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Engaging Users on the SERP – How Google Universal Search Changes Everything

DiamondIf you haven’t noticed over the past few weeks there has been a sea change on Google’s Search Engine Results Pages (SERP). Universal Search is what Google calls it but it’s much more than search. At its core it creates an entirely different engagement dynamic and search user experience.

Until now the goal of Google’s SERP has been to get users off the page as quickly as possible. Time before click was one of the key performance metrics for SERP relevance. Now however, SERP success both from the engines perspective and consequently the users is forever changed.

Universal Search adds applications to the SERP. Likely the crowning achievement for the widget world (Though I humbly submit BlogTribe) these embedded apps for things like video (YouTube), stocks (Google Finance), maps (Google Maps) are starting to crop up on search results. This is being done for the purpose of engaging users on the results page. The key question though is does this create a better search engine user experience? Personally, as a searcher I like it a lot.

Others are not going to like it as much.

Universal search boils to the surface the worst fears publishers have harbored for a long time about Google further fracturing their content distribution systems. When you enable and promote engagement on the SERP with your own content you have become a publisher and in the eyes of many publishers that have long benefited from Google, clearly a competitor.

As Google builds out its content strategy there will be even more ways to engage on the SERP. The possibilities and verticals are just about endless. Searching for travel? Doing your taxes online? When and where Google can make more money providing these services and content from engagement in the results than they can in the ads (or more likely the best mix of the two) they will.

Ads were the easiest and quickest way for Google to monetize the SERP. It seems clear that ads alone are its not the best way. The most interesting thing is that this dynamic creates a better user experience. Or, was it a better user experience that created this dynamic?

So, if we agree that this creates a better user experience than we have to agree that this is not “evil.” Still, this is nothing more than Google merchandising their content and services on the SERP. And it’s being brilliantly executed.

Hitwise Data

Percentage U.S. Visits to Custom Category of Top Google Properties
Google_universal_search

So if you haven't already figured out the future of search was video (IPTV) and maps (mobile) then this should be your wake-up call. How far can this go? Time will tell but clearly there are millions of daily queries where this strategy will be highly effective. Of course Google is measuring and optimizing accordingly. Name queries are one that comes immediately to mind. A search for “Barry Bonds” could yield lots of great YouTube results. A search for the “White Stripes” would not only have the band’s official site but would have videos (already there) and downloads (potential iTunes killer anyone?) available right on the SERP. Restaurant search...why not make your reservation right off the SERP? All of a sudden the game has changed. Big time.

So where do we go from here? Three thoughts come to mind:

• It’s become imperative for publishers to employ embedded applications as far up in the user experience as possible for any serious content strategy (Think Landing Pages). The future of your digital business depends on it. Take a cue from Google or risk being crushed.

• This is another stake in the heart of SEO as we know it. Coupling Universal Search with Personalized Search creates a SERP dynamic that becomes incredibly difficult to optimize for. As a result I expect SEO will morph completely to SMO over the next 12-18 months

• As the natural listings change the paid listings will need to adapt. At the moment natural SERPS speak best to searchers with discovery goals (see chart). Many searchers with recovery goals find more relevance in the paid listings. As the dynamic of the natural results change it only makes sense that successful PPC will need to react accordingly. Of course expect ad technology to change as well.

The “old model of search” (as Google has called pre Universal Search) is over. Who is thinking about your strategy for the new model?

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Comments

As a user, I personally fell in love with Universal Search.

As a business owner, I think the rules of SEO are definitely going to change. That's why I started submitting my videos to youtube and google video.

I think that Big G is going to include more and more video results in the future. And I believe that more and more users are going to search for videos, since it's now so easy to just click on the "video" link at the top of the results page.

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