Universal Search and Other Surprises from Google’s Searchology

When Google yesterday invited a number of reporters to come down to Mountain View for an event they called Searchology, I figured they had something in the works. I had to turn down the invitation because of other commitments, but we sent Enquiro’s Director of Technology and analytics blogger, Manoj Jasra down in my stead. Sure enough, just after noon yesterday, I received a press release announcing the introduction of universal search. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Manoj about what else Google may have unveiled in Mountain View yesterday, but even just working my way through the official release from Google gave me plenty of food for thought. For the extensive list of the announcements and some running commentary, check out Danny’s post on Searchengineland.

To me, the one thing that jumps out in this is the announcement of Universal Search. Basically, Universal Search is the breaking down of the information silos that currently exist on Google and blending them into a single set of results. The changes right now are very subtle. Web results still dominate the typical results page and the primary thing that would be noticeable by the user are additional dynamically generated navigation links that sit just about the results.


The key to universal search results is an on-the-fly algorithm that looks across all of Google’s information sources and prioritizes and ranks all the items coming from these disparate sources based on the user intent. Now, it’s in those last five words, “based on the user intent” that the really important piece of this comes out. Just a few weeks ago, I interviewed Marissa Mayer about the inclusion of Web history in the dataset to calculate personalized search results. This just gives Sep Kamvar and his personalization algorithm a lot more to chew on as they determine user intent. During the interview, I asked Marissa Mayer if personalization allows Google to be more confident in delivering vertical results. Marissa indicated that this was not an area they were currently looking at.

There are a lot of different things that we could do with this data. I’ll be totally honest. Verticals isn’t something that has been first and foremost in our minds so I don’t really think there’s a strong vertical angle here at the moment.

To me it just didn’t make sense. Couple that with yesterday’s announcement of Universal search results and I’ve got to conclude that Marissa was throwing up a smokescreen.

Personalized search is the engine is going to drive universal search. The two are inextricably linked. When you look at the wording the Google throws around about the on-the-fly ranking of content from all the sources for Universal Search, that’s exactly the same the wording they use for the personalization algorithm. It operates on-the-fly, looks at the content in the Google index and re-ranks it according to be perceived intent of the user, based on search history, Web history and other signals. It’s not a huge stretch to extend that same real-time categorization of content across all of Google’s information silos. That is, in fact, what Google’s announcement yesterday said. Call it a silo, call it a vertical, the end result is the same. As Google gains more confidence in disambiguating user intent, more specific types of search results, extending beyond Web results, will get included on the results page and presented to the user.

This introduces something else that opens up some interesting implications for Google. And again, if they choose to go down this path, it flies in the face of something that Marissa Mayer has previously stated. On the search results page as we know it, display or other types of advertising just don’t work that well. The search results pages is heavily text-based. We look for text, we respond to text, we click on text. Anything that’s not text acts as an interruption and distraction. There’s no place on this page for display or rich media advertising.

But if you mix up the search results page and start including things like images, video clips, maps, icons for audio files, you move away from the common paradigm of the text based search results page. The Google page becomes much more like a personalized, on-the-fly portal based around the intent of our query. As such, it includes stimuli from a lot of different sources, presented in a lot of different ways. There will be many things fighting for your attention. And in this paradigm, perhaps display and rich media advertising works better. In another announcement from Google, Marissa Mayer appears to have backtracked and open the door for this.

Yesterday, Marissa responded to a question about possible inclusion of non text-based ads in this way:

Well we don’t have anything to announce on that today. I do think this opens the door for the introduction of richer media into the search results page. We are now going to understand how users interact with that. And as Alan always likes to say search is about finding the best answer, not just the best URL or the best textual snippet.  

For us ads are answers as well. Searching ads is just as hard as searching the Web, as searching images. And so I was hoping that we could bring some of these same advances in terms of the richness of media to ads.

Greg Sterling, in his post on Search Engine Land, calls it something of a bombshell (Greg, I’m now regreting that I didn’t attend, as I would have loved to chat to you about this) and I agree. This is a significant retraction of Google’s long running stand on keeping display ads off the SERP:

There will be no banner ads on the Google homepage or web search results pages. There will not be crazy, flashy, graphical doodads flying and popping up all over the Google site. Ever.

Google said in their announcements that the changes for the user will be subtle at first. In fact, the position of the dynamically generated navigation links that appear about the search results will largely be ignored by most users. They won’t even know they exist. But in typical Google fashion, this tentative presentation of new functionality will be an incremental one. The typical path that Google takes when introducing new functionality is

  • subtly introduce new navigation options in the way of links that tend to be out of the primary scan path
  • make it an opt in experience for the user
  • gradually roll this functionality into a default opt in
  • eventually integrate more fully into the standard presentation of results
  • move to full integration and remove the ability for the user to opt out

if Google goes down this path with both universal and personal search, you can expect to see a substantially different look for search results in the near future. And as with most things we’ve talked about that Google is looking at introducing, there will be a trade-off between overall functionality for most users and a relinquishing of control for a small number of users.

My final point for this post is the speed of which Google is introducing new search innovations. A few weeks ago I posted that Google may be treating search as the forgotten child, devoting more attention to the sexier new channels they were acquiring, including pretty much everything under the sun. Matt Cutts was quick to post a comment saying that Google was still very much involved with search and that there would be a number of new things rolling out in the near future. It appears that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about and now have to eat my words, as the announcements over the last few weeks have indicated that Google is still very much in the search game and is moving forward at, what for them, is breakneck pace.

I’ve often stated before the Google was the victim of their own success. Because they have such a large slice search market, any changes to the actual presentation of the search pages came with a lot of risk. It’s a major monetization channel for them, their biggest one by far, and any changes in user experience through the introduction of new functionality comes with the potential of dramatically reducing click through on sponsored ads. I predicted that this would make it tough for Google to really innovate with search and we would probably be looking to the smaller players to aggressively pursue innovation. Interestingly, much of my recent conversation with Ask’s usability team lead, Michael Ferguson, revolved around this point. That interview will be running tomorrow on Search Engine Land, with full transcript posted to this blog. If you look at what Ask is been doing with AskX:


 It’s very similar to what Google says they will be doing with universal search results. It’s taking content from a number of different sources and rolling it into one combined search results page. It came as a complete surprise to me when I read the release indicating that Google is moving aggressively down the same path. Google will not be taking the path that Ask is, by aggressively presenting new functionality on their main site, Google will introduce it incrementally, bit by bit. But expect the evolution of the search experience on Google to move fairly quickly.

All of Google’s announcements in the last few months point in the same direction. They all point to a highly personalized, highly relevant portal to all of Google’s information. Here’s my other prediction. While Marissa was very careful in past interviews to state that personalization is currently impacting only the organic search results, with no work being done on the personalized presentation of sponsored content, I smell another smokescreen. Personalized presentation of advertising content is just too huge a revenue opportunity for Google and we’ll be seeing it in the very near future.

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