Universal Search, Lesson 1: Why You Care

Ian Lurie

I’ve decided to write a series of articles about how search results work. This may seem absurdly basic, so try this test: If I say “blended search”, and the first thing you think of is a margarita, then you need to read this series.

Search results pages (SERPs, to us geeks) have changed a lot in the last few years. Search results used to be pretty straightforward:
A search for 'guinea pigs seattle'
Easy. The column on the left are your ‘organic’ or ‘unpaid’ or ‘natural’ results. You can’t bribe Google into rejiggering those results to improve your ranking. The same is now mostly true of Yahoo! and the other major players (it wasn’t always, though). The column on the right are the sponsored ads, aka Adwords, where you bid for your position.
Now, though, Google, Yahoo! and company have all decided to throw all sorts of stuff into the mix:
guinea pigs, blended
What the heck?! Now you’ve got a few images at the top, a video in the middle and even some related news results at the bottom of the page. Where’d all that come from?

Welcome to Universal Search

Some companies call it universal search. Others call it blended search. Others call it whatever phrase they think will most boost their stock price. Regardless, it’s been around a couple years now, and it’s not going away.
The goal, aside from higher stock prices, is to deliver the most relevant content to searchers regardless of the type.

Search Engines Have Multiple Personalities

Not as many as I do, but a lot.
Most search engines aren’t actually a single engine. Instead, they’re a big jumbled pile of content that’s crawled and indexed (more about those terms tomorrow) by type. Google’s actually a bunch of engines:
universal search options
Each of the options you see there are separate blobs of content — video, news, blogs, etc. — organized and ranked using subtly different algorithms. Google includes, at a minimum:

  • Web search. The one we’re all used to.
  • News search
  • Blog search. If you think blogs are news, check out Perez Hilton.
  • Video search
  • Image search
  • Maps
  • Groups, books, scholar, products, finance, patents, blah blah it goes on forever.

These separate search tools are great, if you know you want an image, or a video, or a bit of news. But if you’re just looking for the most relevant information, you probably don’t care what format it’s in.
So Yahoo!, Google, Ask, Microsoft and all the other hangers-on decided to create universal search and mush it all together.

How Universal Search Works

When you perform a search on any of the big 3 search engines, they do this (or something like it):

  1. Check their web results for the most relevant content according to their algorithm.
  2. Then check their other indexes for content that’s more relevant than the results they’re about to display on the web search results page.
  3. If they find videos, images, news, etc. that’s more relevant, they insert it right into the search result.

That’s how it works, in a very tiny nutshell.

What Universal Search Means To You

If you’re in internet marketing, you need to consider universal search because:

  • It’s a shortcut. If you can bypass a million or so other pages in the web rankings by having that one relevant video or image, it gets you prime real estate in the search results with a lot less effort.
  • Other content may be more compelling. Searchers who see a bit, cute photo of a guinea pig or a video of your latest training course amidst a sea of boring text may be a lot more likely to click your universal search listing.
  • People don’t read. I’m being charitable and saying “don’t” instead of “can’t”, but you get the idea. Searchers process images and video faster.
  • It lends credibility. If you have a news result or blog search result showing up in universal search, that gives you an air of authority.
  • Universal search provides direct access. If your product search result shows up at the top of the page with a price next to it, visitors have more direct access to information about you, and may be more likely to click.

So, it’s important

Universal search is important, OK? I’ll be spending a few more days on this. Topics for the next week are:

  1. Universal Search, Lesson 1
  2. Image and Video Search: How to optimize (as best you can)
  3. Product Search: The pain and agony, and why you need to suck it up.
  4. News Search: Why it’s hopeless (unless you’re a news outlet).
  5. Local Search: How to optimize.

If you have other suggestions for topics, let me know. Talk to you tomorrow…

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Ian Lurie
CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at LinkedIn.com/in/ianlurie.

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  1. Great info as always and I’m looking forward to reading as the series continues.
    What about blog search though and optimizing for that as best as possible? Just a thought.

  2. Nice post on the 101 Universal Search. I never thought about the fact that engines find Video and images faster, it makes lots of sense. Focus on adding videos & images because they are gems if used properly.

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