From Vertical To Universal To Holistic

Google just got more honest. That's the main premise behind its universal search announcement last week. Honesty has a way of making a lot of people worried, but the immediate implications for marketers are minimal. It does, however, provide marketers with the impetus to institute a long-term holistic optimization strategy. More on that in a minute.

To recap the news, Google's new universal search initiative incorporates some of its vertical and specialized search results into the main search engine results page. Google has been working on this for years; Google Vice President of Search Products and User Experience Marissa Mayer blogged that this initiative has been in the works since 2001.

Google's bloggers say that the first iteration of universal search right now centers on video, news, local, and books. Searches with video results showcase the most dramatic changes. For instance, for a search on coke mentos, Google includes three videos in the results, two from Google Video and one from YouTube. Each of the video results has a thumbnail image from the video, along with a "watch video" link which, when clicked, opens the video right in the body of the results. All three of those videos can be played at the same time. The purity of text-only search results is waning at last.



Marketers in all likelihood have one of three reactions to the universal search news.

1) Awesome. I've been anticipating this since 2001 and have aligned my search engine optimization strategy along these lines for years. (Congrats. You're such a rare entity that most people don't know you exist. You're a black swan.)

2) Uh-oh. I've been thinking this way for a while, but I haven't done anything about it. (Congrats. You're still ahead of the curve.)

3) Holy @$%# -- I'm screwed. (Fear not; you're in good company, and there's less of an immediate impact than with some of the previous Google algorithm updates.)

For those marketers in camps two or three, this is where the holistic SEO strategy comes into play. You have to optimize around all of Google's vertical and specialized offerings -- namely news, video, and local -- right now.

For more on how universal search works, consider a search on Google for a newsworthy topic. In the era way back when before universal search (in other words, earlier last week), Google would sometimes feature listings from Google News atop the 10 natural listings on the first page. If links from Google News didn't merit appearing up top, then that section wouldn't appear at all. The inclusion of Google News links didn't affect the ranking of the first page of search results at all, though it did require that users scroll a bit more to see everything on the page.

Now, with universal search, Google's algorithm decides whether or not to include Google News up top, or somewhere else among the first page of results. A search over the weekend for "Mets" brought up Google News listings on top, followed by nine other listings -- meaning News was the first result, rather than an add-on above, so it bumped one result to the second page. A search for "Tigers" brought up the Google News results as the fourth listing.

The first takeaway is that search engine optimization continues to get harder. Universal search gives Google one more way to compete with every other listing. There's something almost mythical about appearing the first page of search results, but click patterns reliably show that clicks on search results follow a power curve distribution, where the top few listings get the most clicks, and each listing down -- especially on subsequent pages -- is stuck in the long tail (for more on power curves, check out blogger Noah Brier, who's always worth reading).

To tackle this challenge, marketers need to pursue a holistic approach that involves optimizing for all of Google's vertical services. With local, a starting point is Google's Local Business Center, referenced by columnist Heather Frahm last week. For news, it means press release optimization. Video is a more complicated issue, as universal search aims to improve the indexing of Google Video and YouTube videos. Marketers who focus on optimizing video on their own sites will still want to redouble those efforts, especially if syndication isn't part of their strategy.

Marketers should also look to the future. Google's specialized search functions span images, code, patents, scholarly journals, and blogs, to name a few examples. Optimize any asset you think Google will find of interest. And while you're thinking in this direction, keep the other engines in mind. With Yahoo, optimize for Flickr,, My Web, and any of its vertical search engines. For Microsoft, you may well one day be optimizing around the Xbox.

In other words, universal search's action item for you is to optimize everything. If you've got it, flaunt it.

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