Strategic Web Usability

Search Without SERPs: The Future of SEO?

Yesterday was Google's 10th anniversary, and I thought it would be a good time to write about something I've been thinking about a lot lately: the humble SERP. Even as Google reinvented how pages were ranked and changed the SEO game forever, the search engine results page (SERP) remained virtually the same. Consider this search result from Lycos, circa 1996 (courtesy of the Internet Archive):

Lycos search

Looks pretty familiar, doesn't it? It's only been the past couple of years where we've begun to see the evolution of the SERPs, an evolution which seems to recently be accelerating. Even putting aside advertising, such as Google's mind-bogglingly profitable AdWords program, search results have started to become customized, personalized, segmented, and have even begun to leave the SERPs altogether.

Enhanced SERPS

This first step in this evolution was search enhancement, when search engines began to add customized features to the SERPs to supplement the basic text results. I'll briefy discuss two, Google OneBox and Google Suggest.

Google OneBox
Back in 2006, Google started experimenting with the OneBox, an area at the top of the SERPs that contained customized information for certain kinds of queries, such as movie showtimes and stock quotes. Probably most notably, OneBox revolutionized the landscape for local search, providing integrated local business listings with Google Maps.

Google OneBox

Pardon the large image, but it really serves to illustrate how much SERP real-estate the OneBox consumes and just how fundamentally it changed the game for searchers and search marketers in certain niches.

Google Suggest
Recently, Google rolled out Google Suggest, a pop-up menu that suggests alternative search queries while you type. For example, when I typed in "chicago pizza" on the Google home-page, I saw this:

Google Suggest

While Google Suggest still seems like a work in progress, what's notable about it is that it potentially bypasses the first round of SERPs entirely, redirecting a searcher from one set of results to another without even seeing the original listings.

Search Without SERPs

Recent advancements go far beyond SERP enhancement, though. Lately, with technological advances in mobile devices and a resurgence in competition in the browser market, we're starting to see alternatives to the traditional search results.

Mobile Maps - iPhone
I'm a recent iPhone convert - I'll spare you the gory details, but one selling point for me was the integration of GPS. The iPhone 3G comes with a customized Google Maps application with built-in search, but instead of traditional SERPs, you get something more akin to the OneBox map:

iPhone map

Unlike the OneBox, though, the traditional SERP is completely gone, replaced with an interactive map based on your current location. This is obviously useful to end-users, but it changes the game completely for local businesses. If your business isn't ranking for local searches, an iPhone user probably won't find it, even if you rank well on traditional SERPs.

Direct Queries - Ubiquity
Mozilla Labs, creators of the Firefox browser, recently released Ubiquity, a tool for entering simple, customized text queries. For instance, if I call up the Ubiquity plug-in and type "map chicago pizza", I get a search preview:

Mozilla Ubiquity

Once again, results seem to be pulling from the Google Maps/OneBox data, but just as with the iPhone map, Ubiquity has completely circumvented the traditional SERPs.

Implications for SEO

As search marketers, it's hard not to be a little worried by these recent changes - as a group, these advancements are undeniably game-changers and represent a significant learning curve. The important thing to remember, though, is that this evolution is not only good for users, it can be good for clients if we're willing to adapt. SEO is a young field that is destined to break into niches and specialties, and how you best guide searchers to information will depend more and more on your clients and target industries.

Update (Sept. 10): On a similar topic, interesting post from Aaron Wall at SEOBook about how Google Chrome may change SEO. Google's new browser includes the Omnibox, which bypasses SERPs, in some cases.

Dana Lookadoo

 · Tuesday, September 9
Appreciate your insight and timeline of Google's last 10 years! No SERPs? I had not thought of it in these terms. Nice job!

Honestly, all the changes can feel overwhelming. A colleague recently said he felt he was in a tornado trying to figure it all out! This is an excellent opportunity for those in the industry to adapt and excel in their areas of strength.

Your final words summarize it best,
"SEO is a young field that is destined to break into niches and specialties, and how you best guide searchers to information will depend more and more on your clients and target industries."

Dr. Pete

 · Tuesday, September 9
@Dana - It definitely can be unnerving, especially when many of us are already struggling on a lot of different fronts to do the best work for our clients. I think the best we can do is step back and realize that many of these developments are positive, and then try to see the opportunity within our particular niches.

Hjortur Smarason

 · Tuesday, September 9
It's an interesting development. It's with this like any other changes, some problems while others see opportunities. So let's explore the new opportunities this opens up.

MiriamEllis

 · Tuesday, September 9
Nice article, Dr. Pete.

I think so much of this has become about knowing which pursuits to recommend to which clients. Local is an especially good example. Maybe it's always been about this, but the more segmented the web - and especially Google - becomes, the more awareness SEOs have got to develop regarding the right places for their clients to expend effort.

I enjoyed this article.
Miriam

Dr. Pete

 · Tuesday, September 9
Thanks, Miriam - I definitely think we're seeing the pace of change in this area accelerate. I actually cut this post short; it originally had a section on "browserless browsing" that goes even beyond the SERP changes. That might become next week's post.

Craig Ballinger

 · Wednesday, September 10
I haven't seen Ubiquity before, wow, how cool is that? I love that they allow developers to share custom commands. They already have a pretty decent list. The custom php command will definitely come in handy.

Internet Marketing Joy

 · Wednesday, September 10
I don't know how this may be possible but for me, as long as there are sites that were made everyday..the future of SEO will still be bright.

Brian Carter

 · Wednesday, September 10
Ya we end up doing double duty:

1. Keep up with the changes, getting clients into local and long tail etc that they don't really get yet, while also doing well in SERPs they do care about.

2. Trying to educate the clients, which takes forever- client education seems to be naturally slower than the pace of changes in search. Feeling more and more that effective education is crucial to our job.

Jim

 · Thursday, September 25
Nice post, that brings things into perspective at least for me. Thanks!

I am especially interested in techniques for fine tuning Google local results... is there a thread that discusses this?
I had thought that just ranking high in the normal SERPs for a keyword would automagically translate into high placement in the local results (assuming the local registration steps have been followed) but that does not appear to be the case. Any thoughts?

Thanks!

Jim

Dr. Pete

 · Thursday, September 25
@Jim - Ranking in the normal SERPs certainly doesn't hurt, but the local search game is changing rapidly. I don't claim to be an expert, but my friend David Mihm did a great post recently on local ranking factors, where he interviews search experts on what they think are the most important factors for local search. It's a little bit technical, but full of great information.

Ivan - Pizza SEO

 · Sunday, September 28
I think as search marketers the important thing to keep in mind is that whatever way Google (and one day possibly its competitors) change the look of the results, being in the top 3 (5, ..., x) results is going remain very valuable. Many of the ranking factors will still be general and not industry specific. Those who can keep up with SERP developments probably need not be worried about their future. On the other hand, SEOs stuck in the old pre-onebox days with their methodology will become obsolete as the value of their services erodes.

Make Money On The Internet

 · Wednesday, October 8
There is no doubt that SEO has a booming future.. as organic searches always gives benefit with no cost.. also stuffs like Social Media optimization(SMO) has done most of the tricks for webmasters.

Jon

 · Friday, October 10
I see these as positive developments for SEOs who keep up with the changes. As the credit crunch bites, more SMBs are looking at marketing on the internet to give them better ROI. SEOs with a good understanding of local search may find their client-base expanding!

MontrealMan

 · Tuesday, November 18
Google suggestion tool is very cool. Although it sometimes give funny results. Some of these example on http://www.espresso-interactif.com/blog/2008/11/18/google-search-suggestion-tool/

Feedback Metrics

 · Tuesday, December 2
Do you see search with user driven feedback/rating in the future?

Dr. Pete

 · Tuesday, December 2
@Feedback - It looks like we're already seeing some of that with Google SearchWiki, but I don't think any of the engines are going to go the route of social media sites and become fully user-driven. Integrating feedback is a tricky process and I think all of the major engines are going to experiment with it cautiously.

Feedback Metrics

 · Wednesday, December 3
Dr. Pete, yes, you are probably right that the major engines will be cautious with implementing feedback. But, I think they have opportunity to further improve user experience by combining their behavioral data with user driven feedback.

Ryan Evans

 · Monday, January 19
search will undoubtedly evolve, but at the core of seo is finding the most relevant results. optimize in a way that makes sense to the user and it's hard to go wrong.

Jim at Mississauga SEO

 · Saturday, February 14
I've been thinking about Google's concept of USER filtered/altered rankings on organic search and I am skeptical that it will fly.

I mean really, how many "regular" (i.e. non digirati) folks will actually bother to drag a more relevant search result higher up a SERP? First of all, how will they even know this is possible; second of all, if by some miracle Google gets them to read an explanation of how to use the feature, any bets on the percentage of folks that will bother? Classic case of, sure I could spend 5 seconds to move a more relevant result onto the spam site above it, but What's In It For Me?

Even for folks like you or I, who would supposedly be aware of and willing to use the feature, if I'm searching for something and come upon a crap site, I hit back and click on the next entry down. It would have to be REALLY bad to make me spend the time to drag the next result above it.

I'm just not feeling the love on that particular idea. And even if people jumped on the band wagon and started modifying organic search results, if a site is optimized using enduring SEO techniques it won't be crap in the first place. Therefore no reason for the site to be penalized.

It also opens up the possibility of a new cottage industry, find a 1000 people on different IP addresses, pay them a buck or two to move a page to the top of the serps (probably need to space it out over time, however nothing a simple email auto responder couldn't handle quite nicely) and voila! Your page is now #1.

Yeah, now that I think it through, Google should definitely implement this feature, but not right away. I need some time to build my list :-)

Dr. Pete

 · Saturday, February 14
@Jim - There are a lot of misgivings about SearchWiki, especially the shared features. Am I going to end up with SERPs that are littered with comments from people I don't know, for example? Honestly, I think Google is going to tread slowly and carefully on that one, and some of what they try will probably fail. One thing's for sure, though - some sort of user feedback is going to get integrated and you can expect search results to continue to evolve over the next few years.

Bill - Philadelphia SEO

 · Friday, February 27
I'm in favor of these roll-outs. I think as engines get to a more contextual and user-aimed ability, quality is going to be key. To me, that's real SEO marketing.

Samuel Strategy Montreal

 · Wednesday, June 10
We are going more and more to a Local search on steroid. Where user have more control over the SERPs. Ok but we don't need to be that much afraid of as a SEOs, users that will use Seach wiki and advanced stuff are'nt the average joe at all.

Seo Firm

 · Tuesday, September 22
SEO has future but it is a very competitive field and have to be latest up to date. We can’t hope for online business without SEO of website. But it depends on the company or person how much and what knows about all the SEO techniques that google change every day. . This is the thing. To get online business a website needs dedicated work .

Facebook Applications

 · Wednesday, January 27
Optimizing helps search engines in producing better SERPs. I think SEO is going to stay but its form will change. That way SEOs have to be more adaptive to new changes.

Tech Review

 · Friday, February 12
I think its quite obvious that google safe keywords through which people search about their requirement. I think SERP is one of the best way to enhance traffic and it will be there always.

Social Media

 · Thursday, March 11
well search without SERPs...then i think future of SEO will not be very bright b/c we do optimization for SERPs & if we are not getting result from that then we waste our time...so if this happen then SEOs has to work very hard rethink their strategies n do it all again

Facebook Agency

 · Wednesday, March 31
Neah. SEO is not only based on SERP's. Its about to interact with other person or clients directly or indirectly. So if SERPs end for SEO then we can also boost traffic by various other ways. Like marketing online or social media optimization.

Jenny

 · Friday, April 23
Nice post on SEO, that brings things into perspective at least for me. Thanks!

Lori Cofer

 · Monday, May 17
Local SEO is going to be important with the iphone, etc. I don't think its the end of SERPS, but local search will be important.
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