Is Google Backing Off From Universal Search?

In May of this year, Google announced the advent of what it called "Universal Search," which blends results from a wide array of multimedia objects into what had hitherto been an exclusively text-dominated SERP. The other engines quickly followed suit and modified their SERPs accordingly, making Universal Search a genuine trend, if not an actual craze.

And yet in the past several weeks, Google's SERP appears to have reverted to its old, text-heavy format. Google's defenders will certainly claim that it's merely tweaking its algorithm again, but I'd venture a guess that Google has quietly concluded that Universal Search is a bust. Here's why:

1. The eyes have it: users are confused by universal search. Eyetracking researchers from Enquiro Research, after studying how searchers respond to the retooled SERP, were quick to present their findings, which revealed that the eyes of Universal Search users no longer obeyed the "golden triangle" pattern that constrained their eye movements to the upper-left corner of the SERP. Instead, their eyes were flitting all over the page in a widely dispersed pattern. It's impossible to read these studies without concluding that users are totally mystified by Universal Search.

2. Follow the money: universal search isn't making Google any real cash. As anyone who's ever bought a keyword knows, the Golden Triangle is prime PPC real estate, and marketers fight tooth and nail for positioning within it. Google's whole survival is based on concentrating as many clicks as possible within the Golden Triangle. But if the impact of Universal Search is to train users to move their eyes away from it, they will more likely click on lower-paying ads. In fact the Eyetracking studies show exactly this: users who would never click on lower position right-rail ads were doing so, and this stands to hurt Google, not help it.

3. The Web/images/video/news/maps/mail/more tab may be a monetary ghetto for google, but users like it. The majority of searchers aren't uncomfortable with mode-based searching: if they want to see Websites about Madonna, they'll click on the "Web" tab, and if they want images, video or news items about Madonna, they'll choose these tabs. The problem for Google is that users who use these tabs will never see any advertising, and I'm sure that part of the motivation for Universal Search was to keep them in the "Web" tab, because that's where Google makes its money.

4. Blending results erodes relevance. When Google announced Universal Search, it used the example of a search for the Star Wars character Darth Vader: "Google will now deliver a single set of blended search results that include a humorous parody of the movie, images of the Darth Vader character, news reports on the latest Lucas film, as well as websites focused on the actor James Earl Jones - all ranked in order of relevance to the query." This problem, however, and it's a big one for Google, is that segmenting results by media type usually degrades relevance in favor of what might be termed "serendipity." If I know absolutely nothing about Darth Vader, I might be interested in the fact that James Earl Jones was Darth's voice. But if I'm a "Star Wars" nut, I'm interested in focused, relevant content about Darth, not a shotgun blast of information aimed at a generalized notion of an "average" user, which actually impedes my search, not helps it.

Universal Search will probably not be viewed as the greatest Google fiasco since Google Video, but it's clear that it's failed to deliver on the vaunted promises made by Marissa Mayer back in May. Given Google's famously secretive corporate culture, it's not a big surprise that Google has quietly removed all evidence of its presence instead of simply telling the world that another experiment in "improving" the Google experience has failed. I doubt users will ever get anything approximating an apology from Google for mucking up their search results for the past several months, but that's par for the course.

On the other hand, if Google's intention with Universal Search was to conduct a broad experiment to see whether it could increase the amount of time users must spend with Google before they find a useful result, one can regard its experiment as a success.  As the eye-tracking studies show, user confusion may well increase Average Time on Site, an emerging metric increasingly being used to quantify engagement. The obvious problem here is that search engines, unlike portals or content sites, are supposed to direct users to external resources quickly and effectively, which means that anything that makes them "stickier" is bad news for users



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