Where’s Your Head At?

There have been many advances in search over the past few months: the new MSN Search, the latest Google algorithm tweak, and a recently refreshed Yahoo Search index, to name just a few. No matter how search engine algorithms evolve to produce more relevant results, the average user remains deaf, dumb, and blind to the vast majority of available content on the Web — particularly when search results reside beyond page three.

Today, the solution to this problem is simple for the major search engines: improve delivery of relevant search results to correspondingly increase ad inventory and grow paid search revenues. Make no mistake, recent organic search improvements are all about growing paid search revenue by way of improving the user experience.

To solve the issue of dwindling ad inventory, Google has focused on opening up access to new content by way of partnerships and technology acquisitions, locking in users with a toolbar, and new services such as Gmail. MSN has gone so far as to cut itself loose from Yahoo search results to develop its own index. It will soon disassociate its paid results from Yahoo to become a real paid search player.

Yahoo recently took a different path toward expanding its search capabilities. It’s focusing on the user experience. Enter Mindset, Yahoo’s new intent-driven beta search tool.

Through use of machine learning for text classification, Yahoo has added an algorithmic slide rule that attaches a more specific search string to better classify Web pages in the first 100 results for any search query. Results are sorted according user preference for commercial or non-commercial sites.

Enter a search for “running shoes” in Yahoo Mindset. In the middle of the pack, you’ll find buyer guides, online shops, and podiatry sites. Slide the rule all the way to the right, and you’ll get informational sites. Results shift the 78th indexed site (about running injuries) to the top organic result. Slide the rule to the far left, and get ready to shop. Commercial sites ranked as low as 98 bubble onto “first page” results.

Yahoo has figured out a way to take users to results beyond page three. By making search results mindful of the user, indexed listings that would generally appear on page eight have a shot at making it to a top position.

SEO Shuffle

Yahoo Mindset is a far more interesting development for the search engine marketing (SEM) industry than anything Google has done recently. If Yahoo can develop the technology to slide paid search results as well as it does organic results, countless different ads could be delivered. These ads would be equally mindful of the user. (If MSN Search could make its results ranking slider a bit less complex (click “Search Builder” under the search bar, then “Results Ranking” within Search Builder), more relevant, more user-friendly, and able to carry ads, it could tap into this paid search revenue flood as well.)

The Yahoo tool brings up questions for the SEM industry. Must those who improve organic search results now optimize sites three ways: one page for researchers, one for shoppers, and one for people researching a purchase?

No. No matter which search engine is used, each site can at best produce only two relevant indexed results for any given search query. Yet savvy Web marketers recognize developments such as Yahoo Mindset could influence linking strategies for different pages within the same site.

If anything, adoption of Yahoo Mindset will likely improve conversion rates for commercial sites and increase page views for informational sites. Doesn’t everyone; users, search engines, and marketers, win when the search experience is improved?

Sliding Rules

Yahoo Mindset’s engineers have their work cut out for them. They must be able to slide paid search results in tandem with user mindset and present the venue in a readily manageable manner for advertisers. In this scenario, advertisers would not only select keywords but also the user intent level they want to target.

Imagine linking pay-per-click (PPC) ad campaigns to a user’s stage in the buying cycle. If users are researching products for a future purchase, marketers should be prepared to serve informational ads. If they’re closer to buying online, free shipping or financing campaigns could nudge them toward completing the transaction. If shoppers are headed for a brick-and-mortar store to buy, a local ad could be served to offer a logical purchase destination.

Competitive keywords targeting users nearer to making a purchase will increase in cost, as bids for non-commercial sites fall downward. This opens new venues for smaller advertisers and could potentially improve returns on major ad spends.

Yahoo Mindset could revolutionize paid strategies more than organic ones. Relevancy remains the key issue for any search result, paid or organic. By focusing on improved user experience, Yahoo Mindset is learning how to deliver better results by going beyond page three. If Yahoo can shuffle ad delivery in a similar manner, it will redefine how marketers leverage PPC opportunities for years to come.

A Search Engine Watch Forums thread on Yahoo Mindset has opened up.

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