The Shift Towards Universal Search

There has been a lot of coverage this past week about the recent upgrading of search engines’ user experiences to include other content-type results. Yahoo unveiled new enhancements on Tuesday, Microsoft launched refined Live Search last week, and Ask upgraded to its “3D” user interface back in June. Of course, Google announced its “Universal Search” all the way back in May, touted by Marissa Mayer on their blog “to blend content from Images, Maps, Books, Video, and News into our web results.”

Almost all of the analysis which I’ve read has been in the context of the search engine wars, and how these recent efforts are a last-ditch effort for the non-Google search engines to play catch up. That’s a fine story, but I think that there’s another fundamental trend at play here. It’s a natural evolution of search to include other content types other than links, and I think that the real story is centered around the ramifications of what content (especially video) will now get featured as results given the introduction of universal search. It’s one thing to find video when you’re looking for it; it’s another thing to find video when you don’t know you’re looking for it in the first place. Increasingly we’re seeing video as included results for terms which a consumer wouldn’t necessarily think to search for on at a dedicated site or search engine, but she will find incredibly useful nonetheless.

I’ve seen a number of conversations about universal search in the SEO trade circles (e.g. universal & blended vertical search was a hot topic at the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose last month), but I have heard a lot less buzz about it in startup circles. To me, there is potential underserved opportunity here. When people begin to find video and other content “serendipitously,” it begs the question how the content got there in the first place. Many great internet businesses were built upon leveraging natural search as a distribution mechanism, and I see the shift towards universal search as opening a door for new players to enter what was a marketplace that previously gave unfair advantage to incumbents on a specific keyword term. Much like the situation for natural text search in the late 90’s, there is a new land grab for top search placement for these new media formats (like images, podcast, and video). This return of the wild west scenario puts startups and established players alike on equal footing, because these algorithms are being established anew and don’t favor an incumbent authoritative source.

In fairness, the transition, at least for Google, has been a measured and calculated process. When Google launched universal search this spring, some commentators accurately reflected this move as a lengthy process as opposed to an overnight switch. “I don’t expect we’re going to see wholesale changes in the near future… I’d assume that whatever Google does, they’ll do deliberately and cautiously,” said Matt Greitzer, a national practice lead for search marketing at Avenue A/Razorfish, back in May. (As a demonstration of the lack of anywhere close to a full transition, ironically, currently a video of an interview about the future of search and universal search with guru Mike Grehan doesn’t show up as a video result in Google when searching for “seo universal search,” but rather as a text link.)

Perhaps the buzz this week with the other search engines will facilitate a quicker transition towards integrated results on all engines, and the opportunity about placement in those results will become more salient. Whether it’s in categories of travel, shopping, and other transaction-oriented content, video and other media types will be useful and important search results in the coming years. Startups and other fast-movers have a unique opportunity to participate in that shift beyond just text links.

(Special thanks to Daphne Kwon who helped me think through some of the issues in this post.)

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.