Potential Impacts of Google’s “Big” Search Changes

Topic: Google’s direct answers and semantic search updates as reported by The Wall Street Journal
Opportunity:  Maintaining/gaining visibility on a potentially new search results page
Channels Impacted: Organic search, paid search


This week, The Wall Street Journal reported that, over the next few months, Google will be giving its organic results a “makeover.”  The WSJ claimed that this update is “among the biggest in the company’s history and could affect millions of websites that rely on Google’s current page-ranking results.”  The changes fall into two categories:

  1. Direct Answers:   Like Wolfram Alpha (or Bing, “The Decision Engine”), Google will start providing more facts and answers directly on the search engine results pages (SERPs) so that searchers won’t have to click-through the SERP to get facts/answers.  For instance, a person searching for “Lake Tahoe” would see—directly on the SERP—facts about Lake Tahoe like the lake’s location, size or altitude.
  2. Semantic Search: Google will seek to provide more relevant results by understanding the actual meaning of searchers’ queries.  Semantic search associates different keywords with each other to uncover relationships between keywords and facts.  The Wall Street Journal gives an example: People searching for “Hemingway” would see results for Hemingway’s books, as well as other related content.

The Wall Street Journal noted that these changes could impact ten to twenty percent of all search queries.  However, some search experts—like SearchEngineLand’s Danny Sullivan—are skeptical about the reach and importance of the updates.  Sullivan noted that (1) search engines have been providing direct answers for years and (2) Google “arguably has been doing semantic search since 2003, when it began searching for synonyms of words actually entered.” 

Potential Implications for Brands

Time will tell whether these updates are really “among the biggest in [Google’s] history.”  But, in the meantime, we can speculate about some potential organic and paid search implications:

Direct Answers

Providing more answers and facts on the SERP (instead of links) aligns with Google’s goal of keeping searchers engaged with Google properties—whether it’s Google Search, YouTube, Picasa or Google+. Many of Google’s recent updates embrace this strategy, especially the Search Plus Your World release.  Search Plus Your World gives great SERP prominence to Google+ Pages (arguably at the expense of other social networks, like Twitter).  Likewise, direct answers will keep searchers more engaged with Google’s own facts and answers; searchers won’t have to click-through to other answer sites, like Wikipedia.  Thus, this update could reduce search traffic to answer/fact-oriented websites.  In turn, searchers will spend more time on Google, helping Google compete with sites like Facebook in terms of time spent.  Ultimately, more time spent on Google could spur additional engagement opportunities for advertisers.

Semantic Search

With semantic search, organic listings could increase in relevance as Google better understands the actual intent behind each query.  Brands that are actually relevant to their keywords stand to gain as a more accurate, semantic algorithm will tend to rank them higher.  However, semantic search does complicate SEO.  Going forward, brands should approach keyword research and copywriting in a way that incorporates not only keywords and phrases, but the actual meaning behind those keywords and phrases.  On a semantic SERP, SEOs need to think semantically.  Google’s algorithm update will now consider not only the words and phrases on a page, but the sentences, paragraphs and overall themes of the page/site and how this content relates to other things.

Additionally, semantic search could help paid search advertisers.  For example, if Google can understand that a person who searches for one book is likely also interested in another book, an advertiser could run an ad for that other book and gain an incremental sale.  However, Google needs to take care to not clutter the SERP with potentially irrelevant, unrelated content.

Google declined to comment on The Wall Street Journal article; therefore, our potential implications are merely speculation at this point.  But any changes that make the SERP more relevant to searchers are good for those brands that focus their search efforts on gaining relevant clicks, not just clicks.  We’ll be paying close attention to the SERP in the coming weeks to evaluate the impact of these updates.

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