Branding, SEO Implications for Google Universal Search

It may not be the first search engine to unveil an integrated approach to search results, but after unveiling its universal search model yesterday, Google has the industry abuzz about the potential implications — for users as well as advertisers.

Google’s stated goal in altering the way it presents search results is relevance to the search user. However, the changes also will help highlight the vertical searches the firm has offered separately for some time, as well as create new opportunities, particularly for brand advertisers. Indeed, the switch-up could even pit Google’s current direct response advertisers against branding newcomers.

The universal search model, currently in its nascent stages, will present search results in a much more integrated manner than before. Depending on what users search for, the results page could feature sections with images, video, links to book content, maps or local business listings. A few months ago, launched its experimental Ask X search engine, which also integrates results from image, video, encyclopedia, shopping and other categories on the main results page. Microsoft’s Live Search takes a less robust approach, displaying images, links to related keyword searches, and a map image on results pages.

Though Google has remained characteristically vague regarding details of the new results presentation and potential advertising opportunities, VP Search Products and User Experience Marissa Mayer did offer a glimpse during a press event yesterday.

“I do think that this opens the door for the introduction of richer mediums into the result page,” she said, adding, that search results in any form should encompass the best answer no matter the medium. “For us, ads are answers as well…. And so I was hoping that we could bring some of these same advances in terms of the richness of media to ads.”

Google would not comment further as to what those rich media advances might mean for advertisers, but many in the industry are taking educated guesses. Video advertising is one possibility, considering the fact that video results from Google Video and Google’s YouTube will be playable directly on results pages.
“It might be ; one never knows,” said Greg Sterling, principal analyst of Sterling Market Intelligence, noting the potential for in-stream video ads to appear within video content results directly on Google search results pages. In the new system, video from third party providers will be linked to from thumbnail images in the search results.

“The more rich ad formats, the more likely [advertiser results] will show up in the more rich content buckets,” said Kevin Lee, co-founder and executive chairman of paid search consulting firm, and a ClickZ columnist. Though Google does not monetize its image and video search results now, said Lee, there’s a good chance we’ll see multimedia ad opportunities available there with the new system, “if we use prior behavior as an indicator of what their future behavior might be.”

“The immediate opportunity here is in the SEO side,” said Matt Greitzer, national practice lead for search marketing at Avenue A/Razorfish. It’s brand advertisers, continued Greitzer, that will be able to take advantage of those SEO opportunities. “A lot of brand advertisers have very relevant image-based or audio-based or video-based content,” he said.

Greitzer suggested his brand clients in the travel and financial services categories could benefit from the new search model. Travel advertisers, for instance, could optimize videos displaying cruise line offerings or hotel amenities, while financial firms might focus on promoting educational videos rather than straight text articles. “We’re moving away from 95 characters of text,” said Greitzer.

Direct response advertisers and publishers already have been exploiting Google’s product and news searches to boost results rankings through SEO, said Lee, who agrees there’s a future for brand advertisers when it comes to optimizing multimedia content for search, in light of the changes at Google. “Those marketers are turning into content creators,” he added.

Of course, Google certainly wants to score more brand advertiser dollars, so the firm is bound to offer paid multimedia ad options within image and video results. “This could convince brands that search advertising is a valuable investment,” said Sterling. “If they do start introducing branding elements, they’ll have a pipeline for dollars through DoubleClick,” he added, referencing Google’s recent acquisition of ad management giant DoubleClick, a company with connections to thousands of brand advertisers.

If brand advertisers do begin to spend more on search advertising, however, they could have an impact on the direct response advertisers that dominate Google’s cost-per-click AdWords marketplace. Because brand advertisers often have different ROI goals and may be able to throw more money at search, said Sterling, they could alter benchmarks in terms of what’s considered an acceptable keyword bid price-to-click ratio in certain categories. “How do those two considerations play against each other?” wondered Sterling. For one, the result could be new pricing models within Google’s marketplace.

“I don’t expect we’re going to see wholesale changes in the near future,” said Razorfish’s Greitzer of the new results system. “From an advertiser perspective, I’d assume that whatever Google does, they’ll do deliberately and cautiously.”

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