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Google tweaks search results interface

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Opinion is sharply divided on what effect Google's new "site search box" will have on industry stakeholders—advertisers, SEO practitioners and publishers. Some marketers are decidedly unhappy, while others are optimistic.

Last month, Google quietly rolled out the new feature, a search box that appears on Google's search results page that gives the Web surfer an opportunity to further refine their search while still on the Google page. It also gives Google more real estate on which to sell ads.

Separately, Google last week announced plans to sell the DoubleClick Performics business as part of its integration strategy.

There has been concern that Google's refined search results page will feature pay-per-click ads from competitors. Additionally, some are worried that it keeps customers on Google pages longer at the expense of their own Web sites.

"It's misleading to the person searching, since it looks like you're going to be taken to CDW.com to search on whatever you've entered into the search box. But that's not the case. You stay on Google," said Bruce Delahorne, senior manager of national advertising for CDW Corp. "It's bad for the company you originally searched on—us in this case—because instead of going to CDW.com you stay on Google and at the top of the new page they display paid search ads for our competitors.

It might also mean that customers and prospects won't necessarily arrive at a company's home page, requiring publishers to design every landing page on their sites as the potential point of entry.

However, not every marketer views the new searching feature in a bad light.

"I don't agree that the feature is a negative," said Brian Alpert, search marketing manager at Texas Instruments.

"Competitive ads are a fact of life," he added. "Ultimately, I'd rather a customer be drawn to a list of search results that are exclusively Texas Instruments', even if it means a few competitive ads on the page." Alpert continued, "This feature provides an additional way for my customer to find the right content on my site, and I have to view that as a good thing."

Greg Sterling, principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, a consulting company that specializes in search marketing, said that while not necessarily a negative, the new interface "puts some pressure on publishers to improve search and usability of their sites."

"As a content provider, I'm not worried about the competitive threat of text ads on an additional results page," said Jeff DeBalko, chief Internet officer at b-to-b publisher Reed Business Information. "Is it driving more referrals, more targeted traffic, more qualified users?" he said. "That is what I would be focused on."

Colin Crawford, senior VP-online at publisher IDG Communications, said the competitive ads aren't an issue. "If Google makes a little bit of money along the way, I"m not going to fret about that," he said.

Crawford said the big advantage is the chance to expose IDG's content to interested users. "If it's exposing more of our content through site search, then I'm all in favor of it. This helps people get to the content on our site," he said.

Crawford said Google has hand-picked a number of content sites to run the search-within-a-search box; among them is IDG's PC World. He said he will monitor the effectiveness of the site search box and "see how much traffic it drives back to our Web site." It has only been in place for a few weeks, so it is still too early to measure its effectiveness.

Texas Instruments said it won't change the way it markets. "As far as Texas Instruments' search marketing strategy is concerned, it's a wash," Alpert said.

"It won't cause us to change strategy. It's essentially a supplement to a Web site's on-site `findability' via Google. It's not something that alters the competitive search landscape."

Bill Leake, CEO at Apogee Search, a b-to-b search marketing agency, said the ones who should be worried are Web designers.

"It's really more of a threat to Web site designers than SEO folks," Leake said. "If I'm Ford, or GM, or [HP] or Perkin Elmer, I want to control the user's experience on my site. I'm trying to get them started down a conversion funnel, and Google is putting the power back in the hands of users. It's in line with social media and other trends that, more and more, indicate you cannot control your message.

"That makes SEO even more important, because it's not simply getting them to the home page anymore," he added.

IDG's Crawford noted that "most people don't come through the front door anyway." I consider every page the front page," Crawford said. "It's up to us to showcase relevant content that gets them to pass through our site."

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