Google Launches “Universal Search” & Blended Results
Google is undertaking the most radical change to its search results ever,
introducing a “Universal Search” system that will blend listings from its news,
video, images, local and book search engines among those it gathers from
crawling web pages.
The new system officially rolls out today for anyone using Google.com and
searching in English. Not everyone will see it at first, but over the course of
the next several days, Universal Search should be more, well, universal. A new
navigational interface has also been unveiled for Google and is covered more in
the companion piece to this article,
Navigational Links: An Illustrated Guide.
The move potentially should be a huge boon for searchers, while search
marketers who have paid attention to the importance of specialized or vertical
search will see new opportunities. To fully explain the importance to both
groups, I’m going to work step-by-step through the concept of vertical search
engines, how they’re often ignored by searchers and search marketers alike, then
how Google is going to make this content more visible through Universal Search.
As this is a long article, here are jumps to specific sections, should you
wish to skip ahead:
- What The Hell Is Vertical Search?
- Making Vertical Search Visible
- More Than A OneBox To Me & Book Search Blending
- News & Local Blending
- Single Listing Vs. Multiple Listing Replacement
- Video Blending & Video Meta Search
- Image Blending & Multiple Blends
- And Web Search Is….?
- Impact On Searchers & Search Marketers
I hate the term vertical search. I routinely ask audiences if they understand
what it means, and significant numbers don’t. I prefer the term specialized
search or specialty search, but the financial community in particular has
popularized the use of “vertical” search. Let me explain the concept.
Regular search — when you go to Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Ask or any
general-purpose search engine — is a “horizontal” search in that you are
searching across a wide spectrum of material. Information from sports sites,
news sites, medical sites, shopping sites — the entire horizontal spectrum of
topics is represented.
With vertical search, you slice down vertically through one topic area. You
search only against the news sites or against the medical information, for
example. This type of focus can make for more relevant results.
Need help on fixing windows in your house?
Search on that
horizontally, and information about the Windows operating system might dominate
the listings, simply because there’s so much about Windows out there. Try using
a vertical search engine that only has home improvement information, and
information about repairing the type of windows you look out of should become
much more visible and relevant.
Sadly, many people are unaware of the vertical search resources that are out
there. Indeed, Google has long put links to its vertical search services above
the search box on its home page. First they were in the form of “tabs,” then
later as regular links that currently promote that you can vertically search for
images, or video, or news, or maps or in
many more specialized areas.
To really understand all the vertical searches Google itself runs, consider
- Code Search
“You almost need a search engine for all our search engines,” said Google’s
Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience, in talking
with me about today’s Universal Search news. “We’re so excited about taking all
these different silos of information and making them all into one.”
Certainly the home page links haven’t worked to expose the vertical richness.
Few searchers use those links. Test this yourself.
Ask someone if they know what those links do. Quite often, they’ll tell you no
– in fact, that they’ve not seen them before. I’ve shown people how do to an
image search using them and literally gotten gasps of astonishment in response.
These people had no idea you could search and get back actual images.
I’ve long written about this problem and described the solution as “invisible
tabs.” From my
article on the topic back in December 2003:
Many people simply
do not see or use tabs, just like they regularly ignore drop down boxes, radio
buttons and any type of other option you put out. Search engines have told me
this over the years, and I also see it first hand….
The solution to
tab blindness is clearly for me and an army of other search educators to head
out and teach people how to use tabs! Naturally, that’s not going to happen.
No, the solution really is for the search engines to make use of “invisible
tabs,” where they make the correct choice for the user, behind the scenes.
This is what Google is doing with Universal Search. Google’s hitting several
of its vertical search services all at once, then bringing back those results to
blend in with “regular” results.
Hasn’t Google been already making vertical results available through those
OneBox displays that appear at the top of some search results? Yes, but
Universal Search is going beyond that. Let’s look at Google Book Search to
Google Book Search is Google’s
vertical search engine that lets you find matching pages within books that it
has scanned. Curious about that part in Tom Sawyer where he was whitewashing the
fence? Enter tom
sawyer fence, and Google Book Search tells you it’s on
page 22 of one edition of Mark Twain’s classic novel.
So, Google Book Search lets you look within the content of books, but only if
you specifically know to use that search engine. Most people just turn to
Google’s regular search. That’s why Google tries to remind you there’s more than
web search using OneBox displays like this:
See how the arrow is pointing at book search matches? This little section is
called a OneBox, and it sits above and separate from the 10 “regular” search
results that come from Google’s crawling of the web. This is effectively Google
saying “Hey! We’ve got a book search engine with matches for this. You might
want to check the results there!”
If you did click through, you’d then search just against the book content and
get back matching book pages, like this:
Some people skip past the OneBox prompts because they look weird compared
to the “real” results. However, Mayer said the bigger issue was that OneBoxes were “clunky”
and often not as relevant as the results coming below them.
For example, Mayer said that the first result in Google might get clicked on
more than a third of the time out of all the clicks on that page. In fact,
Google’s search quality team makes it a goal to try and make that first result
as relevant as possible. In contrast, the OneBox insertions get clicked on less
despite getting prime placement on the page, since they aren’t as relevant.
Universal Search aims to fix this through blending. With Universal Search,
Google will hit a range of its vertical search engines, then decide if the
relevancy of a result from book search is higher than a match from web page
search. (FYI, Infoseek got
a patent related to this type of blending back in 1997; See also: Google’s Universal Search
Patent Application & Assigned Patents from Infoseek from SEO By The Sea).
If so, a web page result might get dropped and a book search result
inserted. That means instead of a OneBox, book results will begin showing up in
Google search like this:
See how this is the same page listed at the top of Google Book Search, when I
did a specific search there. This screenshot from Google illustrates how in the
future, that “book page” will just get mixed in among the web pages of regular
Of course, Google already does this with some of its other properties. For
So mixing in book search results isn’t quite as radical as it sounds on the
face of it. On the other hand, listings from the services above are getting in
because they’re part of the web page index, as best I can tell. Rather than
replacing a web page listing, as Universal Search does with book search, they’ll
be part of web search (and potentially one of the listings that might get kicked
out to make room for material from a vertical resource).
FYI, the OneBoxes aren’t dead, not even for cases where Universal Search is
in place. In other words, you might still see a news OneBox or a Books OneBox.
While the OneBox hasn’t entirely gone away, it has been replaced in many
cases by blended results in relevant positions. As we continue development,
we’ll continue to evolve our use of both the OneBox and blended results to
deliver the most relevant results.
I’ve covered how book search results will be blended. Let’s turn next to news
and local result blending, since they work in similar ways.
Here’s how news results currently get inserted:
As Universal Search rolls out this week, that OneBox display will get
replaced, with news material blended like this:
Similarly, local search results are being integrated. Before Universal
Search, a OneBox would display them like this:
With Universal Search, they’re blended like this:
(NOTE: I’ve updated and clarified this section since Universal Search went
With the news blending example above, Google dropped only one of its usual
web page listings to insert either a news unit. That unit can move around, by
the way. It might be at the top of the page, somewhere in the middle or even at
the end, based on wherever Google determines it will be most relevant related to
the other listings. But what it is NOT supposed to be is positioned outside the
regular 10 results in the way the OneBoxes have historically been. Instead,
these units take one of the 10 regular positions.
With the local blending example, you can see that three web page results have
been removed to make room for the three local listings along with the map. But
sometimes, only one local listing will show. Google told me:
For the time-being, three local results are taking the place of three web
results for result sets that trigger a grouped local UI. This happens only to
categorical use cases (e.g.
dental school), where a group is appropriate. When there’s just one
navigational result, like
siam royal palo
alto, there’s only one local result displacing one web result. While there
are no immediate plans to change this, it could happen over time.
Google’s not taking the more dramatic step of simply replacing the bulk of
the 10 web page listings with news or local material, even if a query might
indicate this makes sense. For example, a search for
new york hotels
is pretty local oriented. Why not shift over to showing a
full page of
local results? Or if there’s a breaking news event, say with the Virginia
shooting, most people searching under that term probably would be better served
by getting many more actual news results than shown in a single unit.
There’s nothing new about Google listing links to video content in its
regular search results, including links to pages in Google-owned Google Video
and YouTube. However, Universal Search is changing things. Instead of
considering that content as part of its web pages index, Universal Search will
run a video search query across an enhanced version of Google Video.
What’s enhanced? Google Video is morphing into a meta video search site,
similar to how Blinkx
operates. Eventually, Google Video will list content that’s hosted at Google
Video, YouTube or anywhere on the web.
Today, Google Video itself will remain
listing only Google Video and YouTube content. The enhanced version will only be
accessible through Universal Search. In the near future, Google Video itself
will shift over.
As for that video content, unlike with news and local, more than one blended
results might appear. For video content outside of Google Video and YouTube, the
display will be like this:
Content on Google’s own video hosting services will look like this:
See the little + Watch Video part in the listing? That’s a video
Plus Box, which have been
spotted in the past.
Now they are being formalized. Clicking on that will open up the video and let
you watch it within the search results, like this:
After years of people ignoring tabs and links designed to get them to do
specialized searches, Google is taking the plunge to push the right buttons
behind the scenes and make specialized or vertical search results part of the
For some searches, matches from Google Image Search will appear. Unlike the
other blending, these will NOT take the place of one of the 10 regular listings.
They were found to be too disruptive that way, Mayer said. Instead, those deemed
to be of high relevancy will appear at the top of results, while those that are
important but perhaps not as relevant will be shown at the bottom.
It’s also important to note that blending may happen from one or more of the
vertical search engines. For example, Mayer talked about a search for Steve Jobs
where pictures of him would be on top, news in the middle and a video clip at
One thing that’s slightly confusing is that Universal Search will continue to
be labeled as “Web” on the search results page. OK, most of the content is
coming from web-based sources (Book Search is the key exception). But aside from
these vertical search databases, there also remains a WEB PAGE database, what
Google originally started with and what remains the core to everything else. I
almost wish Google had labeled this “All” or “Everything” search, so that
Web search could be a specific drill-down option for those specifically after
web page content.
Overall, I think this is a great move for Google to make, assuming the actual
implementation works. Mayer was at pains to explain this is the start of
Universal Search, and that Google expect to refine and adjust things going
forward. It should be helpful to searchers who have simply continued to ignore
vertical search properties and miss out on good content within them.
As for search marketers, I’ve written for years that there were to two major
changes coming for search engines: personalization of results and the growth of
As a search engine marketer, the implementation of invisible tabs means
that traffic from organic web page listings will diminish over time. The more
specialty databases are implemented, the less traffic will fall to web search
That needn’t be a problem. The skilled search engine marketer’s most
important asset is understanding how search engines get various types of
listings, then helping their clients enter the appropriate databases. Think
beyond web page databases, and you’ll be prepared for the future.
Vertical search is important
because it’s one of the two major things I’ve long talked about as being how
search will advance. First generation search analyzed words on a page to rank
content. Second generation search tapped into link analysis. Third generation
search to me is looking at both user input (what we visit; what we click on;
personalized results) and making search go more vertical.
Why the generational jumps at
all? To improve relevancy. Each generation has fought the double challenge of
being overwhelmed by increasing amounts of information to organize plus having
ranking systems become more and more vulnerable to manipulation and outright
Google’s now done both now within the space of weeks, moved forward on the
personalized and vertical fronts.
Google Ramps Up
Personalized Search and
Google Search History
Expands, Becomes Web History cover key things that both marketers and
searchers need to understand, on the personalized from. As for verticals –
search marketers must understand that the supremacy of web page search just took
a major hit. Web pages will still draw traffic — still plenty of traffic. But
vertical search databases offer what remains a largely unexplored and ignored
frontier. Pay attention to them, at Google and elsewhere.
See further discussion on Universal Search via Techmeme
here, and Gary
Price at ResourceShelf has a nice look at “federated” or blended search from
other players in
Let’s Talk Metasearch, Federated Search, or Universal Search.
Postscript, January 2008: Be sure to read Google Universal Search: 2008 Edition on how Google Universal Search has continued to evolved.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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