Search engines are perhaps the most vexing marketing channel ever dreamed up. Entire businesses have been built upon the low-cost, highly-qualified traffic delivered by Yahoo, Google, and Bing. However, that source of traffic is neither static nor consistent, as the search engines are constantly fiddling with every element of their service, including the way that sites are found and categorized, as well as how they are displayed on the search engine results pages (SERPs). Hundreds of companies, large and small, have woken one day to discover that the high position on the SERP for a critical keyword has disappeared thanks to a tweak in an algorithm.
This back-end shifting of the mechanics of search engines has always been manageable, though, as long as brands were not engaging in techniques designed to trick the engines. We're about to enter a new era where search engine optimization (the work of gaining those high links) is going to need to adapt, not just to tweaks in technology to determine top position, but to the fact that "top position" is going to be way farther down the page than it used to be.
Three Big Changes to SERPs
The big reason that top position is moving down the SERP is, of course, that the engines are changing their concept of what they should provide consumers who are doing searches. Back in the early days, a search simply resulted in a list of links to pages that were relevant. The engines then added in some ads that were generally unobtrusive, but did push the top links down a bit. But now, we are seeing three big, new ideas being introduced to the SERPs that not only push the (so-called) top results from organic search farther down, but potentially decrease their value by introducing entirely new elements to the page.
Here are three big challenges to the prominence of the top result on the SERP:
This is the big new element, not necessarily because results from social media take up so much space, but rather the underlying method of how this content gets placed on the page. Traditionally, the organic results have been created by the brands themselves; brands have complete ownership of what is on the page. The wildcard has been the way that other people on the Internet have pointed to that content, the so-called "Google bombs" that have been used for a host of reasons. And we've always seen protest posts put up that rank high for branded terms. These other results have always adhered to the same rules that an owned site must: optimize content against a set of rules to seem relevant to a query.
That was then. Today, we are seeing an increasing amount of cooperation between the search engines and social media sites. Bing and Facebook became fast friends a while back and Google has gone deep with Twitter integration. The result is that posts that are relevant to your search from your social network are appearing, often above the organic results.
Search engine results pages have long looked like a relic of the '90s. They are dominated by simple text and are designed as simply as possible. This certainly has helped the pages load nice and fast and be reasonably clean to explore. But as we've experienced massive growth in broadband access and the availability of video, audio, and images, many engines have begun to consider how to make the SERPs a bit more alive. While no engine is serving video directly as a result (instead they are providing links), media is already starting to take up real estate, and again, pushing down those familiar links.
Perhaps the biggest change to SERPs, though, seems to be the increasing presence of tools as a way to answer a query. While Google (in particular) has always been totally satisfied simply serving up a list of places to go to solve a problem or service a need, Bing (in particular) seems interested in enabling consumers to perform their tasks right there on the page.
Consider a search for "events San Francisco." You can imagine a visitor to the city doing this search, maybe to find something to do while here. On Google, that search results in a list of sites that offer up calendars and event listings. On Bing, you also get a similar list of other places to go, but that's not all. There is also a link to a list of events, on Bing, that has been gathered up and presented to you. Bing users can now take one more step toward a solution, thanks to this tool. It changes the nature of search engines from simple pass-throughs to real destinations and tools. Bing seems to have a clear strategy to create more of these tools and bake them into the search experience.
Spreading out SEO
The practice of search engine optimization has always been a tricky one, where experts seek to understand the hidden and complex rules that govern what a user sees in response to a query. Too often, and for too many brands, this has been an overreliance on the rules of tagging, structuring, and linking. But that was never really what SEO was all about. SEO that is technical and functional in nature has always been destined to be marginalized. After all, the search engines are trying to return relevant results, not reward people who are great at following rules and figuring out systems.
These three trends are ultimately making search more useful and engaging. While it makes the task of SEO harder, it also makes it better. With the improvements to the search experience, we are bound to see brands that take SEO seriously as a business practice of being relevant and interesting rise to the top, as they spread out their efforts to include things like social, multimedia, and tools. Whenever things become more complex, we always see a shakeout of the brands that are not committed. As that happens, we should see an improvement, not only in the quality of the experience for consumers, but in the value of the leads that are coming in.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014