How Universal, Personalized, and Real-Time Search Have Affected CTRs

Have the launches of universal search, personalized search, and real-time search affected your CTR (define) on SERPs (define)? Let’s examine how you can use these to your advantage.

Universal Search

The launch of Google universal search in May 2007 improved user experience, offering intuitive alternatives to standard Web results. The real intent of the searcher was more closely met, and universal search helped those who didn’t have optimized Web sites. But in the SEO (define) world, traffic acquisition became tougher, since CTR on the results pages fell – all the SEOs were thinking, how do we benefit from this?

Personalized Search

December 2009 saw the launch of personalized search for both signed-in and signed-out users. Another factor was added to the ranking pool: user CTR. A site’s fate, instead of depending purely on relevance, now depended on relevance as well as CTR. Basically, Google changed rankings for individual users based on their click preferences. The underlying effect, as Rand Fishkin wrote in one of his blogs, is that “the rich get (even) richer.” As an example, when buying a carton of milk from your neighborhood grocery chain, you walk to aisle six and pick up the same brand of milk. With personalized search, you wouldn’t need to walk to aisle six every time. Your brand of milk will be waiting for you at the checkout counter. The effect? The other milk brands wouldn’t even have a shot at getting a piece of your monthly grocery spend. Similarly, Web sites that are ranking on page two will see a reduced CTR.

Real-Time Search

Although Google’s real-time search inclusions are arguably premature, it’s yet another instance of a move by Google that has made traffic acquisition a little harder for Web sites. Real-time search essentially adds live updates from sites like Twitter and FriendFeed, along with headlines from blogs and news sites. Result: Another addition to the SERP that’s vying for a piece of that traffic. Real-time inclusions, once perfected, will give rise to a whole new SMO (social media optimization) meets SEO world. Given these changes, it has become imperative for SEOs to think outside the box and improvise.

  1. Use universal search to your advantage.
    • Google Local: Local businesses should add themselves to this list. You can add and edit relevant information, increase visibility, and most importantly, track customers.
    • Google Images: Optimizing images and driving traffic through Google Images could prove to be an alternate revenue stream. Currently Google Images drives the same amount of unique users as Bing, and about 15 percent less than Yahoo.
    • Google Products: Another great way of showing up on the first pages of Google is to use Google Base to submit your products on Google product search. This is a great source for traffic, especially because it’s free.
  2. Go long – very long. With traffic acquisition getting tougher for head keywords, it has become more important to optimize for the long tail and the very long tail. Why? Three reasons: Ranking is easier due to reduced competition; long-tail keywords see reduced universal search inclusions as they are very targeted (Google decides to show only relevant sites as opposed to surfacing images, news, and local – all of which will try to guess user intent); and longer-tailed keywords convert better. Keyword tools such as Trellian and Wordtracker should be good starting points to source longer-tail keywords.
  3. Content and social media. With the integration of real-time search on both Google and Bing, it’s even more crucial to create valuable content that makes your site a “must link.” It’s only a matter of time until links from Twitter and FriendFeed start to weigh in as an SEO factor – it might even be in the next update after Caffeine. Here’s an example: If you searched for “super bowl,” you might have an article on that a number of people are tweeting about and linking to. It would make sense for Google to weight that article or site based on number of tweets plus personalized search CTR. The bottom line is that SMO and SEO are going to be working in tandem. Consequently, it’s a good idea to double down on your SMO and content creation bets because the stakes have just been raised.
  4. Bing and Yahoo. Looking at the search share between the big three engines (Google at 65 percent, Yahoo 17 percent, Bing 10 percent), it might not have made sense from an ROI perspective to optimize for Bing and Yahoo separately. Those hours could be spent trying to understand your Google optimization landscape. However, with the Yahoo-Bing search partnership announcement, it would now be well worth your time to optimize for Bing. The search breakup now looks like a 65-27 split.

As Google and Bing innovate, the SEO landscape will change at a fast pace. The last two years have seen more changes to the marketplace than the previous six years combined. It’s now paramount to get in early, test, analyze, and make proactive changes that lead to profitable results.

This column originally appeared in the March 2010 edition of SES Magazine.

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