Google Search in Disrepair? 15miles’ Flanagan Weighs In

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mikeADOTAS – Vivek Wahdwa’s New Year’s plea for a better search engine has led to a lot of soul-searching by the search community regarding Google’s core function and the content ecosystem. Last Friday, Conductor’s Seth Dotterer kicked off a series of Q&As featuring search pros contemplating if Google’s search engine is broken and what’s next for the wide world of search.

Mike Flanagan, president and CEO of 15miles as well as a regular Adotas contributor, seems to have spent most of the weekend mulling over the topic and produced an insightful and comprehensive set of answers to my burning questions. Of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less from him.

ADOTAS: Is Google’s search engine in disrepair? What, if anything, needs improvement?

FLANAGAN: I wouldn’t necessarily say that Google’s search engine is in “disrepair,” as it isn’t broken and does what it was designed to do. This is apparent when you look at the market share Google commands. Google is highly innovative in the search space, with features like Google Instant and Google Instant Previews making headlines last year.

But while Google has clearly assumed the leadership position in general search, it seems to have missed the mark on various occasions, especially as users’ online behaviors shift. For example, several areas in which Google needs to improve are local-search reviews, local-search for service-based businesses and the accuracy of business listings. Despite Google’s recent surge into the local-search space through initiatives such as Google Places (Google has made public its commitment to local), the search giant seems to be playing catch-up in those areas mentioned above.

Today, Google is clearly trying to be “all things to all people.” While its search market share has been impressive, for some reason, Google has been unsuccessful in its ability to effectively branch out into newer areas of search, which may hurt the search engine in the future.

The ongoing question is: Why does Google consistently falter when its enhancements go beyond what it does so well ― general search? Some might argue that Google is too quick to market, right “out of the box” from Google Labs, resulting in yet another shelved product.

As search continues to evolve, Google must carry over its leadership to other areas; by continuing to miss the boat, Google will experience the effects of The Great Consumer Migration. For example, some might argue that recent information about events can be found much faster via Twitter or Facebook. Despite steps taken toward real-time search, timeliness and relevance continue to be issues for Google, whereas social platforms appear to be better equipped in those areas.

Specifically, Facebook presents users with information that is applicable to the people they know, the communities they’re in and the topics that interest them. With advancements in social search, social sites have the potential to become one-stop shops for searching and interacting. As that happens, users will start to bypass Google for the social networks that streamline their experiences and that meet their needs faster. It’s no wonder that Google is so desperately trying to get into the social space.

Yes, Google used to be one of the destinations on the Web; people had it bookmarked as their browsers’ main pages. Today, more time is being devoted to social networks or content sites, and Google hasn’t found an effective way to become that type of destination. It’s no secret that Google is behind in social, the biggest Web trend of the past five years (and I won’t even get into the growing trend of social gaming, another initiative on which Facebook has capitalized).

Failing to understand the connections among people has resulted in Google’s diminishing position in the social space. We all remember the flop that was Google Buzz, an effort to turn Gmail contacts into “friends.”

How could Google better approach the plethora of spam and lackluster content gumming up the Web (i.e., cut through the crap)?

Google works very hard to manage spam within its index:

  • An entire team is dedicated to the identification, removal and prevention of bad content in the database.
  • Its algorithm is constantly tweaked and will continue to be adjusted.
  • It has numerous factors built into its current logic, several of which most of us will never conceive.

I don’t think that many in the industry would argue that Google still has one of the most sophisticated algorithms; however, I would again point to the saturation of dated information. Recently, in doing a search for industry-related topics, I came across articles dating back to 2008; I don’t consider those articles to be usable information anymore. I feel that there should be a much larger approach toward parsing out search-results data based on the “freshness” of content (or at least give users the ability to filter results by date).

Finally, with the massive amount of content that hits the Internet daily, particularly from social users, there may be a need to create filtering for social media based on what users are looking for (i.e., factual information versus opinions, reviews, etc.).

How have SEO practitioners had to adjust in facing this same foe (i.e., crap content and spam)?

Google has always maintained that content is king. That was true in the beginning, and it is true today. I look for that same logic to hold true into the future. I work with clients to develop and optimize content for their users, knowing that search engines, rankings and traffic will follow.

Do you feel that Google’s myriad initiatives (e.g., display advertising, mobile, social media) have caused it to drop the ball on its core competency, search?

I don’t believe that other initiatives have caused Google to “drop the ball” on search; in fact, I actually feel the opposite. Through an understanding of the entire online marketing space, Google can better cater to its audience as a whole. Its core competency has not been lost.

At the same time, other initiatives are not necessarily viewed with as much authority coming from Google as search is. Google is not known as a social network, and it probably isn’t the top name that comes to mind for display advertising.

Are social-search engines, including Facebook and Quora, biting into Google’s search share? Will there be a noticeable effect in 2011?

My agency’s annual Local Search Usage Study shows that local-search sites and social networks have penetrated the search share held by general-search engines. So if the functionalities of social search can be expanded to achieve a level of trusted results, we may see more search traffic migrate toward social, simply because it’s convenient.

Since search traffic overall has leveled, the race is now on to see who can grab a bigger slice of the pie. We will continue to see wars waged in the area of local search, as all parties look to perfect how information is provided to in-demand consumers.

Imagine what would happen if Facebook committed itself to building sophisticated, search-engine capabilities to couple its already successful social platform. We already saw reports in 2010 that Facebook surpassed Google as the most-visited site in the U.S. (and that is without the aforementioned concept that Facebook expand its search-engine capabilities).

Furthermore, Facebook’s Social Graph is enhancing the user experience by making available the popular “Like” button across the Internet. Not only is this boosting brand recognition for Facebook, but it’s also facilitating the sharing of news and other information for which consumers search.

As this social migration happens, though, I expect a fight from the major search engines. Look for search engines to make adjustments to push into the social space. It is not out of the question for Google to purchase a major social player. And let’s not forget that Google owns YouTube, which we classify as a social website and which is also the second-largest search engine by volume.

What are your thoughts on Blekko and its use of slash tags?

It is a fad that is specific to SEO and the SEO practitioners of the world. If it is determined that slash tags are worthwhile, then you can expect Google and others to follow suit. Right now, Blekko and its counterparts are useful to a narrow group of people, and the search share reinforces that.

How can search advertisers take advantage of social-searching services?

Search advertisers can look to social sites as opportunities to expand their reach and to increase their scale within existing paid-search programs. These sites offer an impressive volume of traffic at reasonable prices and with the ability to finely target based on several different factors. Social advertising is a nice complement to what already exists in the search space.

Advertisers have tremendous opportunities to test the social-search space, often for costs much lower than traditional search. From a paid-media perspective, there are opportunities for ad placements on Facebook and LinkedIn, among others.

However, advertisers do need to redefine their strategies for the space. While traditional search was based on strong content that was relevant, trustworthy and, perhaps, incentive based (in the case of paid), social search also requires content to be engaging (provide users with reasons or desires to interact). As a result, advertisers need to step outside the mindset of just sales by looking to strategies that will focus on:

  • Why their brands are appealing.
  • What they can offer users who otherwise are trying to interact with friends and communities.
  • How they can prompt someone to “like” them, rate them or spread the word about them.

Are there other avenues search professionals should be exploring?

There are several areas that search professionals need to monitor and explore. This probably goes without saying, but mobile, mobile applications, social, social gaming, local search, coupons and others offer intriguing opportunities in the years to come. I expect offerings in these areas to expand and mature, bringing online marketers many new venues for lead generation, branding and client acquisition.

Aside from social search, professionals should be looking at niche opportunities to get in front of their target customers:

  • Local-search directories (e.g., Yelp) are seeing tremendous growth and can offer advertisers a way to get in front of a local-social audience.
  • On a broader scale, mobile continues to try defining itself as either a medium or a platform.
  • Retargeting can be an effective means of using display to capture conversions.
  • Display is bound to continue evolving, particularly from a pricing-model perspective.
  • New technology (e.g., Internet TV) will likely lend itself to opportunities that blend online with offline.

3 COMMENTS

  1. You said,”or at least give users the ability to filter results by date”… Google does allow that kind of filtering, very easily. In fact, I use it daily. In the left column, the time filters include “Any time (default), Latest, Past 24 hours, Past week, Past month, Past year, and Custom range (where you can input a range of dates). If you don’t see those options in the left sidebar, click on “More search tools” to make them visible.

  2. You are correct Donna. Google does have all of those tools. The problem that we see is that the average user ignores those tools and goes directly with the results that show up in the general search. If the search has dated results, Google suffers.

    Google lives and dies by the user experience. If the user can find more relevant information on another engine or Facebook, they will migrate to the new site.

  3. I have noticed that since Google Instant was added, the development of the local search features and business listings has completely stopped. Also pointed out above is the lag in recognition of newly posted info–it is faster to find updates on anything that is a developing story on social media.

    The sidebars are not effective when combined with the distracting flashiness of the Instant feature. It puts all eyes on the center of the page, even for a distinguishing eye its hard to ignore. I think the more complicated search features become, the less people like them. If Judy Smith knew exactly what, where, when and how to get a product or info she would go straight to the site, not use a search engine. I think this is a misconception about user trends, particularly Baby Boomers (whom the iPad was rumored to be designed for–apparently they can’t use keyboards).

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