An Intimate View of the World Through Google’s Eyes

First published May 24, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

The walls are coming crashing down at Google. They’re in the middle of tearing down silos and aggregating content. But that aggregation will likely come with a very unique viewpoint some day: yours.

Last week at Searchology (an event I couldn’t attend, due to a conflict) Google unveiled universal search, along with a few other assorted tidbits. David Berkowitz covered this in Tuesday’s Search Insider, so forgive me if some of this is redundant, but I think we’re covering unique ground in our approaches.

Mixing up Google’s Buckets

The key for universal search? Results that come from a number of different sources: the Web, blogs, video, news, images, maps, local, product, to name a few, all presented on the same results page. And yes, ads. Because, in the words of Google’s Marissa Mayer, “sometimes an ad is the right answer.” So, in effect, Google is no longer a search engine. It’s an “idea portal,” aggregated from Google’s vast Web reach around a specific query, on the fly and brought together for the user. And Google, in its infinite wisdom, will apply a universal ranking algorithm across disparate content to pull what it feels is the most relevant to the top of the page.

Universal search, in one fell swoop, makes the idea of vertical search irrelevant, because Google is making it all horizontal. The company will assemble a smorgasbord of content from their various buckets, prepared right in front of your eyes in 0.23 seconds.

Does One Score Fit All?

But here’s the challenge. The task of applying a content-agnostic relevancy score is daunting, and according to Google, it’s the reason it’s only now introducing universal search, after a number of years in the lab. In fact, it’s so daunting, you’ll probably only see other types of content creep onto your results page in the most obvious of cases. For example, a search for a specific video that’s suddenly very hot will bring back the video clip near the top. For most searches, the net impact of vertical search will be the appearance of some additional links to other vertical “buckets” near the top of the results set. Like most things that can impact the user experience, Google is treading carefully here.

Just Add Two Dashes of Personalization

So why bother? Because universal search becomes much more interesting when you combine it with personalization. In a recent interview I did with Mayer, she said she didn’t see a strong vertical angle for personalization in the near future. I can’t help but think that personalization will drive universal search. In fact, I don’t think universal search works very well without personalization. In both cases, we’re looking at an on-the-fly algorithm that works over and above the base Google algorithm, reordering results for you. Google will be able to be more confident in offering a much richer and more diverse set of universal results when you can tap into previous search and Web history. It will give them a lot more background to help them put context around your query. With personalization, every search becomes your customized portal, centered on what’s on the top of your mind right now. And that’s pretty interesting, both for the user and the advertiser.

And One Cup of Assorted Advertising

Obviously, Google’s mind is straying down this path as well, because at Searchology, Mayer did a pretty intense backpedal from her previous position that display or rich media ads would never appear on the search results page. The official position is now: “potentially… possibly… probably.” Google’s statements used to be much more unequivocal, but lately, they’re sounding much less adamant and much more political. No door shall remain unopened, even if it’s just a crack, because chances are, Google may have to squeeze through it in the future.

Increasingly, the puzzle pieces of Google’s empire are falling into place. When you take personalization, universal search, enhanced ad serving capabilities and outreach into the most popular Web communities and bring them together, you start to see a pretty compelling network emerge, and it’s all centered on the user, one user at a time.

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