A few weeks ago we covered news from the Wall Street Journal in their article Google Gives Search a Refresh.
“The changes to search are among the biggest in the company’s history and could affect millions of websites that rely on Google’s current page-ranking results.”
Given that site owners might be expecting earth shattering changes and potentially destructive effects on their rankings and traffic, I thought I’d take a look at what we might expect.
The piece is based on comments from Amit Singhal and says that Google isn’t replacing it’s current search system. It mentions developments that sparked a fair bit of chatter about how big a deal this will be. The 3 things I’d like to pick out from the WSJ article are these:
- Semantic search
- Named entities
- Presenting more than a list of blue links
The first two sound pretty scary and this is where a lot of the debate has focused for the last few weeks. Semantic search basically refers to trying to understand the meaning behind terms, their context and searcher intent, as opposed to just understanding keywords and looking for matches. The named entities bit is suggesting that Google will change what it presents for certain queries. Instead of just looking for keyword matches on websites, it will consider it’s database of named entities (people, or places or things) and return information on that entity.
So how big a deal is this?
The first thing to say is that if you are in SEO, neither semantic search or named entities should be new to you.
In 2003, Google merged with a company called Applied Semantics a developer of “meaning-based” search technology. The approach from Applied Semantics uses combinations of related terms to attempt to find relevant results for a query phrase. Google has also filed patents based on phrase based indexing techniques that consider things like clusters of co-existing phrases and how they can help determine between different meanings. Google’s work on better understanding search terms, their intents and the relationships between them has been ongoing for many years. Even if you are not an avid researcher of Google’s patent filings, you’ve noticed search suggestions and Adwords broad matching.
Named entities are not a new concept either. Google has attempted to detect them and link them with particular pages and has altered its results based on that information.
Is this just old news then?
The quick answer to that is no. I have a bad feeling about this.
Looking at named entities as an example, the WSJ piece talks about presenting users with facts and figures about “Lake Tahoe” instead of just a link to the visitor information center. It talks about how semantic search can help Google draw connections between Google the company and it’s founders (named entities). What this comes down to is that the major change is likely to be the third in our list, i.e. presentation.
Presenting more than just a list of blue links
We assume they have been deepening their use of semantic search and any tactics they can find to better understand queries, intents and relationships between phrases and concepts. Maybe they’ve gone another step and maybe not. We know they have been recognizing named entities and altering search pages based on that knowledge. What they are about to do that could screw your site, though, is mess with their results page again.
Consider eye-tracking data from SEOmoz:
It shows the impact of the addition of Google Places results on the traditional dominance the top results have on our attention.
The point is that changes to the presentation of results can have a huge impact. Even if they don’t make any change to where you rank in the main results they can vastly change the VALUE of where you rank. How will Google mix its results and its Google+ information and its new data on named entities? Who knows but my bet is they won’t do it well and it could hurt.
While we are on this subject, spare a thought for the websites that provide that data on “Lake Tahoe”. No more visits for you, cause Google has already answered the question before they got to your site.
Google Places, product search, Google+ and this development. They’ve all attempted to serve more and more of the information you look for from Google properties. All taken more space from the traditional search results to replace them with links to Google data. They’ve all had impacts on the traffic of websites for the queries they have been shown for. Expect more of this.
Personally I hate this trend. Not as an SEO. As a marketer, it is my job to roll with whatever punches come my way. As a user, I hate it. A search engine is there for me to find websites. That’s its job and Google moves away from that core function at its peril. I don’t want Google to answer questions for me (unless I ask it to, I suppose). I want to find out what the web says about something. I want to find an authoritative resource or the Lake Tahoe visitor center website or a shop that sells the shoes I’m looking for. There have been answer engines before, how much traffic do they have? I hate this trend as a user and I can only hope that other users agree because the web needs a search engine not just an ad platform full of other people’s content.