Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Google’s semantic search set to revolutionise SEO

Well co-ordinated press releases over the past couple of weeks provide a hint at what Google has up its sleeve.

We believe it will mark one of the most significant changes to search engine marketing since AdWords was launched.

In fact, this could be the beginning of the end of search results as we know them...

A huge shake up

Well co-ordinated press releases over the past couple of week provide a hint at what Google has up its sleeve. We believe it will mark one of the most significant changes to search engine marketing since AdWords was launched.

We’ve become complacent as to how good Google is at achieving its stated objective of organising the world’s information. We forget about an internet pre-Google where one had to rely on Lycos, Yahoo, AltaVista, AskJeeves etc. – when Google appeared it revolutionised everything, we embraced it because it seemed to get to some information of relevance quicker than the other engines.

In reality we didn’t really know what we were looking for, Google simply refined what was already out there and provided results which were slightly more aligned to what we thought we needed.

The key point here is that we didn’t really know how we wanted this information presented to us. Furthermore, since then normal people (i.e. not search marketers) haven’t really questioned the relevance of the results we receive – it’s just how it is.

The concept of showing us a page full of links seems completely natural now, perhaps interspersed with a few images or videos as Google has tinkered with the algorithm over the years.

But what if rather than Google spitting out a load of listings in a more sophisticated version of the Yellow Pages it just answered your question, then provided a list of possibly relevant sources and websites?

Ok, it does already happen, one only need search for flight numbers, for example, to see Google’s Instant answers in action, but the proposed changes go beyond this with Google trying to be more human.

If a friend of yours asked you when the battle of Hastings took place, they wouldn’t expect you to come back with a list of possible information sources, they just want the answer – Google wants to be your clever friend. 

What are these changes?

This could be the beginning of the end of search results as we know them. Google has been slowly integrating answers into search results for the past few years for currency conversions, flight numbers and simple questions, but this announcement is the start of something much bigger.

Rather than just answering relatively more straight forward queries like “When was Google founded”, “When did Queen Victoria die”, “100 GBP to USD”, “vs200” (a flight number) it will start expanding out the space these sort of responses take up within the search results and it will start showing the answers to more complex questions.

The reason this is potentially so big is that users will be shown what Google considers being the most relevant answer, rather than simply a list of website links.

There is a twofold benefit to Google in doing this:

It’s good for users: Google’s mission statement is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Google are using their technology to help users save time by providing them answers to queries rather than simply a list of websites.
Users will spend more time on Google: This provides more ad-revenue potential.
This has huge implications on website owners because it means websites will not be able to measure their “reach” within Google search results by just traffic from Google, because users will not necessarily be clicking through to their website if they can read these answers directly on Google.

What impact will it have on brands?

1. Click share
In the long term, as Google becomes smarter in answering more and more questions, this could have a significant impact on brands. Initially however, we anticipate this will have a limited impact on brands. The type of websites  we anticipate will lose traffic because Google shows their answers will be:
Yahoo answers
Although the WallStreetJournal reported that a Google source reported up to 20% of searches could be affected, we think the initial number of search queries will be lower. We have analysed the search traffic coming through to a number of our clients’ sites and anticipate that around 13% of search queries could be impacted by this update.

It is unlikely that many of the big brands will be significantly affected in terms of click-share initially, as we anticipate Google’s answers will primarily be based around factual information and queries such as:

“What is a cash ISA”
“How does 4g work”
“Kate Middleton”
“Rubik’s cube”
“Ingredients of coca cola”

2. Layering of additional information
For brand searches, however, there is an immediate possibility that search results pages will be layered with additional information Google is able to extract from Metaweb, the open source database of global knowledge it acquired in 2010.

This could provide brands with yet another area they will need to focus on to ensure their brand information is kept up to date in the areas that Google is extracting the information from.

3. Contributing to the answers space
Inevitably, brands are going to want to be present within the answers space that Google roll out within the search results pages.

From an organic search perspective, brands will see the tangible benefit from marking up their website code using the appropriate schema mark-up language which helps Google understand what the content is about more accurately.

For example, product information like brand, prices and reviews can all be marked up specifically to help ensure search engines understand exactly what the content is. There will be more visible tangible benefit from marking up products, prices, locations and contact details more effectively.

Furthermore, brands should get more value from traditional FAQ pages or definition pages on their sites which could be chosen by Google to answer users’ questions within the results pages.

From a paid perspective, we anticipate Google may make it possible for brands to be present within some of the answers sections with new ad formats which could be bought on a CPM model as opposed to the traditional CPC model.

4. Change in focus of metrics to include share of voice
For some time now, MEC have been equating influence within the Google results pages as a ‘share of page’ numerical value.

We anticipate this metric of share of page within the Google results pages will become more important as Google provides more answers to questions and begins layering additional information within the search results. MEC are developing a tool (code named Project Magnum) which analyses the composition of the results and provides a score as to the share of page and influence.

This tool is being built with the intention of being able to help our clients understand the value derived from having information displayed within the answers section of the page.

5. Watch the space to see what will happen in the UK is always the first place Google rolls out changes, so we are keeping a close eye on how changes the results pages in the coming weeks and months as they will appear there before they come to Google UK. 

What are the positives?

Users – If the results are good, it will be better for users because they will get the information they were looking for more quickly.
Google – Provides a better experience for users than other competing search engines. Moves Google away from just been the doorway to the internet and keeps users on Google, thereby increasing their ad-revenue potentials.
Website owners – Trusted sites which Google uses to serve ‘answers’ to questions will see its influence increase significantly in terms of the exposure of their content.
Advertisers – Google could provide new advertising formats within the answers section for advertisers to buy on either a CPC or CPM.
What are the negatives?

Users – If the results are wrong or deemed incorrect (it’s a moral maze, how should Google answer this question: “Was Hilter evil?”) this could irritate users, particularly when the answers are personalised based on previous search history.
Google – Could open itself up for significant criticism to some of the answers that the algorithms provide.
Website owners – Google will show larger snippets of content directly within the search results and as a result, will lose traffic going through to its websites and the ad-revenues that it can get from the traffic.
Advertisers – More reliance upon Google as traffic.
Why is Google doing this now?

Google has been leading up to this over the years, and we’ve known for some time it wants to get to the point of being able to answer questions effectively. It now has a better understanding of semantic search than ever and is ready to launch... 

In addition, Google needs to continue to grow its advertising revenue in order to deliver a growth in shareholder value. We know that whilst the volume of searches across most markets is increasing, the volume of ‘monetisable’ search is not growing at the same rate.

One way of driving revenue growth in line with market expectations could be to open up new or alternative CPM based revenue streams within the ‘answer’ space.

*This blog post was written by both David Towers (Head of SEO) and Greg Shickle (Head of Performance Media) at MEC UK.

David Towers is SEO Manager at MEC Manchester and a guest blogger on Econsultancy.

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