Organic search engine optimization, until recently, had been a fairly straightforward endeavor. The goal was to optimize the content on a Web site so that it would show up in the organic results on one or more of the major search engines—results that were composed of nothing but other Web sites.
However, in the middle of May 2007, Google began rolling out its "Universal Search," something it had been working on behind the scenes for several years.
This new search option may have long-term repercussions for every search engine optimization company if it is something that is preferred by the public and becomes the standard.
What is Universal Search?
Someone using Google's Universal Search will find that a query brings back results that encompass not only Web pages but also videos, blogs, images, news articles, and other media available online.
While Google already had in place options for searching each of these areas separately, many searchers did not notice those options or did not know how to use them—a phenomenon that became known as "invisible tabs."
With Universal Search, there's no need to select a separate menu item—the search will return results that encompass many different types of media. For example, a search for "breakdancing" might bring up not only Web pages about breakdancing but also blog posts about it, videos showing technique, and news articles about it.
However, Universal Search hasn't fully been rolled out. Currently, certain terms will give Universal results, while other searches will remain the same as before.
This is a classic Google move: Roll something out gradually, see how it plays in the public eye, and then decide what to do from there. Basically, then, Universal Search as it now exists is very likely to change, depending on user feedback.
And if the limited queries that now return Universal Search results do not garner positive responses, it's likely that Google will revert to its previous, predominately Web-page results. It obviously doesn't want to lose market share, and it learned a valuable lesson not long ago when it released a new algorithm that was poorly received and was subsequently dialed back.
What are the Benefits of Universal Search?
Universal Search brings several benefits to searchers. A searcher no longer has to specify the media he or she is looking for—one keyphrase search will cover everything. And the results from a search will be more comprehensive in many instances, giving a well-rounded picture to the searcher that may include better information than would previously have been found in a search of just one type of media.
What are the Drawbacks of Universal Search?
The problem with Universal Search is that it can muddy the results, and it can also introduce irrelevant results that a searcher cannot use.
A search for "Paris Hilton" will bring up news, videos, and other information about the heiress. But it will also bring up a map of the city of Paris showing locations of Hilton hotels, something most searchers that typed that exact phrase probably did not have in mind.
Plus, 28% of Internet users are still using dialup connections, according to RVA Market Research. Many of these people are likely not interested in videos or other results that require much bandwidth, and such users may turn away from Universal Search entirely—there are, after all, other search engines.
In addition, there is no way to turn off Universal Search; as it now exists, it is part of the standard Web search, eliminating the ability to simply search Web pages.
That introduces a new wrinkle in search engine optimization efforts. Now, a Web site is competing not only with other Web sites but also with all the other media that will be included in the search results.
And Universal Search makes it difficult for Google itself to determine the relevance between different types of media, since the factors that determine a Web page's relevance are much different from those that would determine a video's relevance, for example.
What Can You Do Now to Make Sure Your Site Is Ready?
Clearly, Universal Search will, if it catches on, change how an SEO campaign is run. But this is a real if: Users' search habits are hard to change overnight, even if you are Google and you essentially define what searching is and how it works.
If it does catch on, you'll need to analyze the industry you are in and figure out which types of media might be most important for you.
For example, if you are a real estate firm, images of the buildings and homes you are selling might become a very important part of your site, and so you will want to focus on adding alt tags to each image so that not your site but also your images show up for certain keyphrases.
If you are a business services firm, you instead might want to focus on news items produced by your company—press releases and whitepapers—and make sure that those are available to search engine spiders and optimized for critical phrases.
If you are working with an outside search engine optimization company already, now is the time to ask what it plans to do in regard to Universal Search. It should at least have an awareness of the magnitude of this new way to search on Google and should be able to present you with some sort of plan of attack, even if it plans to wait until it knows for sure that Universal Search is going to catch on.
If you are looking into hiring an outside search engine optimization company to launch a new campaign, the same holds true—ask your contacts at the firm how they are planning to handle Universal Search. They should at least be familiar with the concept and have a general outline to present to you.
If you thought that it was just Google that was working on what it calls Universal Search, think again. Yahoo, MSN, and Ask, as well as minor search engines such as A9, are working on their own versions that will display different media types.
These versions are still in the testing phase, but they could be rolled out at any time.
What all this means for you and your search engine optimization company is that the face of SEO will be changing dramatically over the next several months—or it won't. Only time will tell.