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BACK TO BASICS: Optimizing Content for Universal Search

by Claudia Bruemmer, May 31, 2007

By now, you've all heard about Google's new Universal Search concept, which combines all the information within its vertical databases into one index to serve a single set of Web search results. As you can imagine, this will require some adjustments to standard search engine optimization techniques. If you have been following the Bruce Clay methodology, then you should already be on the right track to optimizing every aspect of your Web site that is under your control. With the arrival of universal search, it's not just a good idea; it's a necessity.

Google Vice President of Search Products and User Experience Marissa Mayer said the company's goal for universal search is to create "a seamless, integrated experience to get users the best answers." Mayer stated on the official Google blog that the universal search vision would be "one of the biggest architectural, ranking, and interface challenges" the search engine would face.

Mayer first suggested this concept to Google back in 2001. Since then, the company has been building the infrastructure, algorithms and presentation mechanisms needed to blend the different content from Images, Video, News, Maps, Blogs et al into its Web results. This is Google's first step toward removing the partition that separates its numerous search silos, integrating these vast repositories of information into a universal set of search results. The object is to make queries more relevant for users, but what are the ramifications for SEO?

Google Relevancy Challenge

Based on industry research, Google has a relevancy problem because the database is too vast. Back in 2005, Jupiter Research touched on this, stating it identified an opportunity for vertical search engines. The study inferred that general search engines were good at classifying vast amounts of information, but not very good at serving results that helped users make decisions.

A year later, Outsell came out with "Vertical Search Delivers What Big Search Engines Miss," a study that also mentioned the opportunity for vertical search due to dissatisfaction with general search engines. This report published the oft-quoted fact stating that the average Internet search failure rate is 31.9 percent. The study identified two market trends contributing to the growth of vertical search - failed general searches and rising keyword prices in paid search.

Another noteworthy study was conducted by Convera. Over 1,000 online business users were asked about their search practices, successes, and failures. Only 21 percent of the respondents thought that search queries on general search engines were understood, a mere 10 percent found critical information on the first try in general search engines. This study concluded, "To date, professionals have not been adequately served by consumer search engines."

The results of these studies show that Google and other general search engines are challenged to produce relevant results, suggesting vertical and niche search engines could eliminate such problems because the niche databases contain topic-specific information, serving targeted, more relevant answers to user queries.

Google's Solution to Relevancy

Since Google's move toward universal search, one can only assume it has considered the above problems and decided that pulling all its databases together, comparing and ranking them accurately at warp speed, could be the solution to relevancy. Doing this requires new technical infrastructure, including new algorithms, software and hardware, which Google has been working on since 2001 and is now in the process of implementing. Universal search has implications for search marketers because it is a departure from the uniformity that characterized search marketing in the past, requiring adjustments in SEO methodology. Since the modifications will be implemented in steps, immediate changes in the SERPS won't be obvious, and there is time to develop new optimization strategies.

Search Personalization

In addition to universal search, Google is also focusing on personalization in the SERPs. This means users will be seeing different SERPS based on their previous queries, if signed into their Google accounts. Users may or may not notice many changes in the SERPs due to universal search and personalization, depending on their level of sophistication and/or powers of observation. However, marketers will be scrambling. Marketers will need to get their clients listed into as many niche databases as possible to increase the breadth of coverage for universal search. Social media optimization techniques can be used to enhance both universal and personalized search results.

Universal Search Optimization Strategies

The focus on personalization and universal search requires more emphasis on social media SEO strategies because of user interest in creating content and the vast amounts of new multimedia content created daily on the Web. Marketers are beginning to drive traffic via social networking sites, and these efforts are known to enhance search engine optimization campaigns. Strategies include creating multimedia content such as blogs, videos and podcasts, and then getting them listed on social search sites like Del.icio.us, Digg, Reddit and StumbleUpon, as well as niche search engines like Technorati, Podzinger and Blinx.

When creating multimedia content, you must ensure that it is tagged and cataloged correctly. Multimedia content is optimized through established fundamental SEO techniques, such as creating keyword-rich, user-friendly content, unique Meta tags, good site navigation and structure, and implementing a successful linking strategy. Below are a few suggestions for creating and submitting multimedia content for several of Google's vertical databases to gain extended reach through universal search.

Google Image Search: It has always been a good idea to use images on your site for illustrating your products and services. Now, this becomes a way for your customers to find your site via Google Image Search. Optimize your images with descriptive, keyword-rich file names and ALT tags. Use accurate descriptions of your image files for the benefit of the vision impaired and others who might need to view the site with text only.

Google Video (beta): As with optimizing images, use descriptive, keyword-rich file names for your video files. Also create a keyword-rich title tag, description tag, and video site map. Create a Web page to launch your video, optimizing content for SEO and using anchor text wherever possible. Besides submitting to Google Video, also include Blinkx and other social networking and search sites like YouTube and Potzinger (audio and video search engine).

Google News: Here's where you can submit your press releases for display as "news" and subsequent indexing. Issue press releases containing current information about new products and events your site is involved with and Google News will likely pick it up.

Google Maps: This is also known as Google Local, a vertical that has been included in Google search results for a while. Give your site a local presence through the Google Maps Local Business Center where local businesses can get a free basic listing to extend their reach in the SERPs.

Google Blog Search (beta): You all have a corporate blog, right? This is how modern companies communicate with their customers and stakeholders. Tag it (digg, del.icio.us, stumbleupon, etc.), submit to Google Blog search, and extend your reach for Web searches on Google.

In closing, there are many ways social and multimedia content can enhance your SEO efforts. Experiment and learn how to use social media to extend your SEO rankings. As you become aware of the many niche databases for submitting multimedia content, this can go a long way toward gaining visibility through Google's personalized and universal search.


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