The past year has been one of major transition in the search engine industry. Changes to the landscape have been enormous with mergers, acquisitions, and the easing of several formerly big-players out of the sector or, in the case of AltaVista, Lycos and LookSmart, into the minor leagues. We’ve seen new technologies and revenue models being tested by search firms, along with fresh promises of personalized ad-delivery through contextual placement. While there is no end in sight for changes in this evolving medium, this is a good time to examine the impact of such upheaval on the state of website marketing and search engine placement.
The biggest recent shift in the industry is the steady erosion of Google’s dominance over the past eight months. In mid-July, the SEO community started to notice subtle changes in Google’s ranking algorithm. At that time, Google had an absolute lock on the search engine world with some form of involvement in over 76% of all searches conducted globally. By the time Google released its infamous “Florida Update” in mid-November, Google’s lock-hold was slipping. At that time, Google was the main listings provider for a host of Internet properties including the gigantic search-portal Yahoo!. That changed recently when Yahoo discontinued their relationship with Google in place of their in-house database, Inktomi. With the loss of distribution through Yahoo!, Google now fuels approximately 48% of all search traffic, with the bulk of the remainder split between Yahoo and MSN, both of which are currently fed by Inktomi. (Please note: Yahoo will be moving away from Inktomi in mid-April in favour of their own paid-inclusion database.) While Google continues to enjoy a higher viewership than any other search tool, it has lost a great deal of distribution power since being dumped by Yahoo!. The bottom line here is that there are now three major search engines as opposed to just one and SEO strategies need to change to meet the new environment. Last year, clients were strictly concerned with Google rankings, knowing full well that good Google rankings were a sure-fire ticket into Yahoo. SEO-Reaction: This year, SEOs will need to concentrate on a mixture of strong-keyword enriched copy in order to please Inktomi, along with a well thought-out link-building campaign to please Google. The re-emergence of Yahoo and MSN as serious players in the search industry is beneficial to advertisers and webmasters as competition and the corresponding increase in consumer choices tend to produce better products and services in the long run.
Bigger, Better, Undercut
The validity of the truism about competition driving innovation and producing better products and innovations is demonstrated by the number of new services and innovations introduced over the past twelve months. Search is becoming far more technical and, in many ways, far more specific. Localization and personalization are two of the new common buzzwords in Internet marketing. Localized search results promise increased relevance to the searcher by delivering search results from sources within a reasonable traveling distance such as a postal/zip-code or telephone area-code. Personalized search results promise listings based on specific interests or behaviours of the individual searcher, or the computer used to conduct the search. An early example of a search tool designed to deliver personalized search results is Eurekster. Eurekster bases it’s results on two major factors. The first is the user’s personal behaviour. The second is the behaviour of friends and others belonging to a social or work grouping. The basic idea is that groups share common interests. Weighing a search-query by those interests may produce better, more personalized search results. SEO-Reaction: In order to adapt to these two innovations, website marketers and SEOs will need to add highly specific elements to a client’s website such as geo-specific metatags and text, and corporate identifying information such as full street addresses and telephone numbers. Website marketers will also need to add features to websites making them more useful to individual searchers such as newsletters, local-promotions and blogs to make their site relevant to specific users in order to present a level of personalized attention that will keep viewers coming back, or at least keep the client’s website in the minds of search engine users.
The big three are using these and other features to try to undercut each other’s level of service offerings, including blogging, news aggregators, email and instant-messaging, and a whole host of tool-bars. It is only a matter of time until someone introduces a new technology or search tool that “re-invents” the way we relate to information retrieval. Both IBM and MSN are developing deep-crawling spiders that will certainly expand the scope of search. IBM is developing the Webfountain tool and MSN is slated to release its new search tool based on the coming Longhorn operating system. These tools will include Excel sheets, Word docs, emails, and other documents found on a hard drive that a user has viewed, in search results for that specific user.
Evolution or Bust
Over the past three years, search engine marketing has become the fastest growing advertising medium in the world. New SEO firms are emerging and established SEO firms, like StepForth are growing rapidly. Website owners and webmasters are advised to shop around before choosing an Internet marketing provider. Check out several SEO websites and compare service offerings. Ask serious questions and don’t be afraid to challenge an SEO’s knowledge of the environment. With change comes confusion and we are noting a number of new firms playing on that confusion in order to see short-term gains. A new company in our area will take $200 from clients in order to add their URL to an automated submitter. As difficult as it may be to believe, there are still millions who fall for that old, “better living through automation” argument. Another pitfall to watch out for is hiring a company that is not prepared to evolve their services to meet new technical innovations. As the search world changes, good, honest SEOs are prepared to adapt and tell their clients exactly how that evolution will take place and why.