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The author

Steve Baker

Chief Analyst

You know there was a time, long ago, when search engines used to go out and find the most relevant pages from the Internet, and show them to you. Over time, things have changed a little. Consider the SERPS that you now  get when you search for a new phone:

You know there was a time, long ago, when search engines used to go out and find the most relevant pages from the Internet, and show them to you. Over time, things have changed a little. Consider the SERPS that you now  get when you search for a new phone:

It’s interesting – there’s not a single ‘traditional’ natural search in sight. I can see eight paid search adverts, three news results, three real-time results, and not a single ‘natural’ search result. OK – so you could argue that the news results are natural, but the point is that no matter how well-designed your website is or how much time and effort you’ve spent getting other websites to link to you, if you haven’t put any new content on your website in the last couple of days, you’re not getting above the fold. If the paid search results contain product listings, things can be even worse: Google now allow paid search adverts to have up to 60 characters on the first line of the advert, making them appear as long as the natural search results. The image adverts and website reviews also draw your attention away from the organic listings. One more – here’s a search for ‘cosmetic surgery london’: I’m seeing a big map and four paid search results. No sign at all of any organic listings… Cynics would say that Google are just trying to cash in – they don’t make any money from organic listings, so they don’t care about them. However, examples like the last one reduce the number of paid search listings as well, so there must be more motivating these changes than just money. Google would tell you that they’re trying to produce more relevant search results. If you search for something that’s been in the news recently, then a page of search results from last year may not be relevant. If you are shopping for a specific product, then shopping results and images of the products and prices that an advertiser actually sells may well be useful. Also, if you’re looking for a chemist in London, a map showing you the closest ones would certainly be useful. How much value are they really adding to the search results though? I searched for a Samsung Galaxy S, because I was recently in the market for a new phone, and I wanted to see phone retailers, not news articles about phones. I know what an Ottoman bed looks like, and (going out on a limb here), I’m guessing that they are going to look quite similar to each other. If I was looking for some cosmetic surgery, I’d probably be willing to travel across town to get to it, rather than just going to the nearest one – or maybe that’s just me… I suspect that the real reason that Google are constantly fiddling with their results pages is nothing more complex than a desire to keep ahead of the competition. If Yahoo or Bing try something different, Google need to add something new, to show that they’re ‘still the daddy.' If this is the case, it’s a little ironic. After all, one of the reasons that users flocked to Google in the first place was the simple, uncluttered layout of their homepage and search results. Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote a paper when they were at Stanford, stating that “we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers” (http://infolab.stanford.edu/~backrub/google.html). As I said earlier, some people would argue that they are proving themselves right. Personally, I think that the truth is slightly different – that the needs of the consumers have been sacrificed (at least in part) by Google’s determination to maintain their dominant market position. I don’t believe that this is an intentional shift in focus by Google – every one of the additions they’ve made to their search results could be useful to users in the right context. However, it appears to me that by trying to be too innovative, too quickly, they are just cluttering the search results with irrelevance. If Google want to improve their search results, then for me, the key isn’t developing as many augmentations as possible for their SERPs, but learning how to target them better.