"Blended” or “universal” search was in the news a lot last year. Between May and November, the four biggest engines—Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask.com—all introduced versions of this kind of search, which delivers results for many kinds of content, including news, video, images, maps and local listings.
But for all the brouhaha, not much has changed.
A paltry 17% of search queries produced a blended result, according to comScore, which during one week in January observed approximately 220 million Google searches containing a universal result out of 1.2 billion searches.
“Part of this might be that Google and others haven't opened the floodgates overnight,” said Greg Jarboe, president of SEO-PR, an SEO and public relations agency. “Even when Google announced this last May, it said it would roll it out slowly.”
Another explanation is that not every search term lends itself to an image, a news story or a video. “Even when [blended search] is fully rolled out [by the search engines], you won't get to 100% of searches resulting in blended search,” Jarboe said.
Also, many marketers simply have not optimized—or even created—digital assets.
“I would say that the majority of marketers are still in the assessment or building inventory phase,” said Rob Murray, president of SEO agency iProspect.
Murray has been helping his clients take stock of their assets and understand what they look like on a blended results page.
“We assess the environment, we look at what you have today and we identify the gaps in digital inventory, and then [we] figure out how to go about creating the right variety of digital assets. In some verticals, video might be really popular; and in other verticals, image and news might be popular.”
Jarboe said some marketers aren't building out their digital assets because organizations don't have someone responsible for blended search yet.
“What you have is a phenomenon that is so new [that] most marketing organizations aren't structured to dedicate someone to it and come up with a strategy,” he said.
Tackling blended search requires marketers to consider both technical aspects—such as optimizing title tags—as well as organizational issues, said Jarboe, who teaches a workshop on the topic for the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO).
Most important, he said, companies looking to optimize for universal search must get all involved parties to collaborate, including those responsible for marketing, public relations, SEM and corporate video.
Optimizing for blended search results can help marketers in another way: It might give them some control over negative content that pops up on results pages housed off their own Web site, such as on Flickr or YouTube.
As an example, Jarboe pointed to a video of Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft Corp, jumping wildly onstage during a company meeting. The video is posted on YouTube and Google Video, and displays prominently in Google and Yahoo search results to a query on Ballmer's name. [The same clips do not show up in MSN's search pages.]
“We have clients today who are asking us to deal with just those kinds of situations,” Jarboe said. “They don't know how to deal with universal search,” he said. “This is so common a problem that it has its own name in the industry: reputation management.”
Though optimizing for blended search doesn't allow marketers to exert complete control, companies can take certain steps to present their best content, said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence.
“If you are optimizing all your content—video, news, images and so on—it's likely those will rank higher and push that other [negative content] down,” he said. “It's a cat and mouse game.”
Marketers making blended search part of their online strategy are reporting strong results. Matt McGowan, global VP-marketing for Incisive Media's Search Engine Strategies (SES) Conference & Expo and a client of SEO-PR, is using universal search to drive show attendance, optimizing images, video and news about the event.
McGowan said he has created 120 videos of about three to five minutes in length featuring notable speakers from past SES shows. The videos, which are posted on YouTube, are tagged to show up in results for relevant keywords.
“Week by week, more and more people are viewing the videos,” McGowan said. “We've gone from 10 to 50 uniques a day to 250 to 300 uniques a day.”
Though blended search may be promising, one study found marketers' priorities in terms of optimizing images, videos and news are not aligned with the demand that the searchers themselves demonstrate for these asset types.
In “iProspect Search Engine Marketing Integration Study,” a report released last week by iProspect, 58% of search marketers indicated they give priority to optimizing images over press releases (32%) and video (20%). However, an April study by the company, called “iProspect Blended Search Results Study,” found that when measured by propensity to click on these asset types within the blended search results of Google, Yahoo and MSN, users cited news as most important (36%), following by images (31%) and video (17%).
Sterling said those findings aren't surprising. There's always been some discrepancy between user behavior and marketers and what they're doing,” he said. “It takes marketers a long time to wake up to really adapt to user behavior.” M