Search is evolving, driven by the demands of an increasingly sophisticated Web-using public and the move from the primarily text-based first version of the Web to the rich media-based Web 2.0, with its focus on social networks, blogging, video sharing and user-generated content.
New kinds of content demand news ways of searching. Where once search results were purely text based, now the major search engine companies are experimenting with a range of ways of presenting results. From Google Universal Search to Ask 3D and recent MSN new search features, the main players are going beyond simple text results to a blend of text, still images, news stories, maps, audio and video.
These changes will inevitably have a fundamental impact on how marketers use search as a way of getting their brand or key message through to their target audience.
In the field of search engine optimisation – the arcane art of tweaking content to ensure that your website comes as close to the top in natural search listings as possible – it means that marketers will have to explore new forms of content, and will also have to ensure that everything they put on the Web is designed to be indexed by search engine spiders (the automated software tools that visit Web pages and index them).
But Laurent Boninfante, head of search at OMD Digital, part of media agency Manning Gottlieb OMD, says it is still too early to be certain what sort of search results users will be seeing in the future. He says: “Google Universal seems quite unstable at the moment. You can run the same search within an hour or so, and you will see a very different set of results in terms of the sources being displayed.”
Boninfante adds that new ways of displaying search results will inevitably change the dynamics of search, because they will affect where the best places to appear on page are.
The way that users read traditional text-based results pages have been analysed in detail. As a result, marketers vie for the top spot in both natural and paid-for listings because it is these positions that have in the past delivered the best return on investment.
But that may not be the case in future. The introduction of images to search results has already changed users’ reading patterns. Boninfante observes: “Marketers will want to appear next to the ‘must view’ items.” The classic “F”” pattern – the way users’ eyes move around a screen of text, as registered by extensive eye-tracking surveys – has changed. “Now it’s more of a T,” he says.
Nilhan Jayasinghe, head of natural search at search marketing specialists Spannerworks, says: “With pay-per-click search results, as soon as you put an image on the page people’s eyes go straight to it, and then read the text that is adjacent.” So if images are positioned halfway down the page, then who gets the top spot may become irrelevant.
Spannerworks is currently testing ways of getting particular PPC results to appear in the optimum place for various different search results, but Jayasinghe admits: “It’s not an easy one.”
In the future, the search engines are likely to realise the potential for increased revenue by working out how to charge more for placing PPC results next to images in the natural search results, the experts agree.
Leaving aside the thorny issue of where marketers actually want to have their results appear on a page that is no longer read in a traditional “F”” pattern, the new sorts of search the big engines are experimenting with have other important implications, too.
For one thing, marketers will now have to optimise all the content that appears on their websites for search indexing, not just the text. They should already be doing this, but many are not.
Matt Mills, director of search marketing at specialist media buyer EquiMedia, points out: “Content optimisation beyond text is already the standard across the industry, or at least it should be. Optimisation of video or image content to match the new search functions in MSN and Google should be no more than a maintenance factor.”
Mills adds: “The main focus for search is winning the ‘confidence’ of search engines. In other words, satisfying them that your site does what it says on the tin.”
A lot of that can be achieved by being highly regarded by other sites, he continues, because “engines also base judgement on how many other sites believe yours has value and are linked into it”.
“However, brands should not fall into the numbers trap and think that it’s about as many inbound links as possible. Search is now about marrying the power of PR with technology.”
Indeed, all of the search engines are now understood to be including a site’s reputation in the calculation that decides where they appear in search listings, both for natural and PPC results.
It is also worth optimising content that is distributed via other people’s sites. For example, a press release that is sent to a news site such as PR Newswire, AP or Reuters should be optimised because Google and other engines regard those sites as highly trustworthy and will spider them more frequently.
And video should be loaded up to sites such as YouTube, which are again frequently spidered and indexed because the search engines prioritise sites where large amounts of content changes regularly.
Bill Staples, head of search at Sapient Interactive and former senior manager for UK search at Ask.com, warns that an increasing variety of search results is likely to mean that search engines will start charging more for PPC ads, because there will be less space for them.
Staples says: “The available advertising content areas above the fold on the search page are shrinking, with some engines now having less than 50% of the space available for both paid search and organic results. Some engines now have as little as three organic results above the fold.”
He continues: “Many of the top organic results are also editorially tagged in place, meaning that if you want to dominate the page above the fold you have to optimise budget for PPC price increases by researching long-tail queries closer to the users purchase point. Either that or realise that content has gone from king to emperor and aim to have content so compelling that editorial choices will rank you as highly as algorithmic results once did.”