Friday, January 30, 2009

New Signals to Search Engines - a "thought" paper by Mike Grehan

New signals to Search Engines by Mike Grehan - download it for freeIf Marianina Mannings is the Web Analytics princess then Mike Grehan, global KMD officer at Acronym Media, probably deserves the title of "Google king" :-). I had the chance to meet Mike Grehan at last year eMetrics Summit in London and I attended his very insightful presentation "New signals to search engines". In December 2008, Mike finally released his "thought" paper on that topic, a teaser of his new book due Spring 2009. I really enjoyed reading the paper and found it really interesting. If you have any interest in Search Engine Marketing or in Web in general, this is definitely recommended reading!

In his paper, Mike introduces interesting thoughts, concepts and ideas on how the evolution of Internet, its usage and the so-called social media will impact not only search but all marketing. 

The paper starts with a quick introduction on the origin of Internet and some of its key concepts in order to understand how search engines were born. Then it moves on explaining why search engines need to explore new ways to crawl and analyse the Web.

Getting signals from end users
Search has been mainly based around "signals" from content creators (HTML tags, text, links etc.). But what about the end user signals? Searchers submit queries, reformulate them (query chains), click on the results and then navigate away from the search engine explains Mike Grehan. This means that the destination page (i.e. the relevant information from a end user point of view) is not always the search result that was clicked as most searchers browse far from the search results. 

Search query and click-through logs can be used for implicit end-user feedback by search engines but it's post-search browsing behavior which provides valuable information on destinations that are truly relevant to the user's information goals.

Mike gives a good example of how such information is collected by search engine: the popular search toolbars. These allows search engines to capture not only what you were searching for (the queries) but also the search context (on what site you were when you did the search) and where you went after the search. Mining the search trails of surfing crowds provides search engines with unique insights that help identify the most relevant websites.

Coupled with artificial neural networks, search engines may be able to adapt the search results based on what users actually looked at in the past. The beauty of a neural network is that it can make reasonable guesses about results for queries it has never seen before based on their similaritiy to other queries. It would mean that two persons using the same query would get different results based on their "history".

The Ten Blue Links Must Die!
The Web is no longer just a huge collection of HTML pages. It's video, images, audio and all sort of user-generated content. Search engines are adapting themselves to this evolution, changing the rules of search marketing.  Mike demonstrates this fact by using Google Universal Search as example. With the inclusion of "visual" elements in search results, such as maps, images or videos, being somewhere on the first results page is no more a guarantee of visibility. 

First, visual elements get more attention than text - they catch the user's eyes. Secondly, these elements - usually displayed on top, are pushing down text links below the fold. So it is not about being in the top 10 anymore but in the top 5 or even the top 3! Do a test! 

Google Universal search makes digital assets more important
In the example above, I searched for "Lexus IS F" (the super Lexus IS) on Google Belgium. The screen resolution is 1024x768 (still widely used). How many organic links do you see? These are first pushed down by local sponsored links and then image results are pushing organic text listing further down the screen.

Universal Search offers many new methods of increasing visibility at search engines. Understanding these methods and combining it with knowledge of end user behavior can be extremely powerful.   

Integrating data from social networks
But there is more to come as Mike explains that much research is taking place in combining data from social networks and traditional linking networks (like PageRank) to create a socially-enhanced search results ranking. Why?

social media introduced information-seeking via a chain of trustBecause social networks are changing the way people seek information. The knowledge possessed by your friends and people who knows acts as a supplement to the web's huge amount of information. Using such knowledge to get answers to specific queries is known as information-seeking via a chain of trust. For Mike, there is no doubt that we are moving into a new form of information retrieval, one of networks of trust.

Search engines can no longer ignore the importance of the information contained in user-generated content that encompasses all type of electronic contents: movies, images, tags, rankings and more. So more changes will come. Which ones? The paper does not tell (but I guess Mike Grehan wants to keep few things for his book :-)). 

Search tomorrow
Search will change that is for sure.  But what will be the impact for us, who are involved in online marketing? 

Well, traditional SEO days are numbered according to Mike (and I he's probably right) - here comes Digital Assets Management & Optimization.  Emphasis will be put on optimizing a wide range of content, from images to video and more, not just texts and links.

By taking into account more and more signals from end users, search will transform into more of a personalized experience (the launch of Google's Search Wiki is a first step in that direction).

Monitoring of the customer's voice will become much more important than pushing a brand message. Monitoring search results for different file types will become increasingly important as end users or competitors upload content that may be related to your brand. Reputation management will be highly valued as Marketing continues it reversal from a broadcast medium to a listening medium". Amen! 

I can agree more and it reminds me the "The break-up" video. A classic! But still so many who don't get it... 

Want more? Read Mike's paper!
This is only an overview. There is much more in Mike Grehan's "tought" paper (it can be downloaded for free on Acronym Media website). Of course the document only introduces ideas and concepts illustrated with interesting examples. It does not go into "technical" details nor it explains how practically to prepare ourselves to the coming changes - I guess we will have to buy his book to find out. :-)

As I see it, it will mean more things to master and handle (i.e. more headhaches :-)) for marketeers and analysts. And it is not tomorrow that SEM agencies will close doors... If they can adapt themselves. But most of all, it will mean exciting challenges and times ahead!

Thank you Mike for sharing your work! I really liked it.  

And you did you read it? What are your thoughts about it?

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