
Marketers have seen this before to a lesser extent and with a different name, when the Google OneBox was introduced prior to universal search. Google OneBox is a list of relevant links for shopping, movies, music, etc., listed at the top of the Web search results. For years, properly optimizing product feeds for Google Product Search (or Froogle, as it was once called) could win retailers the first three spots on the SERP, not just for the Google product page, but for Google Web results as well.
Google’s universal search takes this one step further, incorporating all types of digital content Google’s algorithm turns up into the Web search results and providing even more opportunity for marketers to get their digital assets in front of consumers. The impact of universal search should be overwhelmingly positive if marketers build their online presence authentically within multiple formats – video, images, mobile, etc. The more content and formats you provide, the better your chances are of being found. That said, the same principles of SEO still apply to all content, and you’ll still need to assign keyword-rich tags and descriptions, execute a link-building campaign and so on.
Personalized Search Results
Another major innovation is related to personalized Web search results. Like universal search, personalized search is Google’s attempt to improve the user experience by making results more relevant. The difference lies in the fact that personalized search uses a searcher’s Web history to customize search results. Prior to personalized search, there was less variance in Web rankings. For instance, a company appearing as the first result for a Google search would have that same top ranking in response to any search, regardless of the user’s location or other searches he or she conducted previously.
With personalized search, however, a new layer has been added to the ranking algorithm, giving precedence to Web pages that have been visited before, or adjusting results according to past queries. As a result, the order of listings within search engine results can vary greatly in any given area, depending upon which sites the user has visited in the past and related queries the user has previously submitted. For example, with personalized search results, a fan of Charlie Brown entering the query “peanuts” might see more content related to the comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, while a mom entering the same search term to find a homemade alternative to Jiffy peanut butter might see results related to the popular legume.
The impact here should be minimal – if your optimization efforts have always focused on relevance before ranking, that is. “White hat” marketers, as they’ve come to be known, are those whose SEO methods are generally looked upon favorably by the search engines. They focus on the user experience to continue providing relevant content for positive search results. “Black hat” marketers, on the other hand, who attempt to redirect search results to particular target pages using maligned tactics such as “keyword stuffing,” risk reduced visibility in the current era of personalized search, as do marketers who don’t optimize all types of digital content.
As a marketer, you should push for optimization of all digital assets, including news, video, images and more, to take full advantage of universal search. Furthermore, continue to focus on improving your website with social media, blog and feed optimization, and other tools for providing more relevant search results and enhancing the user experience. These tactics will drive quality traffic from natural search results and are best practices that will position you to tackle whatever the next big algorithm tweak happens to be.