SEM Lessons From Google's Caffeine
Google recently gave the world a preview of what it calls its "next-generation infrastructure," code-named Caffeine, at http://www2.sandbox.google.com. Over the past few days, I've A/B tested Caffeine vs. Google's current production engine. Here are some findings, some commentary on what I think Google's trying to achieve with its latest changes, and some tactical tips for webmasters seeking to maximize visibility on the new system.
1. Video moves to the fore. One of the most striking things about Caffeine's SERPs is the increased prominence of video listings, which float into areas of the SERP once populated by image listings (image listings still appear on News Results, however). Why Caffeine has downgraded images in favor of video listings is anybody's guess (results from Google Books also seem to be suppressed); while it's possible that Google is interested in driving more traffic to Youtube, it should be noted that the video listings also link to Veoh, Dailymotion, and other non-Google sources. Obviously, if you have video assets that you haven't brought to the Web, now is the time to do so, because Caffeine is giving them higher billing than ever.
2. Social search is here (sort of). Google has been listing Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter presences for some time now, but you'd usually have to know in advance that a given person or brand had such a presence by inputting a custom query (e.g. "Yoko Ono Facebook"). In Caffeine, these listings are much easier to find, often appearing on the first page. My bet is that we're going to see a lot more information surfacing on search engines very soon (Bing already lists Twitter entries on a limited basis). If you or your brand hasn't gotten on board the social bandwagon yet, Caffeine gives you yet another reason to do so.
3. Keywords in domains: more important than ever? It's long been known that having your main keywords in your domain name give you a big SEO boost (although nobody's ever really quantified the size of the boost). Caffeine seems to weigh domain names even higher than Google's production servers; on several searches, I noticed that even foreign domains with a given keyword were included. For example, try a search using the keyword "HSBC." Is "www.egyptc.hsbc.com" a relevant selection for someone doing this search from New York? Caffeine seems to think so, which seems a bit odd. Here's another example: try a search for "beanie babies." On Google's production system, a site called "barrybeanies.com" ranks #4; on Caffeine, it's #2. The takeaway for search marketers is clear: if you're launching a new property, a micro-site with your keyword embedded within the URL may be the way to go.
So What Does It All Mean?
Optimizing for search engines involves a "moving target" scenario that rewards nimbleness and first-mover advantages. Caffeine is a work in progress and is subject to continual tweaking by Google's engineers. Advantages derived through purely tactical means are ephemeral at best and risky at worst. Marketers seeking stable sources of traffic and conversions in this dynamic environment need to evaluate the paid option thoroughly, because it offers a level of predictability that can no longer be easily achieved in a world of ever-changing organic algorithms.