How has the evolution in search helped brands?

Two experts consider how recent search engine changes have affected paid and natural search for both brands and customers.

Mark Mitchell, Gareth Owen
Mark Mitchell, Gareth Owen

MARK MITCHELL - HEAD OF SEARCH, OMNICOM MEDIA GROUP UK

- Do you feel the latest launches (the Panda/Farmer update) have improved search engine results?

Broadly, yes. The focus of these updates has been to clean up some of the lower-quality aggregator sites from longer tail search queries, and the impact on sites such as Mahalo and eHow can be seen clearly from Google Trends, Alexa and Compete data. Overall, we haven't seen much change for brand or short-head queries, and the changes seem to have been less fundamental for Europe than for the US. Whether it's Panda-related or not, there does appear to have been a re-emergence of localisation problems (a big issue in 2009) where non-UK sites appeared in Google for UK-specific search queries.

- What other improvements have search engines introduced over the past 18 months?

Google made both aesthetic and performance changes to its search engine and tools. Perhaps the most visible are those relating to speed and time-saving. The launches of Google Instant and Instant Pages were aimed at shaving milliseconds off search times. This obsession for improving the speed at which the consumer gets to the relevant result will continue to be at the heart of all its search developments. Google continues to develop "instant answers" that appear at the top of organic listings, providing information such as live sport scores and local cinema listings. Added to this, improvements in local search results and shopping feeds suggest Google is dedicated to growing the universal search experience.

- As a result, are search engines more interested in profit or user experience?

A search engine is more interested in a user experience that sets it apart from the competition. In a recent US customer satisfaction survey, Google scored 83 per cent, up 4 per cent year on year. Bing was the closest challenger with 82 per cent, up 7 per cent. Users are responding well to new features, and while user experience and profit are not always mutually exclusive, the engines should be applauded for providing users with innovative tools.

- How have these changes/updates affected the user journey?

They appear to be continually changing the appearance of paid ads by moving the description line into the headline, moving the URL into the headline and increasing the number of pay-per-click sitelinks allowed. All of this increases the prominence of the PPC listing and has seen clients increase their click-through rates on areas such as brand terms. Also, we have seen innovation with video ads in PPC listings, which, when rolled out, could enable clients to test their TV ads within the search landscape.

- Which vertical sectors have done well and which have suffered from these changes?

Retail is a sector that has benefited more than most. Advances in the shopping application programming interface has helped retailers increase online reach. The inclusion of stock details and nearby stores enables retailers to compete in a space dominated by the likes of Amazon. Benefits are also being reaped in paid search after the introduction of customer review ratings and ad extensions that display product photos and prices. The jury is still out on whether airlines have prospered or suffered after Google started showing flights in search results in May this year. Some are happy that their flights appear so prominently, while others are less pleased to have their natural search link bumped down the page. Similarly, comparison ads have been met with mixed reviews from advertisers in the finance vertical sector.

GARETH OWEN - HEAD OF SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMISATION, STEAK

- Do you feel the latest launches (the Panda/Farmer update) have improved search engine results?

Panda/Farmer were two recent updates to the Google algorithm that removed large websites with shallow content from the search results. These sites, which primarily exist to attract traffic to make money from advertising and affiliate links, had been eroding the quality of the user experience throughout last year. By reducing their visibility in the results pages, Google has allowed sites with deeper, more relevant content to appear higher up in the results, thus improving the search experience.

- What other improvements have search engines introduced over the past 18 months?

Search engines have been experimenting with richer content in the results pages. This includes more prominent paid search results, Google Instant (that suggests results as you type), and more local business, product feed and news results. The impact has been to reduce traffic through traditional search listings, and "enhance" the user experience by getting more people to navigate to specific content more quickly. But Google could increasingly resemble a giant affiliate. If someone is shopping online, they are likely to end up browsing Google's product results. I'm not saying it's a bad thing - but search engines used to be about finding sites that people could then engage with, rather than taking a lot of deep content and displaying it.

- As a result, are search engines more interested in profit or user experience?

They are interested in both. If the user journey was genuinely rubbish, then people would stop using them, but it would be naive to suggest that they are not making changes to maximise profits. Maybe my view on that would change if they made an improvement that increased traffic to the traditional natural search results.

- How have these changes/updates affected the user journey?

Broadly speaking, they have made it easier for users to find what they're looking for by speeding up the search process, reducing the number of searches required, and presenting a wider range of relevant material in the form of images, videos, news and product information rather than text results alone. In particular, searching for things that are very specific or specialised has been made simpler, especially by Google Suggest, which automatically offers a range of keyword suggestions as you type your search.

- Which vertical sectors have done well and which have suffered from these changes?

It does depend on the site to a large degree. Many of the developments favour companies that have sites which are quick to implement changes, requiring back-end systems that are flexible enough to make those changes. Some retailers I work with have seen increased long-tail traffic, and some have seen a decline. This could be due to the fact that Google shopping is a price comparison function, and that means brands that are not competitive on price are likely to lose out. Mostly, it has affected travel aggregators badly, especially the local business results, while across all verticals Google Instant has reduced the value of natural search listings below the number one position, so many brands are spending more on PPC.

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