Session Four: Day One: Vertical Creep Into Regular Search Results
(Note: Barry asked me to cover this session for him while he was off at Yahoo. As I didn't have live blog capabilities, I'm posting this days later, with benefit of hindsight and of having seen subsequent related SES presentations. I hope I have Barry's numbering scheme right. I should mention that I'm inserting some italicized comments, and that in examples below I'm using the convention of [search term] in brackets to indicate default all-the-word searches.)
Moderator: Danny Sullivan
Danny introduced the session by pointing out that vertical search results are often in the top 5 positions of major search engine serps, pushing the other results down. (As he would later point out in the Q&A session, this is an increasing trend.) If you're in vertical too, you have a much better chance of being found.
Greg Jarboe - SEO-PR
Greg showed us the Google, Yahoo, AOL, and Ask Jeeves search interfaces and noted the specialty/vertical search types which we can select by tabs. Depending on the engine, these include image, news, local, and product searches, audio, video, etc.
And, without using tabs, in the regular results we are seeing "vertical creep," either top vertical results (or customized vertical results) presented above the top organic.
Searching for [george bush], eg, gives us News results above the organic results in Google and Yahoo. In Ask Jeeves, we get links to various information sources followed by news results, and in AOL we get a group of customized results called a "Snapshot."
(Note: "Snapshots," per AOL if you follow a link to the fine print, have editorial input, include relevant AOL and AOL partner content, and may include labelled paid placement, and Official Sites for trademarks or brands. The fine print for Yahoo "Shortcuts," similarly grouped links which appear on some searches, is essentially the same.
A search for [paris hilton] gives top spots to verticals too. We get 24,400 image results on Google; a "Shortcut" on Yahoo that includes a link to a "DVD and Photos" shopping page; a "Snapshot" in AOL; and various bio material in Ask Jeeves before the news.
A search for [mp3 player] gives you Product results before the web results.
[pizza san jose] gives you Local results above the organic serps.
What is causing regular search engines to put these specialized search results up above web results? In part, says Greg, the cause was Danny Sullivan. In Nov 2001, when Google started adding tabs, Danny predicted that there would soon be too many tabs, and that the situation couldn't last. In Dec 2003, Danny suggested that the solution would be "invisible tabs," and this is proving to be correct.
Searching With Invisible Tabs
Per Greg, now he's calling these tabs "vertical creep."
Why the need for multiple sets of results? From Enquiro's "Inside the Mind of a Searcher" study, the reasons for using regular search in a purchase decision-making process involve the following phases: Awareness, Consideration, Decision, and Purchase.
Search engines, says Greg, are good at the consideration phase... not so good at the others. It's possible, though, to sort the same data in different ways. Eg, information about cars might be organized by Location (dealers); Alphabetically (make); by Time (year); by Category (type); or Hierarchically (rating). Each way permits a different understanding of the information.
Greg cited that in June, Google sent 7% of its visitors to its image, news, and other verticals, and that Yahoo sends 8%, MSN sends 4% to "Hotmail, MSNBC & other sites," and Ask Jeeves sends 2%.
I note, though, that 5+% of the Google vertical results are for images, with only fractional percentages for local and Froogle. Yahoo had a higher percentage for shopping and local.
How to adjust for vertical creep into regular search results? Greg cited some Comscore stats to suggest possibilities...
Only 88,000 hybrid vehicles were sold in 2004. But, because of higher gas prices, 700,000 Americans conducted c1.5 million searches in March 2005 for terms like [gas prices], [hybrid cars], [toyota prius] and [gas mileage].
In terms of vertical results...
- Searches for [gas prices] all went to News.
- Searches for [hybrid cars] went to News on Google; went to a Shortcut to hybrid cars on Yahoo Autos; a Snapshot on AOL; and to featured sponsored links on Ask Jeeves.
- On Yahoo, a search for [toyota prius] returned a Yahoo Shortcut with links to Yahoo Autos product and sales info, as well as links to Photos, 360 Tour, Reviews, and Price Quotes. Regular results are returned on Google and the other engines.
- Searches for [gas mileage] all go to regular search results. No vertical creep in this search.
Greg concludes concludes that you can take advantage of news, shopping, and local vertical creep as well, but research and groundwork are needed to pay this off.
Gord Hotckiss - Enquiro
Earlier this year, Enquiro and Did-It teamed up with the eyetracking company Eyetools to examine how 48 subjects looked at search results on Google. In this part of the session, Gord related Google's "Search Real Estate" to vertical creep.
The eye tracking hot spot studies showed that these vertical creep results are right in the middle of what Hotchkiss calls the "golden triangle." User's fixation eye movements scan across the top of the page from left to right, and as they skip down the page they move a little less to the right with each line, describing a triangular area, also described as an "F" pattern, above the fold of the page.
The vertical creep results are right in the middle of this golden triangle area. The user intent, he says, is to go to the top organic results. The more results that appear above the top organic results, the more your customer is likely to be intercepted.
There was lots of data, some of it too fast to digest easily. Looking at pages with one Top Sponsored result and one "OneBox" (as Gord described a single cluster of vertical results), Gord compared eye movements and clicks for specific and non-specific searches, and an interesting pattern sticks in my mind. In both cases (ie, specific search or non-specific search), the combined number of clicks on Top Sponsored results and OneBox results was roughly around 18%, with the (top?) organics receiving around 51% to 55%. When the queries were very specific, the OneBox results were clicked 6.1%, compared to 10.6% for the Top Sponsored and 51% for organic.
Gord noted that people are more apt to browse on less specific results. Users are still not sure what top vertical results are, but there's a 1 in 4 chance these results will get clicked.
Users are also looking for detail. Froogle, a vertical with a lot of detail in one line, attracts users. Older searchers, and searchers with higher education levels are more likely to click on these detailed results.
Comparing general vrs vertical search... general search seems better for telling searchers what exists and where they can find more... vertical is better for providing user options, details, and purchase information. If the search engine can figure out the proper time to switch from a general search to a vertical search, there will be better user experience and better monetization. In the Enquiro study, users appear not to have found what they were looking for and often came back.
Currently, there seems to be a lack of understanding on the part of users, and current scanning seems to be more about physical placement than about user intent. These results appear to be receiving a strong push on the part of the search engines. When present, they provide a lot of detail to catch the eye.
Brian Mark - ToolBarn.com
ToolBarn wants to sell its products, and they've discovered that organic isn't the only way for a page to be found. Number one rankings might be the #1 Top Sponsored, the #1 right sponsored, the #1 organic, or the #1 organic result.
Brian observed that while organic results get more traffic, vertical results convert better. He cited an example that got garbled in its PowerPoint presentation, but the gist of it was that with a #1 organic result for a very specific part, they had one order a month, but with fewer clicks, their #1 ranking in Froogle which appeared in the top vertical gave them two orders a month.
Long term goals... to use verticals to rank on the first page for alternate terms on products, terms they normally don't use on their site, as well as variations in singulars and plurals.
Verticals are still new, and rules are changing regularly, but opportunities clearly exist. People will begin to learn in the next year that those "One Box" verticals are a good place to click. Since decision making is a process, not every search needs to get clicked. With Awareness, Consideration, and Purchase phases, there are different clicks for different phases.
(System doesn't like post this long, so I'm splitting it into two parts here.)
(continuing first post on the session)
Mihir Shah - Dir, Product Management, Yahoo
Mihir Shah illustrated his presentation with screen shots from Yahoo. Different verticals return in different formats, and they give you a preview of the kind of information you'll find.
Some vertical search results are integrated into Yahoo results by Shortcuts. Local, eg, delivers a phone number. Maybe that's all you want to know, and you won't even have to click on it. Hotel results have links to map and to availability. Images show thumbnails.
Vertical enables "deep links" to relevant content... eg, reviews, multiple news stories, etc.
Some verticals are searches where the user opts in... eg, MyWeb 2.0 integrates social search results. Subscriptions integrates subscribed content.
Mihir summed up his succinct presentation with, "High User Satisfaction, Great Performance, Win-Win."
An example at Yahoo. They return gas prcies by zip code. Yahoo goes out to get this content.
Q: Effect on organic SEO? Will it keep pushing them down?
Danny: Expects eventually that the web index will be the backup when they don't have the vertical info that people are searching for right now. Eg, a search for [space shuttle] (this was the day the shuttle had been scheduled to land) might justifiably bring up news stories, because everyone wants to know if it got down OK. A search for pizza and zip code should bring up a map. But the engines are still hesitant about automating. Organic isn't going away, but it will be the organic on the verticals that is the future.
Greg Jarboe: Image search is one of the most used of the verticals; as the "tabs" are becoming automated, images may help you sell your products. Re news... mainstream news media by and large are ignoring optimization, but the alternative media are paying a lot more attention to it and are therefore showing up more.
Danny: It's getting more complicated, but it's job security for a lot of people.
(I lost track of the questions, but these statements pretty much stand alone).
Greg Jarboe: Test your assumptions about whether vertical search is relevant to you by testing on Google and Yahoo. A surprising number of searches have verticals, and show up for one and two-word searches.
?? and Danny: The "creep" is coming in slowly as the engines increasingly automate the process. Danny feels that at some point, when the engines "flip the switch," people may be surprised at the change.
There's no lack of people talking about paid search, but surprisingly few are putting the extra work into their shopping results or asking how to optimize their vertical results. (Note that there was a superb presentation by Justin Sanger on optimizing local results, and a whole session on Shopping Search Tactics about optimizing shopping.)
Greg Jarboe: Once upon a time it was all Infoseek and AltaVista. Then it was all Google results... Then diversification started, and Yahoo and MSN became new engines. Now, if you separate out verticals, vertical search is the fourth largest search engine... another form of diversification.
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