Is Google Universal Search A Walled Garden?

Although Google Universal Search (GUS) is still very much in flux, it’s been a part of the SEO landscape for a while now. In that time, there have been some good studies about how often GUS presents video results, and some research into how it ranks videos versus text pages.

One aspect of GUS that’s been mentioned anecdotally is its preference for videos hosted by other Google properties: YouTube and Google Video. A few explanations have been offered for this behavior:

1) Google Video and YouTube have the largest archive of videos on the Web, so the odds of these two sites having a relevant video in their inventory is much higher than for other portals.

2) The indexing technology behind GUS has to be custom-tuned for each video portal, and naturally the Google properties are the best understood by GUS developers.

3) The YouTube and Google Video pages were designed from the start with search engines in mind, and so they are easier to index.

These all sound very reasonable. Yet there’s another possibility:

4) Google may be cultivating a walled garden, where searchers are kept in the system to keep spinning the turnstiles and create more ad revenue.

But before we label them with a scarlet G, let’s take a look at some Universal Search results and see what portion of video listings actually come from Google properties.

Did someone say scarlett?

To see what GUS’s preferences are, let’s choose a list of search terms that are likely to result in GUS-driven video listings. Celebrities are a natural, and I hit the jackpot at UGO: The 50 Hottest Actresses Under 25. Everyone on this list should be well represented in the video portals. And just to be sure, I appended “…video” to each name before running the searches. Including Ms. Johansson.

Video portals indexed in Google Universal Search

This translates into a very typical SEO competitor analysis: there are 17 non-Google portals competing against the two Google properties for video listings in Universal Search. We looked at the top three pages in search results for each of the 50 actresses.


Surprisingly, even for up-to-the-minute pop culture searches, only 7 of the 17 competing portals displayed any results in GUS. Let’s take a closer look at the resulting chart.

Top Video Portals in Google Universal Search

Two sets of figures are represented. The height of the bars indicates the number of listings each portal received, out of 50 actress/video searches. Taller bars mean better coverage. The numbers shown on each bar represent the average position that these listings achieved in search results – lower numbers mean higher rankings and better visibility.

Take a minute to review this, and you’ll see that it’s a mixed bag. Looking just at the bars, YouTube performs the best, but not by an astounding margin.

Look at the average ranking numbers, and the difference is more dramatic. YouTube is leaps and bounds ahead of any rival, with a killer combination of higher rankings and broader coverage.

Google Video is another story: for this class of search terms, this property doesn’t offer much.


  • The range of content being indexed is playing a role here: many portals aren’t displaying any results, even for these very specific searches. This could be due to indexing problems, or a simple lack of inventory.
  • There’s clear support for the perception that YouTube dominates GUS video listings.
  • The very high average ranking for YouTube definitely raises an eyebrow. It’s pretty clear that even if Google’s algorithm is being objective, it’s been trained to respond to the characteristics that YouTube has in spades. It’s debatable whether this is a “bias” or just good design – take a Sphinn and let me know what you think…

Sherwood Stranieri is Director of Natural Search at SMG Search, a dedicated search unit of Starcom MediaVest Group. Based in Chicago, SMG Search creates integrated search strategies for some of the world’s largest companies. The Video Search column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Video | Search Engines: Video Search Engines | Video Search


About The Author: runs Skypromote, an SEO agency in Boston and NYC, and has been doing search since 1998. You can follow him on Twitter @SherwoodSEO.

Connect with the author via: Email


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.

Comments are closed.


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide