GoogleVersal Search--The End of Outsourced SEO?

Google's recent moves--from its multimillion-dollar acquisitions of YouTube and DoubleClick to its foray into in-game advertising--have led to industry speculation about the company neglecting search in its pursuit to become the dominant Web portal.

The rollout of its universal search model would seem to dispel those thoughts, but at the same time sparks another debate--namely, what does it mean for the future of today's search engine optimization and search marketing industry?

"I think it underscores our value," said David Berkowitz, director of emerging media at 360i. "Google has really upped the ante on competition for space on that first page, which makes it that much more important for companies to have every last one of their assets optimized. And the more challenging SEO is, the less likely a company is to do it in-house."

Indeed, Google's new universal search capability reinforces the "holistic" approach to search engine optimization that many in the industry have been impressing upon their clients. While it may have some residual effects on client search campaigns, "it's not really a sea change for advertisers," said Anthony Iaffaldano, director of marketing, Reprise Media.

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Search engine marketing and optimization firms will continue to emphasize the necessity of having correct metadata on everything from product images to video to the company blog, observers said.

Some in the blogosphere, however, have derided universal search from both a user and advertiser standpoint. On searchenginelowdown.com, for example, yesterday's post was titled "Google Universal Search: Rendering #1 Useless Since 2007." Others noted that factors such as the popularity of a specific kind of media may influence the relevance algorithm, causing Google to produce more results that may not accurately reflect the intent of the searcher or the advertiser.

But according to Gord Hotchkiss, president and CEO of Enquiro, the shift to "prospect-centric" campaigns may be the most difficult transition for the search marketing industry. "Search marketers have always tried to control a fairly static piece of real estate--space on a results page--and the touchpoint with the user was pretty easy to understand. With universal search, marketers have to pay much more attention to the person doing the query and what's going on in their mind. They have to relinquish control--which will be very hard to do," said Hotchkiss.

And with Google executive Marissa Meyer acknowledging the possibility of rich media ads, the future could mean paid search ads competing with display ads on the same page--even more of a gray area for online advertisers to consider.

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