SEO and the Multi-layered Search Experience
There is a pervasive mindset in the internet community that search engines such as Google are an entirely different class of website. Instead of a destination in and of themselves, search engines are seen as gateways to real content. The search experience as many search engine optimisers define it is limited to what users do in Google, Bing, and such.
However, I’d argue that this is a limited perspective that no longer accurately reflects how users find content on the web. Instead I would call Google and its rivals first tier search engines – the first step in a multi-layered search experience.
This is generally what we envisage a search experience to be: the user loads up a web browser, goes to Google or another search engine, types in a query, reviews the results, clicks on a top result, and goes on to consume the content. We can expand this simplified model with multiple search queries and a little bit of results sampling, and that, as far as many SEOs are concerned, is that.
This model of a search experience is, in my opinion, grossly inaccurate. Search engines like Google no longer serve up the final destinations that users desire. Instead, search engines are a first step, a first query space, towards the final goal.
Instead of finding the actual content they desire, users utilise Google to find other, specialised search engines. An example: a user types in this search query: david coulthard belfast. The Google UK SERPs are dominated by sites that, in their own specialised way, are search engines as well as content platforms.
There is a local news site, sports news sites, and video sites on that first page of the results. Each one of these sites is a content delivery platform, but each of them is also a specialised search engine – for local news, for sports news, and for video content.
For each of these sites the search experience is an integral part of their website. Due to the enormous amounts of content on these sites, they have to have a strong internal search experience to enable users to quickly find the content they want to see. As such each of these sites is a search engine of its own content, just as Google is a search engine of (nearly) all web content.
We see this type of second tier search engines everywhere. They’re so common that we expect a website to have a solid search function. It if doesn’t, we miss it and we complain.
It goes one step further – the most popular websites, those that gather the most visits, are those that have made the search experience a central focus of their website. From Facebook and Twitter (social search) to financial comparison websites (insurance search), from YouTube (video search) to Wikipedia (facts search), all of these sites have robust internal search engines that form a core aspect of their functionality.
When users search for jobs, property, financial products, books, used cars, flights, restaurants, etc., they often start with Google, and then proceed to a second tier search engine before finding the actual content they desire. Combine this with a growing complexity of search queries, with longer keyphrases gaining traction, and we can see the outlines of a much more specialised search space.
Google understands this. That’s why they are expanding in to these specialised vertical search query spaces. Image search, video search, news search, and also financial products, books, knowledge, and so on.
As SEOs we cannot ignore this. If we continue to focus primarily on the first tier search engine experience, we will miss the opportunities for dominance in the second tier search space.
I believe that, as optimisers, first and foremost we exist to deliver relevant traffic to our client websites. And that means we have to look beyond Google and Bing, and embrace specialised search engines. Our craft as SEOs has evolved from day one, and we may soon see the biggest evolution of our industry to date.