The evolution of search engines into answer engines is taking another step forward as Google quietly tests a new feature: expanded results.
Last week, we explored the Hyper-Relevant Zone, where a search engine showcases a selected result or vertical search option atop its natural results. This week, we'll explore yet another potential game-changing scenario, where an engine allows the user to display additional content within the natural search listings. There's one major difference between the two features: while the Hyper-Relevant Zone effect is increasingly happening across all major search engines for a wide variety of verticals, expanded results is an experiment, one that's been done on other engines, and one that might not actually work for Google.
YellowPipe.com, cited by Search Engine Roundtable (seroundtale.com) and various media sources, provided screenshots of Google's expandable search results experiment. For a search on the word "warning" (a query that doesn't work universally; don't try this at home), the search results page appears with rightward-pointing arrows next to several of the results' titles. Click the arrow and it points downward, bringing up an extended entry that would likely push all other natural results off the screen on nearly every computer. The expanded result includes a full paragraph of text from the site, an image, three related links, and a "search this site" box. The original headline and two lines of text appear above the expanded result, while the URL appears below.
Expanded results, developed by a University of New South Wales student who now works for Google, reinforce the search engine's role as an answer engine. While this allows the consumer to access more information, there's no definitive path the consumer will take after viewing it. Here are a number of possible scenarios from the consumer's perspective:
The only two scenarios that really make sense to me are the first two (though churning butter for a living sounds nice). Perhaps I'm an idealist or just woefully naïve, but I have to buy into Google's story that it is dedicated to delivering its users the most relevant results. I buy it because while I use and like quite a few search engines (I have six search toolbars on my browser), the story Google tells generally rings true. In light of that, the first two scenarios are the only ones that truly provide value to the consumer, and one or both of those situations would have to arise for Google to keep offering expanded results.
I still don't think expanded results are going to catch on. When other engines have experimented with them in various forms, they haven't made a discernable impact on how people search. Also, the process requires additional work. In most scenarios, there will either be enough information for the consumer in the standard result, or the information will be on the page the consumer clicks on. Expanded results would thus often cause the consumer to take an additional click for a minimal payoff, if any.
Here's the smart bet: any of the search innovations that stick will allow users to complete their task in less time, with less effort and fewer clicks. Hyper-Relevant results, meanwhile, are designed to eliminate unnecessary clicks; this is especially true of Dead Ends, the results that potentially prevent users from clicking elsewhere. When done right, personalized search also passes this speed and efficiency test.
From the marketers' perspective, the most effective engine will be the one that helps them answer the challenge of reaching their target audience in this fragmented, time-shifted world. Any engine that answers this challenge, while delivering a broad enough reach, will really be an "answer engine," one responding to a question worth hundreds of billions of dollars. For a question that valuable, we're bound to hear more answers that resonate with marketers and consumers alike.