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Google outlines vision for ‘universal’ search

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Last week, Google quietly announced it is taking its first steps toward a so-called “universal search” model to give users an easy way to find content in many formats with one search query. The plan is groundbreaking, according to some industry observers.

Google’s vision for universal search is to permit searches across content from previously separate sources—including books, images, maps, news, videos and Web sites—and compare and rank all the information in real time, delivering a single set of combined search results to the user.

“Google is undertaking the most radical change to its search results ever,” said search expert Danny Sullivan, founder of Calafia Consulting, a Web marketing consulting company and creator of the 10-year-old Search Engine Watch, in his blog.

“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,” Sullivan said.

Others agreed.

“I think it is significant, because anything that makes any search engine a more fundamental, instrumental tool [that] people are using is where the advertisers are going to put their dollars,” said Patricia Hursh, lead search strategist at SEM company SmartSearch Marketing. “What’s good for the user is also good for the advertisers.”

Hursh said that it may open the door to additional ad formats. “By placing images and video and maps on their results search page, this may be the opening of the door to new ad formats.”

Another executive said universal search is “perfect for b-to-b.”

“You launch a product, and typically there’s a big announcement at an industry event,” said Bill Hunt, president of Global Strategies International, now owned by Neo@Ogilvy, and co-author of “Search Engine Strategies, Inc.,” a book on driving search traffic to Web sites. “You can tie the video of that announcement to a press release, a paid listing and an organic listing. In b-to-b, this helps reinforce the concept of a complex product or service, especially at launch. It’s the ultimate testament to integrated marketing communications.”

However, Hunt said, he doesn’t think the traditional process of buying keywords will be affected by these changes.

“The biggest change will be on people doing organic search,” he said. “It’s a good thing, because it will force all the marketing silos to come to the table. The people who do video are one group, the people who work on the Web site are another and the people in PR are yet another group.”

The only way paid search might be affected, Hunt said, is that, if someone does a really good job of optimizing all the organic elements, they might question whether they need to do paid search as well.

Hursh said it is hard to tell what effect universal search will have, noting that “Google hasn’t committed to anything yet” regarding the ad pricing model. But she can envision higher prices for some formats.

“In general, in the marketplace, video ads are [currently] more expensive than text ads because you can convey more,” Hursh said. “I would expect a different form of pricing, but in Google fashion, I’d expect some kind of a market auction.”

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