In the mid-to-late ’90s, none of the search engines wanted to be mere search engines, because searchers quickly left their sites. Instead, they largely ignored search to create portals – those sticky sites they hoped would show more advertising to each visitor by catering to all of their information needs.
Then Google came along. Google gained prominence as an unvarnished search engine that got searchers off the search page to where they really wanted to go, and did it faster than the rest. Over time, Google’s search emphasis has made it a far more profitable company than those sticky portals, and Microsoft, Yahoo and the other portals have been forced to refocus on search in recent years.
Well, everything old is new again. Led by Google, everyone is trying to be sticky again. As with the original portal mania, it’s all about advertising. It’s different this time, however, because instead of ignoring search, they are making search itself sticky. Let’s look at what’s happening and what search marketers can do about it.
The New Search Results Page
As you might expect, with multiple search engines out there, we can never talk about the new results page – these changes are being seen in various degrees with each search engine’s results pages. So what’s happening?
From time immemorial (around 1998), the main results page for each search engine has contained a list of 10 organic links to Web pages – period. Each showed paid search ads around those organic links, but those organic results pointed to pages on vanilla websites. If searchers wanted images, or videos, or news, they needed to use more specific searches devoted to those kinds of content.
A few years ago, Google began offering its OneBox capability (such as showing movie times and weather forecasts at the top of its results pages). But that was a small step compared with what the search engines are doing now. The new search results pages break the content type barrier.
Google now offers Universal Search, where all of these content types are blended together on the page. The top search result might be a video or an image, or even a news story, rather than a standard Web page. Yahoo and Microsoft have followed suit. Similarly, Ask.com has unveiled Ask3D, which stacks the search results so that different content types are shown in separate areas on the same results page. Try typing “darth vader” into each of the engines to see what you get.
These newfangled search results pages have been much ballyhooed, but so far, relatively few keywords get the Darth Vader treatment. Search marketers should expect that these blended and stacked results will affect more and more keywords over time, however, for two reasons:
The search results are better. Google and friends believe that their new approaches serve more searchers than their plain Web results predecessors. It does make sense that searchers are looking for more than just Web pages.
Search engines sell more advertising. Some search engines don’t like to talk about their monetary motives for new search results pages, but Yahoo’s Tim Mayer has been refreshingly open about their goal: to keep searchers on their results pages for as long as possible.
Similarly, these new search result pages often highlight Web properties owned by their parent company. Google shows its YouTube videos, Yahoo shows its Flickr photos, Ask.com shows its CitySearch results, each of which shows more of their advertising.
What Search Marketers Can Do
As a search marketer, you can’t control which results the search engines decide to display, but you can provide the kinds of content that the engines are looking for. As these new search results pages begin to be seen for more and more searches, search marketers should:
Use what you have. You might feel as though you don’t have any of these new content types. But you have press releases that could show up in news searches. You might have TV commercials and other videos that you can post on YouTube and on your own website. Don’t overlook the existing content assets you can start with.
Create new content. If Google wants new kinds of content, then feed the beast. Start a blog. Take photos of your products, your customers, your employees – whatever you think people want to see – and post them on Flickr and on your website. Put some interviews on video, or tape live product demonstrations. Provide opportunities for customers to create content for you, such as message boards, product reviews and wikis. All of this content is the new fodder for search engines.
Optimize your content. For the content that you create, continue using your target keywords in titles and elsewhere, just as you always have for old-fashioned Web pages. For non-text content – such as photos and videos – titles and descriptions are especially important. Submit your content to as many aggregators as you have time for, not just YouTube and Flickr, for example. Claim your blog in Technorati (and in other blog search engines and directories). And place social bookmarking buttons on your pages for Digg, del.icio.us and other sites, so your readers can bookmark your content for other social bookmarking users to see.
Although designing your content with interesting titles and descriptions is timeworn advice, it still works. Applying this technique to new content types, such as blog posts and videos, is a great way to start.
Make compelling content. Your Web pages have always needed to be interesting to attract the links critical for high search rankings. These new content types are no different. Moreover, some experts believe that search engines are looking beyond links to other indicators of intriguing content.
No one knows exactly what search engines consider in their ranking algorithms, but speculation abounds that relevance ranking for blogs is based partially on subscriber counts. Videos may get a boost based on how many times they’ve been viewed on YouTube, or on the number of viewer comments posted. Expect search engines to continue to use whatever data is available to determine the popularity of each new kind of content – it’s not just inbound links anymore.
What’s most striking is that marketers who’ve created the most interesting content are beginning to be rewarded for it by the search engines. For those search marketers that were optimizing only Web pages because that’s all the search engines rewarded, they’re getting left in the dust by those marketers that have provided the new content types their customers are looking for.