SES Toronto: Good Luck Finding Universal Consensus on what Universal Search is

I’m dropping in on the universal and blended search panel today – Google calls it universal, Yahoo calls it blended, apparently nobody likes informative generic labels like multi-media with pictures and video and stuff SERPS. Screw-em, this is the multi-media with pictures and video and stuff SERPS panel.

Mitch Joel (just thought you needed that wiki entry Mitchfrom TwistImage is up first.

Mitch hails from Montreal and is a bit of a mythic figure in the marketing world, in no small part because of his story – he comes from music, he interviewed all your favorite punk rockers, and crafted a bit of a punk journalist image for himself. Now he runs a company called TwistImage – a full service-ish kind of thing on St-Laurent, a couple of blocks from the residence of yours truly. He was employee number 4 at momma.com – remember those girls?

So a blend of publishing and search and social and media and … ah yeah that’s right we’re supposed to be talking about, blended universal search stuff. Mitch’s big idea here seems to be that universal search offers a surfer the option of using their brain, because we’re actually capable of differentiating news, videos, maps and other weird things that make their way into our results these days.

Apparently there is a shift on the interwebbings these days, even paradigmic in proportion, from the internet being used primarily as a communication device to something that is used primarily as a way to find content. Because you see, one person writing content and another person reading content is apparently not communication. You’re not even reading this right now. I didn’t even hand you my jacket.

Avinash ‘the man’ Google (last name google) is being quoted now – Mitch’s understanding of Avinash’s understanding is that the engines are completely neutral entities, they care not to judge the world, they just want relevancy, relative relevancy I suppose. Marketers of the future will be the ones that comprehend the power of … putting your powerpoint presentations in the right order. Okay slight hiccup – it’s about optimizing content, and learning that content is more than text. Optimizing videos, optimizing for phrases that pull locals – it’s the modern sub-verticals of search, split into new concepts of what content is. Content is everything. Text, tags, images, audio, video, news, press releases, thoughts, social. Yes even thoughts. Some would argue (okay, I’ll admit, my name is some) that thoughts are not content until written down, but whatever, I’ll forget I thought that…. oh no, it’s too late.

“Your brand is what Google says it is” – Mitch quotes wired magazine before delving into his next segment:

Mitch has a three thousand dollar fancy-assed laptop (no really, it has a sexy back-side), and actually compiled a video of it (plug, sony vaio subcompact is berry berry small) because he feels it was under-marketed compared to the macbook air – so pulling it out of his manila envelope he takes not so discreet note of the DVD player, Ethernet, removable battery, the actual functionality the air lacks. And there we go, a nifty title tag later and the number two search result for ‘apple macbook air’ is his video about the sony vaio . Kapow. Apple.com, youtube, then store.apple.com.

The claim is that this speaks to the power of universal search – you couldn’t get this ranking with a blog post. Some (*cough*, me again) might call it parasite hosting on the trust-rank of youtube.com, but whatever, if there’s no affiliate link, is it really parasitic? Then again, if he wasn’t paid by sony, is it even marketing? I’m getting way off mental track here. The point is valid, you can’t get that ranking with your blog boys and girls – even if you put a fancy video on it. Google owns you.

Mitch wants you to let your content go – post it, share it, give it away, be strategic. Find some good domains with lots of trust rank that let you put your ‘content’ on it. Not a .edu stop thinking that way. I mean, by all means an .edu, start thinking that way.

Next up is Mr. Dustin Rideout, from wonderman, or somewhere that sounded a lot like wonderman. oh, it’s wunderman. Ah he had a RIM job before. Excellent. Love the blackberry.

Dustin’s take is that trust and authority are taking over the top organic listings. Authorities such as news, blogs, edu sites, gov sites, orgs, hey wait, how did blogs get lumped in with authorities? I thought blogs were the opposite of authority. But you shouldn’t believe me, I’m just blogging. Ooooooor should you?!?

There are lots of pretty screenshots of Google SERPS full of pictures and videos and wikis in this presentation. Wikipedia, youtube, news pages, buggery, not a single affiliate in the mix.

Mr. Rideout manages to hit the nail on the head when he says that the engines take a cut of the pass-through, though I’m not quite sure I understand how universal search is helping Google take more of a cut, besides spamming their own engine with their own properties like youtube.

I’m starting to feel like this session is a little too universal, a little too random. Isn’t anybody going to talk about how easy it is to rank at google images? How to translate that trustrank you just co-opted into money… you know, optimizing for universal search? Somebody? Anyone? Okay I’ll just do it – it’s half about the content of the rich-media, and it’s half about pandering to the traditional ways that engines categorize (and holy moly, rank!) by strategically …. Ah nevermind, nobody seems to care. In fact Dustin is saying to not worry about how to get into universal search, only worry about your content, only worry about creating things that will appeal to your audience. Can’t we do both? I know in traditional SEO more than half the battle is often helping people with great content get that content ‘into’ Google – seriously.

Last speaker, Andy Renieris from Yahoo Canada – he manages the search engine. Suhweet. Relevancy for Canadians is his topic (post script: he never really touches on it).

Yahoo refers to universal search as ‘blended’ search. What’s going to trigger the engines to actually show a blended search – hey this sounds like it’s gonna be good, he wants to explain HOW to get your crazy assed content into the Yahoo SERPS, without ever laying pen to paper. Or finger to key, whatever the modern equivalent is (post script:he doesn’t *really* ever do this either, well, kinda sorta).

Some research – yahoo has found that blending it up actually confused consumers at first – it was all too much noise and the reaction was mostly negative. This is likely normal, people don’t like change, and yahoo users might be even more traditional than over on that that greener google grass. But with a little time to get used to things the winds shifted to a more positive response – “makes it more like a magazine”, “it’s friendlier, the pictures and the colours”. Crauzy Canadiauns.

Yahoo has put some time into trying to find a useful balance between cluttered, distracting results, and a more traditional SERP that is comprehensible and quick to navigate. It looks to me like ‘enhanced content listings’ are going to be associated a bit with themes – some themes will be more likely to return a blended result.

Now he gets to the meat of the matter – the reason Yahoo is here today really, the unveiling of a new product – as confusing a product as it may be. It’s called search monkey.

Search monkey is a tool for both website developers and end users of the SE – this is Open Yahoo – The idea is that the user can turn on and off some ‘applications’ to shape their own style of SERPS. These applications are things you as a marketer would put together for/from your site. Now Andy is mentioning ‘structured semantic information’, and I’m not quite sure if he means semantic data from places like sparql endpoints? Ah, not quite, but not entirely unrelated – web site owners can build their own RDF, blended with some database info, throw it all together with the search monkey tool, submit it for review (oh you yahoo guys just love reviewing stuff don’t you?) and zippie, we’ve got a listing in the SERP that has a little picture beside it, a rating on it, etc.

Okay actually no we don’t – what we have is an application or tool that now becomes available to end users (I’m going to go ahead and re-label them, Yahoo’s most savvy end users evar) so that they can choose to either apply the application to their personal SERPS, or not. If users like it, users can ‘add your application’ – imagine something like the IMDB rating system being shown embedded in the SERP listing.

Seems to me that this will take a push from both publishers (to structure their data and submit it) and from the searchers to embrace the idea of molding their own results. Then there is the little leap in between where users have to find and add these applications. It’s reminiscent of IG, and google gadgets, but it’s a different spin because in the end it actually affects the natural SERPs (not your ranking, just what gets presented to you). On the searcher’s end this may take some large amount of convincing, because we’re pretty lazy. Just throw it at us like Google – we don’t mind. We’ll get used to it. We’re the real monkeys here – throw us a banana.

Yahoo dude subtly states that ‘some publishers’ (read, not you) and ‘some applications’ (read, not yours) may be applied to SERPS without the users inviting it. The other panelists completely misunderstand Yahoo’s whole application and misstate it as being ‘facebook’. Way wrong dudes. Sure the Yahoo guy wasn’t the best presenter and didn’t evangelize search monkey particularly well (to his credit, it seems like there is a lot he’s not allowed talk about, regardless of the fact that the product is launched) but I really feel like this should have been given a little more attention – it could represent a shift in the way people understand search, and influence their own search experience. It could be the true start of personalized search, by actually handing some power over to the user. Or not… depends how they market it. Maybe they should make a youtube video.

Some URLs we were given:

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, that’s why there’s so many damn bananas around this conference!

Now GO! Search monkeys! SEARCH!

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