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Universal Search Should Be a Plus

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It's no secret that online marketers love universal search. Variety in the search results gives us multiple opportunities to rank and gain new listing visibility. And the universal results appear in their vertical searches as well, which means increased coverage.

We love images, videos, local, news, shopping feeds, maps, and all the vertical listings that can appear in the SERPs. But how does the user feel?

This is the inherent problem with universal search. As new listing types begin appearing in results, we often lose sight of whether these listings are really helpful to the user.

SEO efforts can gobble up an entire top results page with universal listings if left unchecked. It's great for marketing; it's great for businesses; but the end user may take the hit.

SERPs can be a convoluted place for searchers. Excessive universal search optimization can impede a user's ability to find the most relevant listing. As marketers, we must strive to enhance the searcher's experience, not crowd out what they came to the engine seeking.

The issue of results obfuscation affects displayed search real estate and page length. While universal results shape what appears at the top of the page, the latest incarnations of these bells and whistles have the potential to severely push listings below the fold.

Product Search Plus Box, a User Plus?

One of Google's newest universal features really illustrates this results-pushing premise. Google recently began alpha-testing a new feature for its paid search listings, the Product Search Plus Box.

This paid search Plus Box functions similarly to other Plus Box features Google has introduced, such as for local searches and financial information. The difference is that the Product Search Plus Box includes an actual product list from the advertiser. The products are listed with a picture, description, price, and (if set up correctly) a link directly to the product page on the advertiser's Web site.

When these ads appear at the top of the page in the sponsored links section, a user can click on the Plus Box and push the organic results further down the page.

Now, let's say you're an advertiser in search position four in the rankings for a specific term -- not a bad place to be. If a paid listing has a Product Search Plus Box, your organic listing could be pushed far enough down the screen to appear below the fold.

The same can be said for paid search listings on the right side of the page. Once that plus box is expanded, above the fold ads are pushed out of sight.

Brave New Search Results?

Fast forward about 12 months. Let's assume the Product Search Plus Box makes it out of alpha-testing and becomes just another feature on the search page. Hypothetically, a savvy advertiser could own a significant portion of the SERPs and everything above the fold.

What if someone searches for "flat screen tvs at circuit city?" We can assume that this user is looking to compare flat screen televisions and, presumably, purchase one through Circuit City. I would argue that the user's search would be best serviced by a single Web page (most likely a deep page on Circuit City's Web site) that compares the latest models of flat screen televisions.

For the sake of this example, let's say that Circuit City has its online act together and has spent some time optimizing for search and aggressively funding a paid search program. Potentially, the search could return results that include a paid search ad for Circuit City above the organic listings, and this ad could contain a Product Search Plus Box. The organic results could also yield a result for the Circuit City domain with site links and a Plus Box for financial information (including a stock quote and graph), shopping engine listings, local listings (if the user provided a ZIP code during sign up or is logged into a Google service), and news results that include video.

Let's say the results appear as follows: Circuit City paid search ad with Product Search Plus Box, shopping engine listings, image results showing Circuit City's latest circular, and then Circuit City's domain with site links and a financial information Plus Box. This wouldn't be an unthinkable return of results. Now, our target page -- the Circuit City flat screen television comparison page -- would appear in organic position number four, beneath the domain listing.

Now, say the user expands the Plus Boxes. The page is now filled above the fold by Circuit City information and flat screen product listings. But this doesn't meet the searcher's needs. Our target page at listing four is beaten out by "relevant" yet unhelpful listings.

The shopping engine listing is triggered by a targeted branded search. The image listing appears highly due to freshness. The domain appears at the top due to its clout.

And listing four, the most informative listing, can go unseen by the searcher.

In this scenario, universal listings work against the searcher. The Plus Boxes certainly push the relevant listing down if activated. The marketer here clearly succeeds in covering the space, but the user is hung out to dry. This is the potential menace of over-optimizing universal content: you create clutter.

Don't Overdo it

As search results become more complex, we can't lose sight of the end user. Sometimes we can go overboard with universal optimization efforts. We need to get back to basics and make sure that we're putting our strongest optimization efforts behind the client's most relevant page (or content piece) for a search term. This makes the user happier and increases the chance of a customer conversion.

I like seeing the search page evolve, and I understand that Google needs to continue to innovate in order to stay the search market leader. Innovation should enhance the searcher's user experience.

Ultimately, Google is only providing the tools for us to reach search audiences. We have to learn to use them responsibly. Let's not give people reason to pine for the days of text link-only search results.

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