Search: Right Here, Right Now

“It’s not enough to just find stuff anymore,” said Jim Lanzone, Ask.com’s top executive. “You have to add some context, some options, some tools.”

Lanzone was speaking at Search Engine Strategies San Jose, the undisputed SEM (define) event of the year. As in past years, the event attracted a swelling number of attendees (close to 7,000 this year), new products, new sessions, bigger parties, and more media attention. You’d think search can’t possibly get any bigger or hotter. Yet every year, it somehow manages to exceed itself.

What were the hot topics at SES San Jose this year? Here are my takeaways.

Universal Search

Is universal search a blessing or a curse? Launched by Google in May, and according to Google’s Marissa Mayer requiring a wholesale reconfiguring of the company’s servers, universal search serves up search results that might include news, video, or images at the top of the SERP (define).

Users are happy with it, says Mayer. “The users really seem to be liking clicking on what they’re finding in those new results. The idea was really to move away from 10 links and give users better, richer answers, something that really does illustrate the answers to your questions in a better way.”

Advertisers have some serious reservations. Common sense (as well as eye-tracking studies) point to the fact user attention is zeroed in on graphically rich universal search results rather than the static, text-only paid ads on the SERP. Google’s all about user experience, but it knows what side its bread is buttered on, financially speaking.

Mayer did try to quell fears. “We’re trying to figure out how to guide the user’s eye so that they see the ads on the page,” she assured search advertisers. She promised the company will continue to develop ad formats “that might be more eye-catching and interactive…I do think that as the search results page evolves and gets richer, it opens up the opportunities for ads to get zippies [an experimental Google ad unit] or have images.”

Personalized Search

There’s been a lot of interest in personalized search lately, and not just from the privacy angle. Both universal and old-fashioned vanilla search results don’t require users to sign in for a degree of what the engines hope will be relevant targeting. Location, for example, can be honed in on by IP address or other means, representing a significant opportunity for search marketers.

Mayer says Google is looking at other elements it can use to make search results more personalized beyond the obvious Web history. Online user address books (presumably those in Gmail) are just one of several items she ticked off as possibilities.

Industry Growth — at Both Ends

Other aspects of search loomed large at SES, of course, including mobile search, new analytics tools like those from comScore and SEMDirector, local search, image and video search, and brand advertising in search.

Bigger than all this, however, is the surge toward search at both the high and low ends of the industry. Never have I seen so many SES first-timers at the conference. Webmasters, copywriters, developers, and advertisers attended in droves. Search is an aspect of interactive strategy no one involved in online marketing or e-commerce can afford to ignore.

On the other side of that equation is the rush to develop search capabilities by major advertisers and agencies. This week, that move was embodied by AKQA’s acquisition of SearchRev. AKQA isn’t just an interactive agency. It’s a creative interactive agency handling accounts for huge global advertisers. Creative shops have never been known for competencies on the technology side of the interactive equation.

“What this acquisition is saying is brand advertising needs search advertising,” Eduardo Llach, CRO, CMO, and cofounder of SearchRev, told us at the show. “For all your advertising, you need to figure out and get the search working well. If you do that, everything else you do will be working better. If you don’t, then you’re wasting money on anything else you’re doing. You have to nail down and get the search advertising optimized for your branded terms.”

The biggest takeaway of SES San Jose this year? Search can no longer be ignored.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.