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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Google Hurdles Headlong Into Real-Time Search

As widely reported in connection with their Searchology event, Google has introduced a feature to allow you to set the results to display "past 24 hours" (similar in a way to the feeling you would get searching Twitter, or Google News by recency). As the screen shot below shows, that same pane opens up a variety of other advanced search options. Once viewing recent results, you can switch the sorting mechanism away from "by relevancy," to "most recent."


In Marissa Mayer's and Jack Menzel's post about the new features, they also allude to the increased use of "rich snippets" to display review content graphically, for example. (Similar to Yahoo's Searchmonkey initiative.)

These developments open up a new type of search behavior - further solidifying the notion that many different users will see more and more different results pages with content differently ordered. Although not unfolding exactly as described long ago in these pages, the principle of users taking charge of the "algorithm" (or at least becoming more comfortable with displaying search results in a form that is more useful to them) is gradually taking hold.

An excerpt from Traffick's post in 2004:

So that's the future as this glassy-eyed pundit hopes to see it: a search engine that works like a sophisticated flight simulator, with a bunch of dials and instruments formerly available only to classified personnel. But to the extent that your settings become comfortable to you, it would be a flight simulator operated largely on autopilot. Now that would be one sweet ride!

Keep in mind, though, that at that time, Marissa Mayer flatly stated in a Q&A at SES that hardly any users wanted to use advanced features. What seems to have happened is that Google sometimes believes behavioral data about what people actually do, rather than looking at possibilities that don't show up in straightforward tests. As such, Google can be a reactive company despite its labs and vast resources. No one would debate that the current focus on real-time search and rich snippets was moved up on Google's agenda by the popularity of Twitter and Yelp, and flashes of innovation shown by competitors like (yes) Yahoo.

Reactive business, arguably, is smart business. Who, after all, could have predicted the Twitter phenomenon?

Takeaways for search marketers, aka business owners thinking about their search visibility:

1. Marissa is right: a small percentage of users access advanced search features. That will continue to be the case. 85% or more of searchers will continue just typing words into toolbars, the search box, or the address bar, and "play around." Only a small percentage will be using the advanced features.

1A. As such, fresh content and the like matters, but don't be obsessed with the idea purely for the algorithm's sake. 100% of users aren't going to be switching on the Twitterizer when they perform a search on Google.

2. That said, Google may begin to infer your preferences and turn those features on for you, or flash different types of content in oneboxes and so on. SERP's will look different for every user. The notion of where your company ranks on certain keywords becomes ever more fluid. More sophisticated assessments of search referral analytics are a must to gain insight into your user behavior (but then again, you'll need to think about how to gain insight into the users who aren't finding you, and figure out why).

3. A diversity of content production and community-facing PR strategies are needed to be seen by a variety of searchers. Algorithm-literal SEO strategies are dying. Comprehensive SEO strategies are on the rise. And in contrast to the awkwardly-named Orion Panel we're putting together for SES Toronto in June (Is PageRank Broken? The Future of Search), PageRank is not broken per se. It's just becoming increasingly irrelevant. (The name of the panel is my fault.)

4. The more things change... the more they stay the same
: The ads always seem to stay prominent, don't they? Google doesn't seem to be sweating about the revenue impact of making changes to how search functions.

Not a takeaway, but fascinating anyway: it's even more interesting today to ponder who is going to acquire Twitter (Microsoft or Google), or whether they can really stick it out alone. Does Google not want Twitter? Does Twitter not want Google? Does the world not want Twitter inside Google? Are they haggling on price or not talking? Are you as curious as I am?

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