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Distilling Universal Search

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Welcome to a brave new world...again. Google announces universal search. Once again, we are treated to another paradigm-shifting, earth-shattering, mind-blowing, “OMG – have you seen this!!!” Google announcement. In fact, Google’s new product releases appear at such a rate that the pundits are barely able to keep up. Worse yet, the race to be the first to publish frequently leaves us with coverage that carries no sense of history and scant analysis of the significance.

When Google announced universal search critics latched onto something that has been done a dozen times before by other engines. Never mind the fact that it has been tested in one form or another with the “OneBox” on Google for some time now. I am not sure what is actually new.

According to a Google blog, the idea was apparently proposed in 2001. With six years of releases and numerous new vertical searches, Google intends to unite them on a single results page rather than forcing users to navigate to them individually.

Again...what’s new? This is where the true pundits separate themselves from standard press-release regurgitation. Frankly, the Google press releases could stand to be a little more substantial. Context is everything.

Implications of Universal Search

Universal search does not mean much on its own (a big future promise and shiny new options for users) but the implications for advertisers are significant and can be broken down to a few key points:

1. Be Everywhere: Google’s Many Orphans Will Finally See Daylight
New product adoption has been an issue for Google. Relative to the traffic hitting the main search results, few users dig deeper into the various vertical search products. A peek into Hitwise’s numbers reveals Google’s problems bringing the horse to water. The solution? Bring the water to the horse.

Universal search will be helpful in bringing volume to products that barely saw the light of day or were relegated to very limited audiences of savvy users. But what does this mean for companies working with Google? While Google will bring buckets of water to the horse, we still have to fill each of the individual ponds.

Google is giving advertisers a simple way to load all results into a single place, thereby facilitating easy distribution of their product offerings. But we still need to assess the usefulness of these products individually. After all, search is bigger than PPC, bidding tools, or the latest Google gizmo.

2. Shotgun Approach: Expand Your Definition of SEO
The impact of universal search on SEO is particularly interesting, because it means re-configuring how you look at SEO. SEO can no longer exist in isolation; we will have to look beyond organic results listings and adopt a more holistic perspective. Where the focus of SEO used to be site-centric, it must now include optimizing video, providing local listings, product presence in structured feeds into Google Base, flight fares and times, hotel locations, listings on review sites, good blog coverage, and on and on.

In other words, successful SEO campaigns will have to be much broader. Of course, that’s not even beginning to consider Google’s recent efforts at increasing personalization. If you feel the urgent need to be everywhere at once, you’re headed in the right direction.

3. The Tao of Personalization
It’s no secret that Google is pushing for increased personalization. The gist of it is that as Google learns more about you, it begins to serve you different results. There are a couple caveats here. First, you’ll need to have an account with Google and allow Google to collect your search history. Adoption is a big issue with this one but if broadly adopted, it means we have even more targets and less measurable control in SEO.

Personalization may ultimately drive the success of universal search. Prioritizing your SEO work for broader exposure may ultimately determine your success in a world of universal search. In fact, there may be a new dimension to traditional SEO focused on optimizing broadly for personalized results that focuses on the development and adoption of widgets for Google’s homepage, bookmarking strategies, inclusion in search histories and more.

As Google begins to personalize my search results, it hopes to better understand my intent. So, of course, I immediately went for the big Douglas Adams question and found it comforting to still know “the answer to life, the universe and everything” is still 42...for now.

3. Synchronicity: Forcing an Integrated Media Perspective
Synchronizing your channels has been an industry topic for years, but few marketers do it well, if at all. How do we understand the impact of one channel on another (display on search, for example) to drive the results we seek in the most efficient, cost-effective manner? It means using a common cookie for those pieces we can track. This gets tricky if Google won’t allow third-party tracking for certain listings. So do we lean on our frequently deficient site analytics systems to sort this out? That’s another article for another time. For now let’s focus on the immediate challenge of a universal search results page.

Consider what universal search means for optimizing creative. Right now we tweak our paid listings by swapping out text. If we eventually have display ad units or video ad units, at some point we’ll be able to rotate different creative. While display units may move search up the funnel a bit and bring new prominence finally to the value of branding in search, search is still a “pull” application. Searchers are further along in their purchase intent and while we’ll use display units to address those users who aren’t as far along in their consideration of a purchase we will still use search very much as a direct response vehicle.

To that end, we’ll measure the success of our listings by direct response metrics – actual transactions. And creative is optimized to that end. Prices will race up very quickly and rotating multiple creatives to get the best response will be crucial to an effective buy, but this will really only reinforce dividing up buckets of keywords into branding and DR buckets to be measured against different goals.

It really mucks up the “portfolio” approach, not to mention making bid tools less effective while simultaneously making campaign management tools (particularly creative tracking) become much more crucial to success. This is precisely why the human factor in running a campaign is integral. Moreover, comprehending how our video assets, feed listings, paid search and display listings are actually working together is also imperative. While tools can help you get a handle on the depth of your campaign, you still need to test and assess your media mix in order to ascertain what the most efficient combination will be.

5. Big Brands: “Welcome to Google. Check Your Content at the Door. How Can We Bill You?”
Thought CPG had no home in search? Think again. Branding in search has been widely accepted as a likely side-effect but rarely as a primary goal. Google’s Marissa Mayer recently had a change of heart on opening the door to non-textual elements on the SERPs; there may even be an opportunity coming to throw those brand budgets against the SERPs.

Kate Kaye at ClickZ concisely touches upon of the implications for brand advertisers. Did-It’s Kevin Lee suggests that brand advertisers are evolving into content creators. Greg Sterling also made a similar observation that larger brand budgets and different ROI goals will impact both the affordability of search to direct response marketers as well as potential changes to the very pricing model to which search marketers have become accustomed and upon which Google has built an empire.

Big brand advertisers will have the opportunity to take what once were digital novelties requiring major offline investments or clever viral campaigns and push them in front of a massive search audience.

6. What Happened to My ROI?
Don’t panic. It’s not evaporating today...or at least not any more quickly than it is from increased competition and new ranking factors. But, if ad formats do change, big brand budgets operating with very different ROI metrics could press your CPCs up and your ROI down.

Further, if another less-noted program called CLIR (cross-language information retrieval) has a significant impact on the results available to the rest of the world, you could see your average conversion rates from organic traffic diminish. The program is designed to translate queries from native language to English, run it against Google’s index then serve results back in the native language. Ultimately, it’s good news. Sites will still receive the great baseline of well-converting Google traffic in addition to increasing their global exposure.

What Does It All Mean?

Years ago, a great article in Wired on the emergence of kite-surfing quoted a kite-surfer suggesting “windsurfing has become like bowling.” Kite-surfing is far easier to learn and more extreme with less wind required. I don’t know that universal search will have the likes of Yahoo or Microsoft strapping on their bowling shoes, but it will once again force them to step up their efforts.

As for marketers, well... it might be a big pain, or at least a challenge. What once had a handful of sources and some cleanly-evolved methods now has dozens of sources with varying methods. We have some interesting challenges ahead of us. We are ceding more control to the almighty algorithm. At the same time, if we are doing our jobs well, it simply means shifting some priorities.

Of course, despite criticism, the end game of providing better, more relevant results for users benefits everyone. We’re more satisfied with search and it becomes easier to use. Of course, more answers does not necessarily mean more relevant answers and Google isn’t the only one working on this answer. Google illustrates the problem well when I followed their blog’s sample of Universal search for “atkins southwestern pork fajitas” today and it returned a top result of the Google blog itself...perhaps not the most appetizing example of the new relevance and a sign that Google still has work ahead.

Philip Stelter is director of business development for Range Online Media. Phil has over nine years of experience in search marketing and web site production for major sites across several industries including travel, government, non-profit health care, and retail ecommerce. He has guided SEO and PPC campaigns both in-house and from the agency side. Today, he evaluates new technologies, directs online marketing campaigns and develops innovative search solutions for industry-leading online retailers and travel services such as Travelocity and other Fortune 1000 companies.

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