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Search – New Rules for the Same Old Game

With so much publisher focus now centred on apps and paywalls, it is tempting to think of ‘search’ as so last decade. Surely, it’s one less thing to worry about? This would be a mistake, writes Amanda Watlington, because the search game continues to evolve, and you need to keep abreast of it.

By Amanda Watlington

In the twenty years since the first search engines came online, search has experienced explosive growth, but the task of finding information has remained the same. Today, the web is estimated to be 3.6 billion pages and is still growing at a robust rate. The search indices which once could be hosted on single servers in academic institutions now require immense server farms to manage and maintain them. The monetary value attributed to the task of finding information has escalated. Technological advances such as mobile computing have made search an integral part of the consumer’s life. Search still fulfils the same basic function directing users to desired information. The task has stayed the same, but a labyrinth of rules has grown governing those marketing using organic and paid search. These rules imposed by the search engines through their algorithms and business practices heavily impact the success of businesses using search in their marketing portfolio. In today’s monetised search environment, for successful marketing it is essential to understand the consumer’s intent for each search query and how search engines adjust their results according to what type of information the searcher is seeking. Marketers have drawn a finer point on this by categorising searches as navigational, informational, and transactional.

Navigational Queries and the Shrinking Search Page

As each type of query is better understood, new rules and practices have emerged. Take as an example the navigational query. A navigational query is a query entered with the intent of finding a particular website or webpage. For example, an individual who types ‘InPublishing magazine’ into the Google query box is already familiar with the publication and is using the search engine query box as a proxy for typing in the exact URL. The user wants the search engine to help navigate to a very specific page – the home page for this publication. It was once assumed that these queries were largely the result of individuals mistaking the query box for the browser. In all fairness, this level of web naiveté is not the main driver of this behaviour. Many companies have web URLs that do not match their company names. Using a search engine to find the business is a timesaver for the user. Users on mobile devices are heavily dependent on navigational queries to find addresses of businesses they already know.

Navigational searches play an important role in directing users to your site. To assist consumers in making the desired connection in the midst of a cluttered search landscape, it is highly recommended that businesses consider buying their own name in paid search. This is reassuring for the consumer and has a high rate of return for the business. In attributing and accounting for the results, it should be noted that these navigational searches are not necessarily new prospects; otherwise, how would they know what business to look for.

Google has recognised the value and frequency of navigational searches and has subsequently reduced the number of search engine results that it delivers for queries that it deems to be navigational. This recent change has effectively reduced the number of page one organic search opportunities by 5%. As more users turn to smaller devices, mobile phones and tablets, they need, want and expect to find the desired information within the first few search results presented. By reducing the number of possible entries on the page, Google believes that it makes the user’s quest more manageable. It makes the marketer’s job a lot harder, for it increases the value and scarcity of page one listings. This also makes it imperative to have a strong branded presence on the web. Along with the reduction of listings on the page, Google now clusters results from any one site using Sitelinks. Astute marketers must carefully monitor and manage these links through the Webmaster Tools provided by Google.

Even with the shortened number of links on the search results page, it is still possible to seize a substantial number of listings by having all of your social media branded. With your Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Wikipedia accounts branded, they will then show up on the branded navigational searches. Publishers with multiple properties should carefully brand each publication on these social media so that all of the accounts for each publication will show up in response to navigational queries. This call for strong branding may seem old fashioned, but the truth of the matter is that you are known by your brand even to search engines.

The categorisation of navigational queries is not foolproof. There is still considerable potential for confusion. For example, a navigational query for YouTube may in fact be someone looking for information about YouTube, not just directions to the YouTube site. Search experts recommend that if you believe that you may be losing traffic due to confusion of intent, you must consider buying your own name through paid search. This short-circuits the process. By combining paid search with your branded site and social accounts linked to the brand, you can still dominate the shortened first page of results for branded queries.

Informational Queries and the Knowledge Graph

Informational queries are usually broad spectrum and are the result of indecision or lack of knowledge on the part of the searcher. For example, “London hotels” or “Wimbledon tennis tournament” are examples of informational queries. Google has enhanced the response to these queries by including more information in a box on the right side of the page – The Knowledge Graph. These boxes were designed to provide a quick look for the user. They were also designed to train the user to expect quality information in an area that was often previously passed over. Eye tracking studies over the years have shown that the right side of the page has been somewhat neglected by users who typically have focused their attention on the left side or centre of the page. By providing high quality information to the user in this lesser used space on the search page, Google is trying to encourage the user to look at the right side of the page. By making this space more attractive, the user becomes more likely to shift focus to this once less viewed area. Users are now “trained” to expect high quality information in this area. It is wise to periodically review what is being displayed in the Knowledge Graph boxes for the most important informational queries that relate to your publications.

Transactional Queries – Selling Goods Faster

Transactional queries, the third type of query, are those that signal the searcher’s intent to buy goods or complete a transaction. These are often highly specific and may include brand names and sizes as well other transactional signals such as “buy” or “find”. The user has made up his or her mind and now must simply find a way to close the deal. Paid search ads have been augmented with display advertising. With users trained by the Knowledge Graphs to look for valuable information in the upper right side of the search page, display and shopping ads placed in these areas are now in a desirable conversion zone. Today, for most shopping queries such as “mens leather jackets”, the consumer is shown a selection of paid display ads from Google Shopping. In the past year, Google converted its once free shopping listings to its paid advertising network. Now merchants must pay a fee to have their goods shown in this right hand corner space. Many consumers are minimally aware that they are viewing display ads not just more helpful information.

Even More Rule Changes

Links are at the very base of web information. A few short years ago, search marketing success hinged on getting more links; however, since links proved easy to game, the focus shifted to more quality links. Today, various Google algorithm changes, with intriguing names like Panda and Penguin, have busily rooted out poor quality content (Panda) and suspect links (Penguin). These efforts to improve the quality of the results have unearthed the huge volume of search engine spam that has crept into the results. To attempt to identify quality content, search engines have tried to leverage the power of social networks and consumer interactions with brands. The most successful efforts have revolved around reviews. Today, it is imperative that sites incorporate customer review systems into their strategic planning. For online publications, the review systems are often focused on ‘xx number of readers found this article helpful’ based on reader input. These ‘like’ systems are not a shortcut, for they require considerable attention to ensure that they have a meaningful and significant volume of reviews.

The task of search has stayed the same, but as our understanding of how individuals query search engines continues to develop, the rules are changing for marketers. By understanding query types and adjusting the page for each query type, search engines can deliver quality information and better business results for themselves and the marketer. As search engines continue to enhance how they use social signals, it will be easier for search engines to give preference to high quality content that meets the searcher’s needs. This increased sophistication in meeting the search challenge will continue to change the rules for marketers.