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Google's Universal Search and the Rise of Vertical Search

Recently, Google implemented the newest twist in their search engine science: Universal Search. Essentially, universal search means that the results page will now include not just web page listings, but also news items, images, videos and even listings from its local and book search functions. The idea is to create more dynamic and useful results for users.

For search engine marketers and SEO specialists, the change represents a big shift in the most powerful and popular search engine around. However, for those who've always studied or paid special attention to vertical search or specialized searches, the change will mean a lot of new opportunities. Below are some explanations and tips on vertical searching and making the new universal search model work for your optimization strategy.

What is Vertical Search?

Before we go any further, we have to understand what exactly vertical search is. Basically, it's a different way of performing the search process. In a traditional horizontal search, a search engine will search "horizontally" across a broad spectrum of topics no matter what your query is. If you search for "stars", you're going to be searching from a lot of different categories, and you're going get a lot of different results as well. You'll probably see sites about the actual things up in the sky at night, but you'll also see listings about celebrities, design, and even the Dallas Stars professional hockey team.

A vertical search is designed to only search down through one broad topic. So, a vertical search centered on space and space exploration and knowledge will only search "vertically" through sites related to that. You can think of vertical searching like performing a specialized search for a certain topic. The point of a vertical search is to eliminate information that the user will find useless and instead provide more relevant results.

Making Vertical Search Work

Google has actually employed vertical search options on its site for quite a while, but many users still don't use it. Since the search engines for specialized search topics were only found through links off of the main page, many people seemed to ignore the option and instead perform the general search. However, there were and are all kinds of options for vertical search on Google, such as News, Images, Finance, Book Search, Blog Search, Maps, Video and even product and patent search options.

The point of Universal Search is to incorporate results from all of these different subtopics within the initial results page of a general search query. Using an algorithm to determine which results will be most important from these vertical searches, Universal search creates an effective blend of traditional listings and specialized search topics.

OneBox Search Results

In order to encourage the use of vertical search before Universal Search was introduced, you'll probably recall that many searches would return a page of results that had specialized results listed in short at the top of the page. For example, searching for "Fenway Park" turned up not just listings, but "Image Results" for Fenway Park as well. These were commonly known as OneBox prompts, and they were designed to call attention to the fact that one could use specialized vertical searches to find exactly what they were looking for. However, users still seemed to prefer the main search page, probably for ease of use, but also because the specialized results looked "strange" or unfamiliar.

Incorporating Vertical Search Results into Main Web Search Results

Google staff even admitted that the placement of the OneBox prompts was clunky, and that they weren't very effective, since the search result listings coming immediately after them were often more relevant. Universal search attempts to remedy this issue by actually assigning a relevancy value on its own. For example, if you search for Fenway Park, Universal search will cull images, videos, traditional web page listings, and much more, and will then try to determine which among these results is most relevant, and presnt them in the order of importance it establishes. For example, it might choose to replace a webpage listing about Fenway Park with a Book Search listing for a book on Fenway Park and its History. But instead of calling this out in a OneBox prompt, it will now appear among the other search results.

Another example of this is in news stories. In the past, if someone searched for "Iraq", they'd see a results page with a OneBox Prompt for news stories concerning the war in Iraq and other current events concerning the country. Now, universal search establishes the relevancy of certain news stories based on your query and presents them within the actual search results. The same goes for searching for local businesses and the Google Maps feature. When you search for a business in your area, you'll get the business' web site, reviews and Google Maps results within the list of search results, based on the relevancy determined by Universal Search.

Replacing Web Page Listings with Vertical Search Results

No matter what kind of vertical search results are returned and presented, you'll notice that in order to make room for these results to appear on the first page of search results (the top 10), they have to take the place of a web page listing. But search results pages are not completely taken over by vertical search results, even if the search query entered is very specific.

For example, if you Google "music stores in Los Angeles", you'll see that the Google Maps search result will show 3 total local business results for the entry that it takes up on the search results page. However, for such a specific local search query, it could be argued that all 10 spots should be taken up with local business results and Google Maps listings. For now, Google is not choosing to pursue this route and still chooses to present web pages along with their vertical results, even in highly specific cases.

The New Google Video

While in the past Google video featured only results for videos uploaded to YouTube or Google Video, the new goal for the feature is to turn it into a video search site that would be able to uncover video hosted anywhere in the internet. While this change is still in the making, Google Video will certainly display as part of universal search, giving the user the capability to even watch the video right in the same search results page. Again, videos will appear in the results based on the relevance assigned them by Google.

Web Search

While this term may seem confusing (don't all search results come from the web?), in short it means that Google's universal search will still have an option to search for web page listings only, in case you want to forego the Universal capabilities. What's interesting and important to note however is that while this type of search was formerly standard, it is now going to be merely an option of universal search.

What Does Universal Search Mean for Users?

For users, universal search should provide a more interesting and dynamic way to find content on the internet, especially for those users who are not aware of vertical searching. By combining all kinds of different content from different sources and in different forms, users should be able to find out more about the topics they search for, as well as to identify very specific search items very quickly. All in all, it's easy to see universal search quickly becoming the standard for search engines to follow.

What does Universal Search mean for SEO and Search Engine Marketers?

For search engine marketers, universal search marks the beginning of what many have expected for some time: the diminishment of the importance of web page listings. Rather than just having specific web pages appear in search results, there are no huge opportunities for those involved in image and video advertising, as these sorts of media will now almost always appear on the first page of any search results.

Additionally, this means that SEO marketers are going to have to take personalized results more into account when formulating their marketing strategies. Whereas past iterations of Google's search results have depended heavily on keyword content optimization and link building strategies, marketers should now look to explore the opportunities presented by vertical search databases. This is a relatively new frontier for many optimization experts, and so it will require some branching out and some experimentation. And don't get discouraged–web page listings will continue to draw lots of traffic. But be sure to pay special attention to innovations in the vertical search technology and how you can use it to get more of your content into the top results. The possibilities are out there, and there should be a lot of interesting developments in the months to come.