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What’s New in Universal Search: 2016 Edition


Evolution over successive generations isn’t always noticeable. Not so in the world of Google. The search engine results page has made great leaps in the past year alone, but some of the adaptations might have gone unnoticed.

Universal Search elements now dominate the majority of search queries. In fact, 80 percent now include at least one form of these entities, whether they be images, videos, news or maps. The bad news is that more integrations are translating to more competition for consumer eyeballs and clicks. The good? These new elements provide a great opportunity to digital marketers who are hungry to test out new tactics.

In the 2016 Searchmetrics Universal & Extended Search Study (available as a whitepaper now), our new data highlights four trends:

• The number of desktop organic search results has fallen to 8.5.

• There are an increasing number of answer boxes in the SERP.

• There is a significant and growing difference between results for smartphones and desktop.

• Extended Search integrations are an opportunity to garner additional organic traffic.

Blue links to Boxes – Google SERP Changes Over Time

Previously, Google’s classic-looking SERP consisted of primarily 10 “blue links,” emphasized by descriptions and a URL. At one point, they further streamlined the look and feel by deemphasizing right-rail ads, thereby bringing the desktop more in line with what’s visible on a mobile screen. It makes sense, since more than half of Google searches now originate on mobile.

This year, the number of organic search results fell to 8.5 from 10 of years past. It’s clear Google is looking to enrich and speed up the user experience by providing more rich answer boxes that give searchers instant answers to their queries and/or what it deems to be related subjects.

The bottom line? Google is integrating various types of answer and informational boxes into the search results. The classic Universal Search integrations (images, videos, news and maps) are among the most frequent. But newer elements are emerging, known as Extended Search (Knowledge Graph, App Packs). They’re becoming increasingly ubiquitous to the SERP landscape.

SEOs and savvy marketers might have already seen this, but it’s also becoming clear that mobile and desktop results are on different paths. This is largely due to the fact that, by definition, users on these two different devices are looking to accomplish different things. Specifically, mobile users are often served maps and/or App Pack results on their SERP, whereas App Pack results would be largely irrelevant for the results shown on a desktop PC.

Ultimately, this means digital marketers need to have a greater awareness about which devices their target audience prefers in order to be both strategic and thoughtful about the type of content being created. These subtle types of information boxes sprinkled throughout the SERP are designed to enhance the user experience and cleanly encapsulate an answer that is related to and helpful in answering the query.


The Differences Between Universal & Extended Search

Let’s briefly clarify the difference between Universal Search elements and those that pertain to Extended Search. Universal Search elements have been fully integrated into the Google SERP since 2007. Extended Search elements appeared in 2012 and continue to evolve.


While these new opportunities exist, traffic and CTR to your domain – should your content appear as one of these elements – is never guaranteed. Still, I like to focus on the opportunity to improve. On the positive side, appearing as a Direct Answer means your content is featured prominently at the top of the SERP without competing for attention amidst paid ads. Credit goes to your URL for providing the answer. If nothing else, there is a halo affect by being positioned at the top of the page in this way.


Advantage: Niche SERPs – Vertical Search Engines

In 2007, Google integrated several vertical search engines to provide further filtering for search queries. Universal Search elements can be manually and individually selected via the menu at the top of the search area.

Competition is becoming increasingly fierce for page 1 real estate on the “All” vertical. That makes other vertical search engines a much more attractive area to focus optimization efforts to capture rankings.




The Trouble With Optimizing for Extended Search Elements

By contrast,  Extended Search elements are not based on vertical search engines, but on an analysis of the organic results (especially for Direct Answers) or on internal /external data sources (such as company profile information, in the form of a Knowledge Graph). Since Google is continuously developing new types of Extended Search integrations, the signals used and information sources continue to be subjective.

Consequently, a business can enter all of their relevant information into Google+, doing so will likely result in a specific integration (Knowledge Graph) when a user searches for the business name. However, it is much harder to appear for the various Extended Search elements because, unlike mark-up language ( that can be used to show crawlers the intricacies of what is on the page, it’s technically impossible to employ markup language to content. Doing so would mean even more people would end up hyper-focused on making technical SEO tweaks when the real aim is to focus on what the user wants.

Digital marketers and content writers alike should be connecting website content to what is relevant to the audience and serves the needs of what searchers are looking for.

 Final Thoughts – Focusing on what matters

With more than 200 ranking factors for Google and technical SEO aspects to balance, it’s easy to overthink and try to do everything.  But the priorities can be distilled down into three areas: content, links and RankBrain. In a nutshell, the latter is machine learning that’s now part of the algorithm designed to learn about what users want, and connect them to the most useful content that satisfies their predicted need.

Understand which devices contribute the majority of your domain’s organic traffic. Then, you can create or improve upon existing content that meets the needs of what is relevant to searchers. The end-game is not to tunnel vision on keywords or always being in position 1. Focus on a single word: quality.

Concentrate on what is best for the type of audience you actually want coming to your domain. Only by improving the lives of searchers with valuable content and good user experience will your website stand out from the crowd. For more from me on the subject, tune in as I chat about it Oct. 19.

And a reminder our 2016 Universal Search study is live! Download the 2016 study here:


Holly Miller

Holly Miller

Holly Miller was a Senior Manager of Digital Marketing at Searchmetrics. In this role, she lead digital marketing efforts and the strategy behind blending earned and paid media channels with content marketing, social media and events in partnership with the Global Marketing and Content Marketing teams. Prior to this, Holly delivered SEO insights to some of the world’s largest brands as a member of the Searchmetrics Professional Services team. A true SEO lover, Holly draws her enthusiasm for search from a diverse set of professional experiences in online marketing from communications to creative agency work. She's passionate about sharing her unique professional insight to help marketers improve their customer experience through the use of data.

3 thoughts on “What’s New in Universal Search: 2016 Edition

  • Fernando Azevedo 2016/09/28 at 3:33 pm

    Google just aquired a company to read articles with AI! All those non sense article people write to fool the search engine will fail very soon!

    But tell me a bad back linking strategy that Google is penalizing and we will all buy for our competitors so we can ruin their ranking!

  • I really like your informative blog posts its a great credit to your company. I do seo myself and i have found some brilliant information on here and has helped my own knowledge a lot lately thanks very much for keeping this going. The 2016 info is especially good and relevant and finally its great to see someone making a difference like yourself.

  • Very helpful and straightforward article!
    I totally agree with your ideas. While all of us know the importance of content, many traditional sites or site creators haven’t yet paid enough attention to optimizing their sites on mobile devices. This definitely causes them a big loss. I guess those who are neglecting the importance of mobile device optimization or those who ignore quality content will learn a lot from your article.
    Thank you for such a great article.

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