old gas station illustrates old search engine marketing techniques

A Hundred Ways to See a SERP

Internet marketing is becoming bewildering.  I just reviewed a very interesting slideshare presentation by Peter Meyers over at Moz called “Beyond 10 Blue Links: The Future of Organic Ranking.”  Unless you’re an SEO professional you might not make it through the slide show.  The presentation is lengthy, 114 slides.

Most of the slides carry little explanation, but to someone who is in the business of Internet Marketing little is needed.  They show the daunting variety of search engine results pages (SERPs) that you might encounter in a bit of browsing on Google.  As marketers, SEOs, and business people we can no longer talk about Search Engine results as if the term refers to one standard, monolithic way of accessing the information we want online.

Nor are rankings a consistent way of measuring how well you are doing in your search marketing efforts (something we at the Search Engine Academy have been preaching for years now)

Search Engine Results Pages, Then and Now

So that you don’t have to wade through all 114 slides, I’ll give you just two screen captures to illustrate.  This is a search conducted two ways.  In both captures I searched on “Massage Therapy.” Also in both my search location was set to Salt Lake City, UT.

But in the first search I used Google’s Verbatim setting to strip out most personalization and location.  So in example #1 we search more or less as we first came to know search (unless of course you just parachuted in from Neptune).  Note how national web properties such as Wikipedia, WebMD, the American Massage Therapy Association, and US Career Institute dominate both the paid and unpaid search results.

search engine results with localisation stripped out using Google Verbatim

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Now Let’s Get Down and Dirty…and Local

In the second search results screen capture I had conducted a search on the same term, with the same search location, but using the default search settings, namely Verbatim was disabled.  Here’s what we are increasingly seeing in our own personal search time:

search engine results page showing heavy influence of localisation

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Note the numbered highlights.

  1. A regional map occupies a large part of precious “above the fold” screen real estate.
  2. In sponsored (paid) search local players such as Utah College of Massage Therapy have started to displace national training schools.
  3. In the traditional, organic search results, we see small, local or regional web properties such as utahvalleymassagetherapy.com vying for the top of the page, in this case kicking out Internet heavyweight Wikipedia.  Even WebMD seems to be MIA, at least above the fold, part of which is a result of…
  4. The Google 7-Pack (which by the way is increasingly being replaced by blended results where the 7-pack is starting to split up and loose it’s distinctiveness), which is a purely local set of results using a different algorithm, shoves all other contenders down into the bottom-of-the-page ghetto.

What does this mean for those of us just trying to conduct business?  Well, as we stress in our SEO Workshops, a reliance on watching rankings is becoming increasingly irrelevant.  Instead we need to focus our efforts on creating the most attractive web presence from a holistic standpoint.

A Metaphor for the Blowing Winds of Search Marketing Change

Let’s think of it in terms of a metaphor.  Let’s say that you operate a gas station.  In the past you placed a billboard at the outskirts of town saying “Fill ‘er Up.”   No one else was using billboards, so travelers flocked to your station.  You didn’t have to greet the clients, clean the windows, or have your employees wash their hands.  But then things changed.  Suddenly a hundred different competitors put up billboards as well.  Not only that, but the Interstate replaced the little highway.  To adapt you have to do a variety of things, starting with cleaning up your gas station, making it look inviting, and asking your employees to wash their hands, act friendly, and wear clean clothes.
Then you have to create a billboard that doesn’t just say “Fill ‘er Up,” but which offers drivers a compelling reason why they should visit you.

open sign illustrating benefits of SEOAnd finally, you may need to change the location of your billboard, and maybe even invest a bit more in a variety of billboards in different locations with different messages for different types of consumers.  Each of these aspects could correspond to something we do in Internet Marketing (one of the reasons it’s harder and harder to call it “SEO”).  It’s one of the reasons that our SEO workshop focus on such conceptsas search engine friendliness, conversion optimization, visitor engagement, compelling content, market (i.e. keyword) research, and messaging.

The face of search engine results is indeed changing.  If you are unable to change with it, you’ll be that long-abandoned gas station by the edge of the old highway.  On the other hand, if you embrace the new face of search there are tremendous opportunities for building a stronger and more durable Internet presence that will produce profits for your company for years to come.