Google Universal Search Expands

It’s just over a half-year since Google launched Universal Search, its method of blending results from its own various topically-focused or “vertical” search engines. Since that time, the system has evolved. In particular, Google Universal Search now fills more than just 10 spots on the page, while shopping and blog search results are among new resources being included. Below, a look at these and related changes.

The Big Picture: Comparative Ranking & Blending

With Universal Search, Google promised that two major things would happen:

  • Comparative Ranking
  • Blending

Before Universal Search, Google gave a list of 10 web search results — the best 10 selected by measuring those pages against all the web pages in the Google index of billions. Separately, Google decided if other information should be added to the search results page using different mechanisms.

For example, if you got web search results with news headlines above them, the headlines did NOT appear because Google tried to determine if the news results were more relevant than the web search results. It gave you web results, and a different process independently decided if news results should be added.

Universal search changed this. In it, Google said that web search results were measured directly against other types of search results, such as images or news. If those results were deemed more relevant than web search, then they’d be added to the page. That’s the comparative ranking part.

Google also typically would take away a web search listing if comparative ranking decided that a vertical search listing should go on the page. That’s the blending part. For example, news results might instead be “blended” within the regular 10 listings area, perhaps at position four, or six, or wherever, rather than always being put at the top.

Comparative Ranking Sources Expand & Blending No Longer Subtracts

When Universal Search launched, comparative ranking ran against these vertical or specialized search engines as well as web search:

  1. Web Search
  2. Book Search
  3. Images
  4. Local/Maps
  5. News
  6. Video

Since around December, Google says two more vertical search engines have been added to the list:

  1. Blog Search
  2. Product Search

As for blending, also toward the end of last year, this changed. No longer was it a case of a one-to-one replacement, where a web search listing had to go away to make room for a vertical search listings. That can still happen, but it’s also the case that blending can mean adding vertical results to the web search results, without taking some of the web search listings away.

Revisiting Blending: Local Search

It’s easiest to explain some of the blending changes with real examples, so let’s take a look. I’ll start with a local search, for new york dental schools. When that search was done after Universal Search first rolled out, the results looked like this:

Google Universal Search: Old Local OneBox

As you can see, they were positioned at the top of the page. Immediately after Universal Search, they might still appear at the top of the page, but they also sometimes go blended further down, like this:

Google Universal Search: Blended Local

Notice how the local search box is in the middle of the page? That’s because, at the time, Google decided that after looking at all the various vertical and web search results, local results were fourth in overall relevancy.

In addition, if you could see the entire page, you’d notice that there are 10 listings in all. The first three are above the local listings, then the A, B, & C listings next to the local box counted as results 4 through 6. After the box, there were four more listings — 10 in all. The local listings caused three of the web search listings to get removed.

Here’s how it looks today:

Google Universal Search: Local

Super-Size My Blended Results

Notice how there are 10 local listings at the top (a recent change from the three local listings that used to be shown), followed by 10 web search listings after that. That’s 20 listings in all. In “traditional” Universal Search, there should only be 10. But traditional is gone. Google now will super-size the results and go beyond 10, if it feels that’s appropriate. Said David Bailey, tech lead for Google, on Universal Search:

We’ve found there are times when an individual result from one of our verticals simply belongs amongst the main list of results, with little fuss made about how it’s different. Other times, what’s important is that there’s a bunch of relevant content from that vertical, and in those cases we think of it as a search refinement option that’s enhanced with a results preview, and so it’s shown in addition to the main list rather than displacing results from it.

It’s not just local results that may get added to the results page, without taking away web search results. Other vertical search results get added as well, as will be seen further below.

Blended Means Top, Bottom & In Between!

Did you notice the local search results are back at the top of the page, just like they often appeared before Universal Search rolled out? Seeing it there, you might wonder what happened to all that “blending” that supposedly was going on.

Johanna Wright, who heads up Google’s search user interface group, says that removing a web search result and blending a vertical listing into the top 10 list will still happen. But she also stressed that blending also means putting vertical content on the page in addition to the list, perhaps at the top and bottom, especially if users will react to certain types of content better there:

If we think we need to call something out, we say “Hey, look at news, images, books” [by inserted at the top or bottom]. If we think ranking makes more sense, then we don’t do the call out [and results are blended].

With local search, a display at the top of the web search results is most common. However, sometimes a local search unit will be interleaved into the top 10 web listings, taking the place of one of them.

More Examples: Image Search Blending

Let’s see some more examples of Universal Search in action. Here’s a search for subway pictures:

Google Universal Search: Images

As you can see, Universal Search is putting the images at the top of the page. On rare occasions, I’ve seen image search results come at the bottom. But top display pretty much seems standard. In addition, image search always seems to be additive — i.e., you get image search results, plus 10 other results — 11 listings, in all (or 13 listings, if you count each image shown as a separate listing).

News Search Blending

How about news? Like image search, you’ll often see it at the top, as with this search for interest rates:

Google Universal Search: News

As with image search, the news box is additive — you get it in addition to 10 other listings. But the placement isn’t always the same. Consider a search for stock crash:

Google Universal Search: News

Here, the news box comes in position four. But despite the blending, the box remains additive. Count all the unpaid listings, including the news box, and you’ll see there are 11 in all. In “old” universal search, there would have been only 10.

Book Search Blending

Book Search blending is difficult for me to show, because it simply doesn’t seem to be working consistently. Consider these searches that I thought would have brought up some Google Book Search content:

The last one DID bring up Google Book Search results when I last looked at Universal Search, and the others are all places I’d have expected it to kick in. Google’s chalked it up to data center issues, though Search Engine Land contributing editor Greg Sterling had problems seeing Google Book Search blending in California just as I did when I was searching from the UK.

Google says that book search results will sometimes be blended by taking away a web search listing, such as with how to draw birds or kinakuta palawan borneo. Other times, a special book search box makes more sense to appear at the top of results (as with toni morrison) or at the bottom (as with differential equations).

Video Search: Fully Blended

Half-a-year on, it is video search results that are the most “blended” in terms of being mixed among web search results in the top ten list. Consider this search for diet coke and mentos:

Google Universal Search: Video

Everywhere you see a thumbnail image, that’s a video result pulled from Google Video. In addition, these results are subtractive. For any video listing coming from Google Video, a web search result is pulled and replaced. Count them up, and you’ll see there are 10 results in all.

As with the launch of Google Universal Search, you can play video right within the search results, if that video is hosted by Google-owned YouTube or Google Video. You just click on the + symbol next to the words “Watch video” to open up the player:

Google Universal Search: Video

Video not hosted by Google still cannot be played inline. Why not? Said Google:

We’re still streaming only Google Video and YouTube content because that remains the best way for us to ensure a certain quality of experience for users.

Also, back when Google Universal Search launched, we covered then and in follow-ups like Google Video Morphs Further Into New Video Meta Search Role how Google Video was listing video content from across the web, rather than just from Google. Since then, Google Video now encompasses hundreds of sources for video content, Google said.

Product Search: Top & Bottom

Product search is one of the two new additions to Universal Search. Product search unites may appear at the top of the page like this for toshiba m500:

Google Universal Search: Products

Alternatively, if not deemed as relevant as other listings but still important, they may come at the bottom like this for tomtom 720:

Google Universal Search: Products

Blog Search At The Bottom

Blog search is the other new addition to Universal Search. Google says that right now, blog search will always appear at the bottom of the page, like this for stock market:

Google Universal Search: Blogs

Blog & Being Fresh In General

Results in the Blog Search box come from Google Blog Search, which can pull content from a submitted feed in within seconds, if you’ve pinged the service. That means when the box appears on the Google search results page through Universal Search, Google can seem very fresh.

Of course, even without the box, Google has gotten fresher. Certain blog home pages are regularly crawled independently of Google Blog Search, just as there are news sources and even ordinary web sites that are subject to rapid crawling and insertion into the index.

Many SEOs will know Google has various crawlers using names corresponding to services like news or blog search, as well as Googlebot for the general crawl. But actually, all these crawlers are part of the same centralized system. They may report different names, but the content all generally flows back into Google’s index to be sliced and diced as appropriate.

The centralized system will hit news sites frequently, because that’s what you need to do to keep news content fresh. Blog search continues to take in only whatever is put out in a feed, so that it doesn’t have complete information for sites that use partial feeds. Pages like this only get updated when a regular crawl happens.

That regular crawl, however, can be faster for sites that Google has either algorithmically or with human review decided should be part of its “instant layer.” These are sites where pages are fully crawled within hours or less of posting. For example, here’s a page we wrote about on the Google Oogle Sari that is showing up only a few hours after being posted:

Google Universal Search: Freshness

You can see in the description that it was found six hours ago, at the time I did the search — and it was probably showing up well before that.

Minty Fresh Indexing from Matt Cutts and Finding fresh results from the Official Google Blog talked in the middle of last year about the freshness change. Some seeing this have mistakenly assumed that the entire Google index is refreshed within minutes. It’s not — they’re fast, but not refresh tens-of-billions of documents in minutes fast!

Blended Weirdness

So far, I’ve shown examples of one type of vertical result being blended. More than that can flow in. Consider this search for newport beach pictures:

Google Universal Search: Multiple Blends

In it, you can see how image search comes first, followed by local results, followed by 10 web search results. That’s three types of content blended, with 12 to 16 listing in all, depending on if you count each image and each local search result as a separate listing.

Now consider this search for tom sawyer:

Google Universal Search: Multiple Blends

In position three, you’ll see a blended video result. Then at the bottom, there are news archive results. Google News Archive search is NOT part of Google News Search and is NOT part of the Universal Search blending system. So, what’s it doing there? And what about things like this, where for gwen stefani discography, a Google Music unit appears:

Google Music Search

Where Have All The OneBoxes Gone?

In the past, I would have called the examples above of Google Music Search and Google News Archives “OneBoxes” and pointed to this reference in the Google home page to explain them more:

Google OneBox Results

H. OneBox results Google’s search technology finds many sources of specialized information. Those that are most relevant to your search are included at the top of your search results. Typical OneBox results include news, stock quotes, weather and local websites related to your search.

However, that explanation of what OneBoxes are was last seen in May, before Universal Search rolled out. Today, it’s been replaced with this:

Google Integrated Results

H. Integrated results Google’s search technology searches across all types of content and ranks the results that are most relevant to your search. Your results may be from multiple content types, including images, news, books, maps, and videos.

So, are OneBoxes gone? Are these things part of Universal Search too?

No, they’re not. Again, Universal Search only pulls content from these sources and decides if, when, and how to blend into the page:

  1. Web Search
  2. Book Search
  3. Images
  4. Local/Maps
  5. News
  6. Video
  7. Blog Search
  8. Product Search

Beyond these, Google has other vertical search engines and special features such as flight tracking, weather conditions, and more. These continue to be placed on the page according to decisions made by other search algorithms.

Who Cares How It’s Blended?

Does it matter? To the searcher, probably not. Said Wright:

From my perspective, I think of this all as universal search, where we try to get the best stuff on the page. We look at all the backends, deciding how to blend and where to order it.

In general, I agree with Wright. Universal Search is a good term to apply to the entire concept that Google is blending a lot of different information into a single search results page. And as long as the searcher gets a page that seems relevant, they don’t care how it is done.

But for the hard-core searcher and search marketer, it’s has been helpful to know what’s been coming off Universal Search when it was in a more “subtractive mode” in the past — when it would take away web search results and replace them with vertical listings.

Now that this has largely changed, the main reason to still know if it is Universal Search actually in action is that Google itself made a fairly big deal on how smart Universal Search is in terms of comparative ranking.

Before Universal Search and the blended search / Search 3.0 era, search engines were already blending vertical results and shortcuts above regular listings or in other places on the page. Google said Universal Search was going a step beyond and making comparative relevancy decision across multiple data sources. But competitors pushed back that Universal Search wasn’t so smart. To understand, consider what I wrote about video blending at Google, which is most noticeable because of the thumbnails:

It’s also something that has Google competitors upset. They show video content that’s listed on web pages in their regular search results. Adding thumbnails and enhancing these “web” listings wouldn’t be difficult. So they don’t see what Google is doing as that unique. Yahoo says ‘Been there, done that’ to Google redesign from gets into this more.

For its part, Google has explained that it is not simply flagging video on web pages for enhancement. It stresses that it is searching against an entirely different video database to decide of the results there are of greater relevance than a web page listing. If so, the web page listing gets yanked. That is more sophisticated — yet the end results might not be that different than just inserting thumbnails for web pages that you can tell also have video.

Who Cares How It’s Blended?

Even though web search results are no longer being yanked or removed as much as in the past, Google stresses that Universal Search is still indeed smart and in action guiding all types of blending. It also stressed that the exact nature of blending is likely to continue evolving. Some of this is even already seen in tests that were spotted late last year, where vertical results were showing up in a right column, similar to how Google’s test bed SearchMash operates, not to mention the Ask3D display that Ask moved to last year. Said Wright of the changes and evolutions:

The top ten list may not support all of them [vertical search results that Google wants to display]. We’re ready to bust through with more types of content, and the current user interface might need to change to support them. We’re experimenting with right-hand side placement as you noted, as well as other ideas coming down the pike. While we don’t know exactly how it will evolve, we’re quite sure that there will remain a strong ranking component to the choice and layout of groups on the page, especially as we continue to increase coverage for many of the verticals.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: Maps & Local | Google: OneBox, Plus Box & Direct Answers | Google: Universal Search | Google: User Interface


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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