Google’s evolving user interface and its impact on Paid and Natural Search
Google began life, as did all its contemporaries, as a search engine that simply found and sorted the Internet's textual content. As technology progressed and consumer activities online became more sophisticated, the need naturally arose for search engines to not only find, categorise, and retrieve simple textual content, but to also find, categorise and retrieve more complex data types, such as images and video content. Now in 2007, Google's search results are augmented with search-query-dependant news, videos, images, maps, stock quotes, music album info, weather, scholarly articles, blog posts, UPS/Fed-Ex tracking numbers, and more.
Providing search results that incorporate these new data types has impacted on Google's User Interface (UI), representing the biggest aesthetic and functional changes to its UI in its history.
Enter 'Integrated Search'
Google calls the augmentation of its search results with these different data types 'Integrated Search'. In the screenshot below you'll find one of simplest examples -undertaking a search for 'aston martin rapide' results in a search results page with several images of the car in question above the Natural Search listings:
The existence of the images adds value to the user search experience and, even if none of these images are clicked on or explored further, they represent a convergence of relevant information with the benefit of visual immediacy.
However, it doesn't stop there - these new data types being integrated into search results include news, books, maps, and videos, and more, each with differences in application and promoting different types of user interaction.
Typically, 'Integrated Search' elements have been most visible between the top Sponsored Links of a search results page and the first Natural Search result. However, recent months have seen even greater integration with most media types now being displayed within the actual Natural Search results themselves.
For example, expandable Natural Search results listings have made an appearance (screenshot below) that provides the user with more data pertaining to the natural search result by clicking on a 'plus'-sign to expand the listing to see the augmentation, with then the appearance of a 'minus'-sign if the user wishes to hide the augmentation. Google calls these 'plus box results'. The screenshot below illustrates how this looks for mapping augmentation, but it is also being used for videos and US stocks. News items are also being presented within Natural Search results too, but without a Plus-Box.
Enter Google's 'OneBox'
The 'Onebox' is an Integrated Search result that is displayed above Google's Natural Search results but below the top Sponsored Listings, if there are any on the page. For example, if you search for 'weather in dublin', Google shows you the weather in Dublin without you having to leave Google's domain:
The number of OneBox types has grown rapidly over the course of the year. Here are a few examples:
If you search for 'london jobs', the following OneBox is displayed:
The jobs OneBox is powered by Google Base, which also powers the OneBox for dating and cars.
In the US, the OneBox is also used for flights. For example, if you search for two cities you'll be presented with a flights search engine:
The emergence of the OneBox and other forms of Integrated Search represent one of the biggest developments in Search in the last few years. Different OneBoxes are powered in different ways - some rely on data feeds that can be submitted to Google Base and others like Maps and Videos utilise Google-owned data. Others, like Google Co-op, which displays links to help focus your initial search, is powered principally by human contributors (human tagging). In all cases, however, the user experience has been impacted which naturally affects marketing within the Search medium.
What are the implications for SEM?
With any UI alteration the first thing that should be assessed is the impact on Usability:
- Many Integrated Search elements appear in highly prominent parts of the page, and often right at the top, e.g. Weather and Images.
- Integrated Search elements and the OneBox widgets have clearly defined borders and often have more colourful listings, in contrast with Paid Search and Natural Search results which use the standard and familiar page structure and palette. For example, the Weather results stand out on a page due to their contrasting colours and the fact that the element is very different from anything else on the page.
- Plus Boxes represent an obvious break in the linear, homogenous Natural Search results and are likely to attract more attention due to that structural contrast.
- Some of the OneBox elements request user input, for example the Jobs OneBox. Users are typically drawn to elements that require interaction, in the same way as a user is drawn to a free-text search box on an ordinary website.
- With Integrated Search elements, OneBox widgets, and Plus Boxes, it is possible that a random search results page will include all of those elements across multiple parts of the page, i.e. at the top, middle, and bottom of the page, saturating the page with multiple user options.
Research undertaken by Marketing Sherpa in its Search Marketing Benchmark Guide 2007 suggests that the above UI implications are having an effect on how people interact with a search engine results page, which therefore affects SEM directly.
Using eyetracking heatmaps, focussing on the OneBox in particular, their research found that the existence of the OneBox does indeed alter consumer behaviour with a 'golden triangle' rather different to the triangles typically seen in historical usability tests of Google search results pages. Whilst there has been limited discussion of this in SEM circles, a closer examination of the heatmap and the new triangle does suggest that there are far reaching implications.
Firstly, whilst in a typical Google heatmap the Sponsored Links element receives significant attention, this does not appear the case when the OneBox is present. The human eye will initially and naturally settle on an element a) high up on the screen, b) to the left hand side, and c) to something that immediately catches their eye. As the OneBox stands out more than both the first Natural Search results and the top Sponsored Links, people seem to be fixing their eyes on the OneBox and moving their eyes down the screen, at the direct expense of the Sponsored results at the top of the page and all the ads to the right.
Debbie Jaffe, Google Product Marketing Director, indirectly confirmed this late last year. When asked about the relative click through rate of the OneBox in comparison to Paid Search results she responded with the following:
"Generally, these results get more clicks than the paid listings..." (Nov 9 2006 - Source Searchenginewatch.com)
Secondly, this also appears to adversely affect Natural Search too as the existence of the OneBox forces the Natural Search results lower down the page, with only Position 1 in the Natural Search results getting as much attention as the OneBox, but then with a cliff-face drop in attention for Positions 2 and lower. Historical studies, without the OneBox present, showed a far greater likelihood of people clicking on other Natural Search results and not just the first one. Plus-Boxes also impact on Natural Search performance as having one should mean you'll get more clicks than without, all things being equal.
Thirdly, this pattern would also affect Google too as it would suggest that the presence of the OneBox reduces the likelihood of someone clicking on a Paid Search ad. The OneBox, and all Integrated Search elements for that matter, are essentially augmentations to Natural Search with any resultant clicks via them not adding revenue to Google. Debbie Jaffe's comment with regards to OneBox clickthrough's provide evidence that the existence of a OneBox does indeed impact on Google's revenue, so we should expect to experience a period of regular Google UI testing until a balance more favourable to Google is found.
Ultimately, whatever final UI configuration Google decides on, Integrated Search is here to stay and websites must evolve their SEM activity to exploit this new battleground. It means that Search Marketing now extends beyond the written word and must optimise and promote multiple media types to the searching audience, whilst also responding to the realities of a more saturated search results page.
So, what do you need to do?
Given the implications for SEM of Integrated Search and particularly the OneBox, it is imperative that a site has a presence in as much of a Google search results page as possible, which would now entail making sure that your images, news, books, videos, local information, and more are used by Google in relevant searches. Given that Integrated Search elements are powered by Natural Search, it is becoming increasingly necessary for a site to utilise certain Natural Search strategies that have, until now, never been a core focus for SEM. These six areas would be a sensible place to start:
- Get into Google News and optimise for it.
- Exploit Google Base to deliver structured data to Google.
- Optimise your images so they are deemed relevant to searcher queries.
- Optimise your videos so they are deemed relevant to searcher queries.
- Optimise for Local Search to ensure that you have a presence in location-specific searches and Google mapping augmentations.
- Understand the implications of Google Co-op and human tagging.
Note: Subsequent Greenlight Newsletter articles will focus on these six areas in far more detail. Google News has been focussed on this month (see Google News - getting in and getting optimise).
For Paid Search, Integrated Search may well begin to make an appearance within the Sponsored Links sections of a search results page, by providing advertisers with the ability to use Image Ads or Video Ads instead of or to supplement standard text-based ads (Image ads are already used in Google's contextual ad network) but there is no evidence to suggest this is at the top of Google's short-term agenda.
Marketers do, however, need to ensure that the existence of Integrated Search is not negatively affecting the performance of Paid Search campaigns. Key strategies to ensure continued success in the light of more saturated search results would include:
- Use Google's contextual network - there are no OneBoxes there!
- Ensure your ads are perfectly relevant and timely, include prices where possible and anything else that would draw a users attention to the ad.
- Tap into the long-tail; Google Co-op encourages users to re-focus their search query and be more specific, so it's increasingly important to have an advertising presence in Google at each level of re-focussing.
- Ensure you have an advertising presence within Google's supportive data services, such as within Google Local/Map searches.
- Utilise new options that are known to increase click through rates, such as Google Checkout.
- Write compelling ads, that have strong calls to action, and that succinctly differentiate your proposition from those that are advertising in the same space.
To conclude, when a major change takes place it will invariably bring with it serious challenges, but also huge opportunities. A change of UI in the most popular Search Engine in the UK marks the beginning of a quiet revolution in how people Search and how they will Search in the near future and beyond. For the Search Marketer there is a need for a step-change to not only ensure that the changes don't negatively affect your Search Engine presence, but also to provide you with significant competitive advantage through the exploitation of innovation.