Get high search ranking through blended search results
Optimised web pages are far from the only way today of cruising to the top of the listings thanks to the increasing trend of blended search results
Google Universal Search, an approach also termed “blended search”, is about mixing sources in search results listings - for example giving you image search results and video search results in with traditional relevant website search results. Yahoo! and MSN do this too. To a large extent, the potential for optimising for such blended search has not been seized upon by the marketplace. Launched in May 2007, the second anniversary of Google’s Universal Search is fast approaching and in that short time some very interesting user patterns have emerged which should prompt online marketers to wake up to the very real opportunities being presented for getting your listings in front of customers.
First, some background. Google and other such search engines are broad-based search engines which are not so good at zoning in on relevant information for more generic searches. Users regularly get a Google results page which states that millions of possible results exist for their query - for example a search today for the term “harmony” yielded the statement “Results 1 - 10 of about 72,200,000 for harmony [definition]”. Often, we have to think hard ourselves about how to narrow down the search to make Google perform more accurately for us.
To counter this problem for users, and to promote its own offerings more, Google continues to launch a number of so-called vertical or specialised searches to allow people confine their searches to certain criteria or avenues of interest. Examples of such vertical searches are Google Image Search, Google Blog Search, Google Local & Maps, Google Patent Search, Scholar etc. You can find these searches in the tabs bar at the top left of the Google home page. There are many other such searches which are proving increasingly useful and gaining in popularity for sophisticated targeted search (Google Accommodation as a vertical may not be that far off, who knows?). But with the exception of Images and Maps, none of these are reaching mainstream searching volumes.
Because many people still don’t use these vertical searches, Google is increasingly promoting results from these verticals in the standard Google results listings by folding in images, videos, books and of course local map results right into the standard search results. Web search is no longer simply “web” search.
An edited example of this is shown in Figure 1. A search for the term “galway” shows the standard results but it is highly mixed - label 1 in the figure shows Google Local & Maps results which might be relevant, placed right at the top. Natural listings of web results start at label 2 but are again interrupted by the insertion of YouTube relevant video results at label 3, before the results revert again to natural listings below the videos. You can do this search a number of times and find that the map or video results may not always appear so the approach from Google is not rigid.
Figure 1: (click image for larger view) Google’s approach to blended search results in its Universal Search interface, which is now the standard. Areas 1, 2 and 3 here show Google Local & Maps, natural listings and YouTube results respectively.
Often, for more specific searches relating to businesses, the Google Local & Maps area will concentrate more solidly on Google Local and show a series of relevant businesses related to your search, such as the Google Local listing shown in Figure 2 for the search term “Berlin Hotels”.
Figure 2: (click image for larger view) Google Local shows relevant businesses related to a search term on an interactive map embedded in the standard search results listings, in this case Berlin Hotels.
How people interact with search results
Probably because images, maps, and videos are more visually striking on a results listing than just plain old natural listings, their influence is far higher in terms of click through rate. Bookassist recognised this early on and has long advocated the use of such media for hotels to promote their business more effectively online and has been at the forefront of Web2.0 implementation in the accommodation sector, not just in Ireland where it is the market leader, but in all its marketplaces abroad.
Research in 2008 by iProspect(1) attempted to quantify what users are doing with these blended search results on Google, Yahoo! and MSN. A diverse user base of just over 2400 was surveyed, which in an ideal world gives an error margin of about 2% and, to be fair to iProspect, their methodology for balancing the backgrounds of the respondents brings them to a conclusion of a slightly wider error margin of about 3%. Some very interesting trends emerged. Summarising the results for users surveyed:
* 68% of users clicked a result on the first page of results, and 92% of users clicked a result within the first three pages of results.
* 36% of users clicked on a “news” result within the blended search results page, and 31% of users clicked on an “image” result within the blended search results page, while only 17% and 26% respectively click a “news” or “image” result after using the news and image vertical searches directly.
* 17% of search engine users surveyed click on a “video” results on a blended search results page, while only 10% click on a “video” result after conducting a video-specific search on the Video tab.
Basically, the research indicated that a user is around twice as likely to click on a specialised search result in a blended listing than on that same results in the vertical search results themselves.
Web 2.0 shines
There are two important lessons here. Firstly, we can get more clicks with good content in the images, news, maps, video, blogs and other “verticals”. But secondly, and more importantly, is that while an enormous amount of blood, sweat and tears is spent by search engine experts in optimising web pages for natural listings - getting keywords right, keyword densities, meta tags, image alt tags, incoming links etc. - the criteria for getting local business listings, videos, images, or other vertical search results into the first page of search results are far more lax at the moment.
Put simply, because there are less videos about “hotels in Berlin” than there are webpages, it is relatively more easy to get your services towards the top of a relevant search by using well-tagged videos, images, blogs etc than by optimising web pages. This is a great opportunity for Web 2.0 content to shine.
A recent Forrester research paper(2) highlighted this current advantage: “On the keywords for which Google offers video results, we found an average of 16,000 videos vying to appear on results pages containing an average of 1.5 video results -- giving each video about an 11,000-to-1 chance of making it onto the first page of results. By comparison, there were an average of 4.7 million text pages competing for a place on results pages with an average of just 9.4 text results -- giving each text page about a 500,000-to-1 chance of appearing on the first page of results.” This statement indicates that an optimised video could be about 45 times more likely to appear in a search result for a particular keyphrase than an optimised webpage. While these figures are again not strictly scientific and should be treated with caution, any user who has seen blended results would see the clear advantage to be had by having additional media available to reflect your business. This advantage clearly won’t last forever.
What to do
Here are some basics that will help you capitalise on these opportunities. Start by registering as a user with Google, then:
* Go to Google Local (local.google.com), and use "My Maps > Create new map" to get your business listed and positioned on the map so that it appears for search results on Google Local & Maps. Use good keywords and descriptions in the business description as you would with regular search engine optimisation.
* Get good quality videos, preferably entertaining and not just brochure-ware, and host your videos on YouTube (youtube.com). Give them keyword optimised titles, tags and descriptions, then use YouTube’s embed feature to embed the videos in your website as a video gallery.
* Get an image gallery of high quality pictures onto Google’s Picasa photo service (picasa.google.com) and embed the image gallery into your website, again with each image having keyword-driven titles, descriptions and tags.
* Go to blogger (blogger.com) and set up a blog and begin to write content on a daily or weekly basis ensuring you always have something relevant to say about your business. You can use basic blogger templates to link your blog to your website and ensure you also link your website to your blog.
Blogger in particular is so simple and effective to use. It is free and easy to set up and, in a hotel's case for example, can be used for advertising special events and other events that change on an ongoing basis rather than the traditional approach of just putting a paragraph on the hotel's events page or special offers page every once and a while. Good URLs are also easier to get with Blogger, for example hotels could set up a URL with prime keywords such as patricksdayindublin.blogspot.com or easteringalway.blogspot.com. Hotels could then create relevant content about such events, but in parallel push their own packages and websites as examples. For annual events, the blogs can remain up all the time, and they should generate more traffic year after year. Good URLs can be worth their weight in gold, figuratively speaking, if used properly.
The key here with all these opportunities is not just to get other vertical searches populated with good information about your business, but to also use these to pull your regular website up through embedding and linking with quality content.
You win on both fronts with your regular website and your new Web 2.0 content.
Dr Des O'Mahony is co-founder & Managing Director of Bookassist, Ciaran Rowe is Senior Search Specialist at Bookassist's Dublin office.