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What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Google’s Search Results

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Synopsis — Google has been a part of our lives since 1998, but it’s changed a lot in that time. From a basic, text-based display to the multiple variety of linked results, images, news items, real-time updates, etc. of today, Google has become an integral part of the online activity of anyone who accesses the Internet today in most countries in the world. So how has the interface changed over the years? It’s time for a history lesson.

In her article “What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Google’s Search Results,” Krista Grady shares with the reader the saga of the major changes in the Google search interface, with lots of example screenshots to show you how it used to be. With 10 major stops along the way, Grady takes you on a magical mystery tour of Google’s results, guaranteed to have you exclaiming that it has indeed been a long, strange trip.

The complete article follows …

What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Google’s Search Results

What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Google’s Search Results

Since Google appeared in 1998, the overall concept of search hasn’t changed much, but the search results page certainly has. A decade ago, the query “Britney Spears” would have returned 10 basic textual search results. That same search today delivers those traditional results, but also YouTube videos, Twitter updates, Facebook pages, news items, and images of the performer. These changes reflect the overall evolution of the Internet, and Google’s effort to capture the changes and help searchers find the information they seek. The timeline below illustrates the most important steps along this transformation.

1. July 2001 — Google Images

One of the first changes in the look of search results was the addition of over 250 million images into Google’s index. However, image search was located separately, and it wasn’t until the introduction of Universal Search that images were incorporated into the traditional search results page. Nevertheless, this development signaled Google’s recognition that the Internet was not entirely text-based and demonstrated their intention to address different types of search queries.

2.  September 2004 — Google Local

The engine’s first foray into local search service was aimed to provide users with clear answers to queries like “coffee, Chicago IL” by including a place page and map information. The release of Google Maps in February 2005 helped continue strides in localizing search results. In April 2009, Google started to leverage a user’s IP address to provide relevant local results even if the query did not identify a specific location. This development reflected the understanding that people generally want products and services in close proximity to the area from which they are searching.

3.  June 2005 — Google Video

Google Video arrived on the scene around the same time that sites such as Yahoo! Video and YouTube were gaining a foothold. Like Google Images, video was located in a separate section, but incorporated in the main search results with Universal Search. The focus on video quickly grew, and Google purchased YouTube in October 2006. Today, more than 2 billion videos are viewed daily on YouTube alone.

4.  September 2006 — Google Sitelinks

Sitelinks quickly changed the appearance of many position-one rankings by providing additional links to a website. Controlled through Webmaster Tools, site owners can select which links they want to appear and which to exclude. Sitelinks proved popular because it enabled websites to own position one and the valuable real estate beneath it. Not surprisingly, it is still in use today.

5.  May 2007 — Universal Search

Perhaps the biggest change in Google’s search results has been Universal Search, which tore down the walls between different formats. Delivering what is now known as blended search results, it allowed videos, local results, images, and other formats to be combined in one simple search results page. Beyond changing the look of the page, Universal Search also changed search marketing by shifting focus to optimizing all forms of digital content on a website, not just text. With blended results, a simple search yields a variety of digital content types, each with different clickthrough rates (CTRs). In 2010, comScore reported that ⅓ of all searches return a blended results page, with images having the highest CTR (84%), followed by video (19%), and news (18%).

6.  August 2008 — Google Suggest

Unlike previous changes, Google Suggest altered the look of the search query box, and helps searchers by suggesting queries and fixing misspellings. Designed to save time and produce better search results, Google Suggest also altered the search landscape by gently prodding users into highly searched queries that may offer different results than if they had entered their own query. As a result, this offering may have shrunk the number of possible search result pages that marketers optimize for. On the other hand, it provided marketers with valuable data on search result numbers.

7.  May 2009 — Rich Snippets

Rich Snippets lets webmasters offer more information about their pages beyond title and description tags. In the beginning, it applied specifically to reviews and information on people. Rich snippets helped boost the CTR of search results as users were drawn to the additional information. By marking up web pages with standard annotations behind the scenes, webmasters had more control over the increasing amount of data that Google was making available to users, which over time included products, business listings, recipes, and events. The new look lets websites stand out from the crowd and entice users.

8.  December 2009 — Personalization and Real-Time Search

Prior to the debut of Personalization, each searcher more or less saw the same results for identical queries. With Personalization, Google takes a user’s search history into account and alters results based on the sites that user has clicked on in the past. For example, if a searcher had previously clicked on Wikipedia results, Google moves Wikipedia up in position with future queries from that searcher, making the assumption that the searcher considers Wikipedia as a relevant source.

As social media emerged, Google made strides to incorporate the most up-to-date information available into search results. In December 2009, Google introduced real-time search, which added a dynamic string of up-to-date content to search results, pulling the latest news from blogs, news sources, and Twitter. While not relevant on every search, the feature helps disseminate news without users having to visit multiple sources. Search queries are answered with a scrolling list of tweets, new stories, and Facebook updates.

9.  May 2010 — Sidebar

The addition of a left-side menu (or sidebar) dramatically altered the look of the Google search results page. Introduced in response to the growing number of forms of content available on the web, the sidebar helps users find what they’re looking for faster. Specifically, the new menu includes filtering options for blogs, images, news, related searches, and date. While the actual search results were not altered, the sidebar changed the look and feel to restore a more streamlined appearance to Google’s search results page.

10.  September 2010 — Google Instant

Instead of waiting for the searcher to complete their search, Google Instant employs a predictive model to show results for the most likely query given what the user has typed so far. As the query is refined, Google adjusts the results shown. While some see this development as a boon for users, it presents additional challenges for marketers. When search results are instantly displayed, they may divert searchers from their originally intended query, causing them to land on a results page for an entirely different search. Some predicted that the potential diversion inherent in Google Instant would change the face of search engine marketing. So far, it hasn’t, but as users adapt to instant search results, marketers may need to make their own adjustments.

Conclusion

While the overall concept of search hasn’t changed much since Google’s debut, the search results page has been in a constant state of flux to adapt to the ever-changing web landscape and the perception of a user’s needs. As both continue to evolve, search marketers must remain on top of these changes, and leverage tactics that will allow them to best capitalize on the opportunity at hand.

About the Author

Katie Grady is a Client Services Manager at iProspect and is responsible for leading a team of search marketing specialists and analysts. Since joining iProspect in 2005, she has managed organic, paid search, and comparison shopping engine campaigns for Fortune 1000 clients. Katie earned a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from Providence College.

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