Google’s New Search: Universal, and Far from Remote

(Searchline) Google has made a major change in the way it displays its general search results. And while the impact may at first be small, the significance of that change will grow over time and eventually ripple through the very concept of optimizing Web pages for search.

At least, that’s how it looks now.

The change is the introduction of Google Universal Search, and it’s fairly easily explained. Until now, Google has returned primarily text-based results in its general searches. Unless you were specifically opting to do one of its vertical searches–Image Search, say, or News Search–Google would pull from its index the 10 most relevant text-based Web pages and put them on the first search results page. If the engine found other listings that seemed relevant to your search, it would serve up a selection of those in its “onebox,” the small space above the actual results.

For example, a search on “Antonio Gonzales” might bring up the U.S. Attorney General’s bio page on the official Website and some other Web content Google judged to be most relevant and most popular. In addition, the onebox would display some current news headlines relating to Gonzales from “USA Today,” CNN, or some other site.

But Google concluded that not enough searchers were using the onebox and that in fact the many specialized searches Google offers were also being underused. Those focused searches were contained in the links that ran under the familiar Google logo: Click on them, and you could search images, video, news, maps and the ever-popular “more”–clicking on which would produce a bewilderingly large menu of specialized searches and functions. All that indexed information was stored in silos, so (relatively) few searchers were making use of it, says Melissa Mayer, the company’s vice president of search products and user experience.

“This proliferation of tools, while useful, has outgrown the old model of search,” she wrote in a post on the company’s official blog. “We want to help you find the very best answer, even if you don’t know where to look.”

Mayer said in her post that the new results page architecture is designed 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.”

The first version of Google Universal Search began rolling out soon after Mayer unveiled the new setup at Google’s annual Searchology Day demo fest on May 16. It blends results from Google Images, Maps, Books, Video, and News directly into the standard 10-slot page of organic results. Now a search on “Alberto Gonzales” produces a news article posted 12 hours earlier as result number four on the first page, right above the Justice Department’s official page for its top executive. The onebox appears to be history.

The navigational links have been moved to the top left of the page and have been simplified so that clicking on “more” brings up a simplified drop-down menu of basic options (if you can call a Google Patent Search basic.) The navigational bar also includes links to nonsearch functions such as Gmail and is contextual in that when you’re on your Gmail page, you’ll be presented first with other relevant nonsearch link options such as Google Calendar, Google’s Picasa photo-sharing application, and any Word documents you may have created with Google’s Web-based documents function.

The change could turn out to have big implications both for searcher behavior and for marketers’ efforts to optimize their pages to win high rankings in organic results. In essence, those marketers, and the SEO firms that work for them, have just been closed off from some opportunities to get into the top 10 results (or the top 20, if you’re not fixated on winning). Now there’s a good chance that a few of those top slots will be given up to other results.

Lindsay Lohan, for example, can optimize her official site all she wants, but it will probably continue to be outranked by her Google News results, which at press time included more than 850 articles on her latest police-related escapade. In fact, Lohan’s official site comes in fourth, behind her Wikipedia entry. That puts her below the fold on the first page of a search on her own name. At least she can rest secure in the knowledge that the Google Music search puts her discography at organic result number one.

The new Google layout can have a similar impact on marketers, depending on whether the keyword they’re optimizing for is also related to something happening in the news or in popular culture. Blogger Ben Pfeiffer noted in Search Engine Watch that performing a Google search for “umbrella” now brings up a link to a YouTube video of the song “Umbrella” by Rihanna. That’s great if you’re searching for the video, or even if you’re actually looking for rain protection but don’t object to killing a few minutes watching her perform. But if you’re T-shirt vendor Umbrella or umbrella merchant Just Umbrellas, your listing just got pushed down on your keyword because of a song and a video.

“This absolutely changes the rules of the game,” says Rob Murray, president of search marketing firm iProspect. “Historically, Google and the other search engines have said the Web page was the greatest source of content, partly because it was the easiest thing to crawl, index, and then weight against an algorithm. But now Google’s saying that the unique Web page is no longer the preeminent source for answering people’s queries.”

Murray says the transition to a Google Universal search will make life more complex for marketers and search optimizers. “It used to be that you’d go to a Google search result and there’d be anywhere from two to eight paid-search results, 10 organic results, and maybe a onebox,” he says. “Now they’ve broken up the real estate on the page in so many different ways with so many different content formats that you absolutely must take a more holistic approach to search engine marketing.”

David Berkowitz, director of strategic planning for search and performance firm 360i, says the rollout of this integrated search was foreseeable for a long time. “Marketers should have been going in this direction anyway, because there’ve been a lot of signs that this is part of the evolution of natural search,” he says. “Conveniently, Google has spelled out a lot of the rules here.”

Two of the most important lessons for marketers and Web optimizers, he says, are optimizing for the vertical and specialized search services on any of the major search engines, and digitizing and optimizing any asset that could conceivably be found in search. Whether it’s making sure that every image on your Website is tagged and findable by the search bots, getting a list of all your patents onto the Web, or making a page that contains all your TV commercials, get that content optimized and out there, Berkowitz says. “It might not be something that you’d actively promote, but having the content online and optimized is one more hook for the search engines, and one more way to expand your presence in search results.”

Right now the integration of video into Google general search results is producing the most hype. One reason is that it makes extensive use of the video content from YouTube, Google’s big purchase from last year, and does so in a format that lets searchers start playing the video directly within the search page through a “watch video” link. That should enlarge the audience for online video by drawing in at least some Google users who fall outside the YouTube core demographic.

There’s also the prospect that once video gets established as a component of the search results, it might make sense to incorporate it in the paid-search ads as well. Mayer hinted in her Searchology demo that the same thinking behind Universal Search might also produce changes in search ads. “I do think that this opens the door for the introduction of richer mediums into the result page,” she said. “Ads are answers as well… I was hoping that we could bring some of these same advances in terms of the richness of media to ads.”

Video search ads, if they do come to Google, would be most immediately useful to advertisers that have something photogenic to display, such as travel agencies and cruise lines, or that have informational content that could be more effectively conveyed in an video clip than in a brief text ad.

Other types of content still to be incorporated into Google’s Universal Search might hold more optimization potential for small marketers without the skills to make their own videos or the budget to sponsor others’. Specifically, should Google decide to start including blog content in its general search results, small and midsize marketers might gain some visibility if they either operate a blog on their site or garner a mention in a highly linked post on one of the top-shelf blogs.

There’s some question whether Google will include blogs in Universal Search, however, because the spam content can be so high. The engine might decide that most blogs have such low readership that giving blog content greater visibility won’t offset the risk of contaminating the results.

Ross Dunn, CEO of search optimization specialist StepForth Search Engine Placement, says his firm has been urging clients to look beyond basic optimization in preparation for just this kind of integration move from Google and, if the public finds it useful, the other major search engines.

“Since organic results are changing fundamentally, SEO has to adapt to that,” Dunn says. “Social media and blog optimization are going to have to become part of a client’s SEO campaign, because they’re going to get pushed down in the results by the influx of new content. They have to diversify their campaigns and their content.”

The trick for search optimization firms, Dunn says, is to figure out what changes and adaptations beyond classical SEO will produce the best return on investment for each client. Would a local plumbing repair company benefit more from a how-to video or from simply mounting more images on its Web pages? “In an ideal world, we’d recommend doing all those things,” he says. “But most clients don’t have that kind of money, and we’d have to choose which options to pursue.”

“At that point, too, SEO companies like ours have to ask if it’s worth creating new departments to build expertise in these related but separate channels,” says Dunn. “Google’s thrown us enough changes in the last two years that it’s getting hard to keep up. I already have to outsource more than I ever did before.”