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August 20, 2007

Universal & Blended Search

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It’s time for this morning’s Universal & Blended Search session. In case you’re confused, "blended search" is what they call Universal Search when it’s by anyone but Google. All caught up? Good.

Chris Sherman is moderating the session with Greg Jarboe (SEO-PR), Sherwood Stranieri (Catalyst Online), Bill Slawksi (Commerce360), David Bailey (Google), Erik Collier (Ask.com) and Tim Mayer (Yahoo) speaking.

Greg Jarboe is up first and calls Google Universal Search (GUS) the biggest thing to hit search since the Florida update. This means that even if you are new to the search sphere you’re not at any kind of competitive disadvantage to the old dinosaurs who have been doing this for years and years (like Bruce!).

Greg shows the audience the effect GUS has had on the search results with a few screenshots.

He notes that back on June 29 (aka the day after my birthday) if you did a search for [iphone], you would have noticed that the fourth result in Google was a News Result with an Apple-created YouTube video in the 8th position. Greg polls the audience on whether they thought Apple’s nicely planted YouTube video was intentional and a sign that Apple understands Universal or if it was just a happy accident. Personally, I think it was just a fluke, but then again, I’m bitter.

Since images are appearing in Google results, Greg says that site owners must absolutely start optimizing their images to appear in the engines, especially images for key executives. You don’t want a photo of your CEO and his girlfriend to appear on the front page of a user’s SERP, or at least not until his divorce is final.

More examples of GUS in action:

  • A search for [Hillary Clinton] yesterday showed a News result ranked at number 4, with YouTube videos, blog posts and three totally unflattering photos appearing below the fold. Greg blames the unflattering photos on the right wing conspiracy (heh), but then says we can’t quote him on that. Oh well, already did.
  • A search for [hurricane dean] shows News results are ranked number one, with a myriad of blog listings at the bottom of the page. He predicts in the next few days we’ll begin seeing images and videos because that’s the stuff users are going to be looking for. Because we like looking at pictures of destroyed stuff.

What does all of this mean? It means that all the rules of search have been rewritten. Universal search changes what appears in the "golden triangle".

Search remains the number one way journalists obtain additional information for a story. If you’re not optimizing your press releases for search engines, please come to the Bruce Clay Simi Valley headquarters next week so that I may kick you. I promise it won’t be too hard, just enough to leave a mark. Media relations should be focused on the top Google News sources. Google News Report and Newsknife will both tell you which news media optimizes their results better.

Always include a JPG with your news release, as 90 percent of journalists say that visuals are somewhat or very important to them. Even better, an image acts as the eye candy that will catch readers’ attention and make them click on your story. This means that even if you’re sitting at position four, your story is far more likely to be read than the story positioned at number one with no photo.

Something else to keep in mind is that though Google doesn’t incorporate video into Google News right now, a recent interview hints that they’re working on it and it probably won’t be too long before we start to see it.

Greg talks a bit about using social mapping tools to help identify the most influential bloggers in your niche (ME!). With millions of bloggers out there, it’s important to pitch your stories to the influential ones. Who cares what the Susan Esparzas think about you anyway?

A few years ago there was a panel at SES that discussed how the vertical creep was being ignored by searchers and search marketers. You can’t afford to do this today. You cannot ignore Universal Search. Google is making specialized and vertical content more visible through Universal Search, and it will act as a huge boom to those who pay attention to news, video, image and blog search. What Universal Search does it take the different verticals (silos) and slides them together. Your company needs to start collaborating.

Up next is Sherwood Stranieri to talk about apples, oranges and Universal Search. Mmm, oranges. (Apparently I am unable to spell "oranges" today. It’s only day one and my brain is already fried. This can’t be good.)

Sherwood notes that Universal Search compiles results from multimedia and news resources in order to create a single search results page for consumers. There are a few variations on the theme. There is the Ask3D approach which divides results into sections (Microsoft and Yahoo do something similar. [Yeah - only theirs sucks]), and then there is Google which stacks everything into a merged list.

Sherwood mimics Greg’s earlier statement and says that blended search changes the game. He even goes as far as to call Google the "game changer" because it’s the format most disruptive to the status quo. [I'm sorry, but since when does "disruptive" equal "game changing"? If anyone is changing the status quo (and for the better) it is Ask.com. Google is barely even implementing Universal Search right now.

Fine, Lisa rant over.]

Sherwood focuses his presentation around Google’s Universal Search and Video.

Previously, video had been spread virally, but now it’s in search so we have to start looking at it. How does GUS compare videos and text-based pages? Do conventional search engine optimization ranking factors come into play (indexability, content, linking)? What about metrics like views or comments? These are all things we have to look at.

[Sidenote: It's really distracting to me that everyone keeps referring to Google Universal Search as GUS. I'm waiting for this really hip, game-changing guy named Gus to be carried through the door at any second. (Will he be played by Dule Hill? --Susan)]

To determine how Google is ranking video, Sherwood created a test subject out of its client A&E Television. A&E has thousands of video clips across three TV channel sites. Many rank in Google currently, some authorized, some pirated. Putting the pirating issue aside for a moment (arrrrgh), Sherwood and his team looked at how the video content was actually ranking.

He uses the creepy show as his example:

GUS Page 1:
Page 1 shows a healthy mix of videos and conventional Web listings.
Data was collected for page 1 videos, as well as Web page listings on pages 1 and 2
Both search engine optimization-specific and video-specific stats

Sherwood examined the videos that were ranking for the Criss Angel query and examined the traditional search engine optimization ranking factors like PageRank numbers, incoming links, keyword phrases. Everything looking the same regardless of where the video ranked.

From there, he looked at just the video factors, things like the number of views, comments, tags, etc. He determined that the number of views a video gets definitely contributes to its ranking, but that wasn’t the complete picture. Not surprisingly, in order for a video to rank well, it takes the combination of search engine optimization factors AND video factors. It is the mix that determines placement.

It makes sense that it’s not just the number of views that will cause a video to rank high because otherwise the SERP would be clogged with old videos and the new stuff would never get a chance. Also, you have to think that Google can use tools like Google Hot Trends to determine whether a video is hot and therefore deserves to be ranking.

There are a few loose ends.

  • Video statistics themselves (Google can read the number of views and comments).

    For Google to be able to add in the video metrics, it needs to be able to recognize the info on the page. Dan Crow from Google Crawl Systems presented information indicating that it can.

    Google has to warm up for the indexing on one of these Video portal sites.
  • Bad News: This is why there are only a few portals are in GUS.
  • Good News: It is likely video factors are being read into the equation.

Next up is Bill Slawski who I met last night for the first time. Huzzah!

Bill comments that he doesn’t see Universal Search as a revolutionary process, instead he thinks of it more as an evolutional (I’m with Bill). It’s only evident if you’re looking for it.

Bill pulled up a search for [spider] on the four major engines to see what the results looked like. Google and Yahoo had 10 blue links, Microsoft had 10 blue links and some images, Ask.com, of course, totally rocked.

He talks about Google’s Universal Search patent and how it originally suggested that Google would list alternative results in the right hand side where the ads currently are. Obviously, this isn’t the Universal Search we’re seeing now but it was the prototype back then.

Bill again comments that Universal Search is like an evolution. The timeline going something like this:

Infoseeks’ blended search (1995) > Vertical Creeps into Organic Search > OneBox Results and UI Experiments > Universal Search.

From here Bill gets very technical. I tried to follow along but he’s (a) way smarter than me and (b) he talks fast. Here’s what I could pick up:
Log Data is collected and organized as triples (u=user info, q=query info, r=information about repositories). This info varies based on the country, language, time of day, etc. You want to learn how to rank really well in this specific vertical and try to rank for what people are searching for. That’s how you get into Universal Search.

He comments that Yahoo also had some old patents that discussed blended search. They talked about using labels to personalize results. It didn’t use terms like tagging, user annotations, though.
How does the information get from a Web page to an index? If you want to rank for a definition you want to make sure you include the words "definition" or "glossary" on the top of the page. You want to make sure it’s easy to distinguish one set of definitions from another.

One of the motivations of providing Universal Search is to enhance the user experience and to make it easier for users to find what they’re looking for. It changes search engine optimization a bit. Why should someone come to your Web page if they get the answer straight from the SERP? Bill says chances are if a user finds something interesting, they’ll click through to the rest of your site.

Next we hear from the engines themselves. Each rep gets 5 minutes.

Up first is Dave Bailey from Google. Hey Dave.

He reminds us of Google’s mission statement to organize the world’s info. He thinks Universal Search is just an extension of that mission. Google wants users to have a single search box to rely on and to get results for anything they’d like. Why just one box? Because people have busy lives. I mean, some of us have to cover 16 SES sessions in 3.5 days. Google doesn’t expect you to remember about all of their different verticals.

There are also certain pages out there that are special. He uses the query [arctic butterfly sensor cleaner] as an example. (What? You totally search for that everyday, don’t you?)
There’s a OneBox up a top with product results and then a YouTube video about how to use it lower.

If you search for [origami crane], you see images at the top of the results, plus a MetaCafe video. A search for [Cranston RI] brings up a map from Google Local.

What Google is doing with Universal Search is digging deeper to find relevant results and then using smarter ranking techniques to determine where the media belongs on the page. Does the video belong at the top of the page or does it below lower down?

A query comes in and Google sends it everywhere. Each vertical does it best to determine how they should handle the query. Do we want to include blogs? How are the books results?

What does it mean to search engine optimization?

Dave must be on another planet because he says it will be business as usual. He assures us that things aren’t changing as radically as some SEOs think they are. Web results will always dominate the page and many universal results are just Web results anyway.

However, do think about creating quality content in other forms. Create useful video content, include images, enhance your Google Local listing, upload product listings to Google Product, etc.

Up next is Tim Mayer to show some of things Yahoo has launched recently.

Tim says if you cover up the logo it’s difficult to differentiate one search engine from another (um, it is?). He says Yahoo is moving to a better optimized user experience. It’s about getting the best result from the Web in the number one spot.

Recently launched Yahoo features:

  • Music Artists Shortcuts – Go to official page, hear clips, get lyrics, etc. It’s very different from previous years where the purpose of the SERP was to send the users off as quickly as possible. Here, Yahoo is encouraging interaction.
  • Movie Shortcut – Show times, Reviews, Trailers, etc
  • Hotel Shortcut Inline – Blends the additional content with traditional results courtesy of an expand arrow.
  • Consumer Electronics Shortcut: People want to buy a camera but they don’t know which one. Yahoo offers suggestions, most popular brands, most popular products, to help them narrow their search. Clickthrough rate is very high because users are exploring the topic and looking for help.

Next up is Eric Collier from Ask.com. Before he starts, I just want you to know that my toes are frozen. Yes, I’m done whining.

He shows the audience the Ask 3D interface. The point was to highlight the vertical content more because users weren’t taking advantage of it. They also want to get as much above the fold as possible and get users their answers as quickly as possible.

He explains the 3 panels of the new Ask interface:

On the left hand site you have the search box (complete with search suggestions) and the Narrow/Expand your search options. In the middle you have the Smart Answers and organic search results. On the right rail is really where they get into blended search.

Types of content sources include encyclopedia, blogs, television, narrow your search, search suggestions, health, video, music, etc.

How has this changed user behavior?

Ask has seen a huge jump in user satisfaction, a 30 percent drop in users clicking through to the second SERP, 15 percent drop in users sessions with more than one search. Users really are coming and getting what they want in that first page of results.

What should search marketers expect?

  • A larger percentage of SERPs with blended results.
  • User location will play a larger role in SERPs.
  • Expect to see fewer web results in the SERPs (I agree, which is why I didn’t agree with Brian’s assertion that Universal is "business as usual" for search engine optimization).
  • Blogs, images and videos will take online reputation into account when ranking.
  • Pay attention to other search drivers – Search suggestions, related search, etc.
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3 responses to “Universal & Blended Search”

  1. Jonathan Allen writes:

    Lisa – excellent writeup. I’ve linked to it from moblog.co.uk/blog/SES. Hope you don’t mind. I’m blogging the event too, via mobile phone – come and say hi!

  2. Jonathan Allen writes:

    One thing i don’t understand about blended search is how it is going to drive traffic to me in a way in which i can monetise it. For instance, although i can put my fanboy review of an i-phone up there – and it appears in the blended results, its most likely going to be my youtube URL rather than the page where i embedded it – and that means I, the publisher, lose out on ad revenue. It seemed to me like search engines were gavce a clear message to make your content really cool and across multiple media formats so it appears in the blended results, but didn’t make it clear how the publisher is explicitly going to benefit since they are only including content from sites like youtube and meta cafe.

  3. Glen Allsopp writes:

    Interesting thoughts jonothan and I wouldnt mind seeing a reply to that either.

    Lisa, excellent write-up. Following along with you guys and SERoundtable



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