Exploiting universal search - part 5

By Andreas Pouros | 02 Apr 2008

Whilst I've been extolling the virtues of Universal Search in this series of articles, it's only fair to wrap up the series by looking at the problems Universal Search is posing for webmasters and what might be cause for concern. So, to that end, here are my top 5 Universal Search gripes.

Someone needs to tell my Google that I'm in the UK!
It seems as though Universal Search doesn't really care about where the searcher is searching from unless he or she stipulates an actual location or postcode in the search query. For example, when I search for 'credit cards', Universal Search augments the search results with news items embedded within the natural search results. When I do this from our Smithfield offices in London I get this news item:

"Loan waiver to take care of borrowings under Kisan Credit Card" - The Hindu

The problem here is that I have no idea what a Kisan Credit Card is. The fact that the article is coming from the 'The Hindu' makes it pretty obvious why - it just isn't relevant to me. This lack of relevancy is somewhat ironic given that Universal Search is partly about improving relevancy by incorporating time-sensitive search results into a search results page.

This wouldn't bother me so much, but it's been happening from day 1 of Google's news integration and it's so easily fixed….

Is YouTube the only video supplier in the world?
No, but it's the only one owned by Google. When you do a search for something like 'korn' in Google (it's an alternative metal band for the uninitiated) Google brings back two videos within the natural search listings - both for different Korn music videos. Both however are from Youtube. Call me a cynic but, given that Google has begun trialling advertising within Youtube videos, this seems to be a move too far in compromising the integrity of natural search, something that should be kept sacred.

Now Youtube isn't the only video supplier that Google brings back in its search results - it's just that algorithmically Youtube.com is the most relevant and credible one and so is monopolising video search results. So this isn't really a deliberately engineered situation on Google's part. However, Universal Search isn't particularly 'universal' if it's always favouring the same video site. Furthermore, by subjecting videos to the same ranking criteria as ordinary web pages, which is why Youtube appears so prominently, also means that the videos Google is showing are older (because they have more links) as opposed to fresher, which might be of  greater value to a user.

What this means for webmasters is that if you want your video content to be made available to search engine users the most effective route by far would be to place it on Youtube. Other video companies like VideoJug, who produce great unique video content, will invariably find it more difficult. I'd like Universal Search to broaden my media consumption habits, not just send me to Youtube every time.

Where should the line be drawn?
A recent development this month with Universal Search has been the incorporation of a further search box below the brand 'one-box' - see below for an example:

So, when someone is searching for a site by name in Google, it will now often provide a in-SERP search box to search the site without visiting it first. It decides for which sites the box should appear by looking at the degree to which people do an additional search after doing a basic brand search. This is a really useful feature, don't get me wrong, but it does have implications.

The biggest implication, using the above screenshot as an example, is that if a search is being done on the Tripadvisor site via Google's search results, as opposed to visiting the Tripadvisor site first, then Tripadvisor essentially loses an impression that it would ordinarily have achieved and monetised. Sol Hotels is currently advertising on the Tripadvisor homepage - are they seeing a reduction in traffic because of the new Google search box? Is Tripadvisor wondering why yield is down this month? I'm speculating about the impact of course, but it's reasonable to suggest there will be an impact, given how heavily Google is now used as a navigational tool instead of its intended use.

Apparently, this can be opted-out of, but surely it should be an opt-in function given that it affects companies' potential revenues.

Too arbitrary
I know that what Google shows in the search results, when different Universal Search results appear, etc, is algorithmic, triggered by traffic and search statistics, but it all feels very arbitrary. It would be nice to know what I'm going to get when I do a search - it isn't a lucky dip, I don't need surprising.
For example, sometimes a news article shows up at the top of the results, sometimes at the bottom, sometimes in the middle. Sometimes the news item actually isn't particularly relevant to what I've searched for, for example if I'm looking to buy something and I'm searching for it, I don't really need a news item about it.

This arbitrary, inconsistent delivery goes beyond news - doing a search for 'Angelina Jolie' for example will sometimes bring back images at the top of the search results, sometimes it won't. While Local Search will often pull in Google Maps and monopolise half the page, other times it will be completely absent.

I understand why Google does this though - Google is going through a period of accelerated testing of its user interface to determine what works and how people respond to Universal Search augmentations.

However, I can't help seeing this as a problem too, in that the lack of consistency makes optimising for Universal Search too much of speculative exercise and doing a good job doesn't necessarily mean you'll always receive traffic and visitors from optimising for it effectively. With the rest of Natural Search, a ranking on Page 1 of Google for a competitive search term pays the bills and you can expect that revenue to come in consistently (if you're looking after it properly of course). There isn't that stability in Universal Search results and that isn't helpful to people who have lots of great news content, image content etc., that they want to monetise through search.

Squeezing the Search Marketing opportunity
We know from recent heat maps for search results pages that incorporate Universal Search elements, that their presence is to the detriment of both SEO and paid search activities. Most Universal Search elements will do one of three things:

  1. They will push natural search listings lower down the page. This is detrimental to the traffic delivery potential of those natural search listings as there is a cliff-face drop in visitor numbers as you go down the page.
  2. They will replace natural search listings, reducing the number appearing on page 1 of Google. This has the same effect as the first point. This also makes SEO more competitive as websites will be competing for fewer page 1 spots.
  3. They will draw people's eyes away from Paid Search listings at the top of the page, essentially starting the 'golden triangle' lower down than would be the case ordinarily. This damages the click through rates and, ultimately, the revenue potential for those websites that gain significant business from those search results.

The above problem is both bad for SEO and PPC agencies and also bad for Google, as it diminished their revenue from paid search.   

Final thought
Universal Search is most definitely a positive evolution for Google. Arguably, its hand was forced with Ask's introduction of Ask 3D, but Google's historic patents demonstrate that Universal Search was most definitely on the cards for a while. The next evolution, beyond Universal Search, is likely to lie in Google demolishing its famous user interface, which is something that it has gained so much from, to try and move to a more three dimensional way of presenting information to a searcher. Given that people's ability to consume data online is evolving at breakneck speed, technology and innovation now needs to meet the next generation of searchers who will be faster, more demanding, and more impatient than we are.