Universal search has been touted as the biggest change to happen to search in recent years. Certainly universal and personal search have altered the search landscape to an extent, however to what extent is up for debate. In Universal & Personal Search: This Changes Everything, panelists moderated by Jake Baillie brought differing perspectives to the adjustments SEOs should make in light of universal search.
Brian Combs of Apogee Search began the session with an overview of Universal search. The biggest change, according to Combs, is that search is no longer just about text. Now images, videos, and local results can all rank, and rank highly, for any given keyword term.
This opens up a range of opportunities for the search marketer. A given site can now increase their search real estate by appearing multiple times on the search engine results page (SERP). Conversely, universal search can negatively impact your rankings. Local listings can push your site, which ranks number one in the general listings, below the fold of a SERP.
Combs outlined several advantages to getting your digital assets into universal search. So-called vertical listings, or listings for a specific vertical such as image or video, attract more attention from searchers. Also, many vertical search engines are less competitive than traditional engines like Google. It may be easier to get your video ranking in YouTube for a specific keyword, which can then show up in Google when it blends its results to include video.
Combs recommended going after local search, as it’s often not very competitive and ranks very prominently. He also advises keeping your messaging consistent across all of your digital assets so that you present a unified message no matter how many rankings you capture in the SERP.
Amanda Watlington of APR explained the advent of universal search in terms of the changing role of SEOs. The SEO is now a conductor, not a mere soloist. Search marketers today have to coordinate with others within their company or client’s company to both produce and optimize the assets used for digital search: video, images, PDFs, etc.
Universal search has also changed the meaning of rankings. With personal and local search, the SERP may alter from person to person and location to location. Its becoming more impossible to control your search rankings across the board.
Amanda also pointed out the change in the definition of search engine. By number of queries and visits, YouTube is now the second-largest search engine after Google. Other sites like Facebook, Craigslist and eBay also rank highly in terms of popular search engines.
With Amanda’s point of view on universal search, nearly everything has changed. So how does a modern SEO adapt and become the ‘conductor’ she mentioned?
Search marketers must grow accustomed to working in more of a team environment in order to coordinate the creation and optimization of digital assets. They must also set new optimization procedures and new priorities in terms of what gets optimized and when.
In order to do so, an SEO needs to:
Inventory Digital Assets Identify what types of files you currently have on your site, and what are missing. Look for opportunities.
Evaluate Current Optimization Ensure your traditional search optimization is solid. “Chase universal results from a position of strength,” Amanda advised. Only go forward with universal optimization if you have a strong foundation.
Identify Optimization Gaps Go for the low-hanging fruit and optimize digital assets that already exist on your site, in particular items like PDFs and product descriptions.
Develop a Plan Create best practice documents and train support staff to ensure everyone working on digital asset creation has knowledge of optimization. Also set performance indicators beyond ranking and traffic, as measuring the success of your digital assets can be difficult.
Amanda reminded the session that “the rules have changed, but the expectations have not.” SEOs are still expected to return results. Don’t just create digital assets for the sake of it, create and optimize assets that make sense for your organization.
Greg Boser took a more cautionary approach the changes universal search has wrought upon traditional SEOs.
“The lion’s share of searchers are being served old-fashioned regular results,” Greg stated. He pointed out that even when your digital assets rank in the search, it does not necessarily translate into greater sales and leads. Searchers can’t buy something directly from a video.
According to Greg, an SEO’s primary focus should still be on optimizing for traditional search results. However, universal search should help shape an overall optimization plan. When doing keyword research, be aware of which terms trigger universal results that could cause your ranking to occur lower down the page.
Greg did give some good advice for people optimizing digital assets. Using subjective adjectives, like ‘beautiful’ or ‘funny,’ particularly when optimizing photos can be effective for showing up in the SERPs. Also, many bloggers make the mistake of grabbing photos they host on Flickr for their posts. By inserting pictures directly into their blog platforms, the blog and not Flickr gets credit when the image appears in universal search.
While they brought different perspectives, all three panelists agreed that a site should be solidly optimized for traditional search results before progressing into universal and personal search optimization. While universal search as of yet may only represent a small portion of the overall optimization a site needs, this portion will continue to grow as search becomes more personalized to the individual searcher.