Google’s search result ranking algorithm received a major upgrade yesterday, incorporating its vertical search properties directly in the main search result page. The new design, Universal Search, integrates results from specialized Google verticals such as blogs, images, news, maps, and video. Results we’ve previously expected to find inside of a OneBox now appear anywhere in the users’ result listings thanks to rewritten ranking and content examination algorithms.

Examining vertical search

Google and other large search engines crawl the worldwide web for new information every minute of every day. The modern web consists of billions of documents expressed in multiple formats and languages created to serve various purposes of their authors and intended audiences. Search has also recently expanded its reach into our libraries’ book shelves, converting dead trees and ink into their digital representation.

Each vertical search engine takes a specialized approach to data and its sources, extracting more information than a generic crawler such as Googlebot. The main crawler might recognize a webpage contains web feeds and pass its RSS and Atom content to a specialized engine such as Google Blog Search for further analysis. A local search engine contains an entire Yellow Pages full of local listings data and other interesting pieces of information such as hours of operation, payment methods, or other items of local interest. A patent search engine knows how to navigate intellectual property databases such as the United States Patent office, turning standardized forms into structured data and diagrams.

Current Google search offerings

I’m sure there are even more specialized public data search verticals supported by Google I’m leaving out of this list. All of these various verticals present contain possible pieces of relevant information for a given query entered into the Google search box. Until yesterday they were isolated from the main Google search box in a separate silo or perhaps a short summary inside OneBox, the integrated results section at the top of a search page.

Google Universal Search

Google’s new search process collects relevant information for each search query from each of its vertical search properties. The universal search for data needs to be processed by a universal ranking algorithm to determine the top 10 results shown for each query. A search for “Utah Jazz” might contain recent news stories, video highlights, pictures of star basketball players, as well as relevant search results from across the Web. Google’s algorithms need to weight results from each vertical, assign it a universal search rank, order the results, and return a response to the user as quickly as possible. No small feat, and the new algorithm and breadth of search definitely impress. Google also announced yesterday it will process your search query in multiple different languages, returning results for your search term if it were translated into its equivalent value in French, Spanish, and more, creating an even more complicated problems of query extraction and result set analysis.

Visual changes

All of these behind the scenes updates allow a few new tweaks to the front-end UI adapted to your query’s result set. I’ll walk through some of the major changes.

Search refinement

Google search iPod

Google lists search verticals with appropriate results for your queries at the top of this search result page. In this example I searched for “iPod” expecting to find information about Apple’s popular music player. Google assembles 10 “universal” results on the page, but clusters relevant search options across its vertical properties such as iPod patents, iPod products, and iPod news search enabling a quick refinement.

Inline video thumbnails and playback

Google search video results

Video thumbnails are included directly alongside video search results along with the video’s total length and user rating. You can even watch the video directly from the search result page using embedded players from YouTube and Google Video. Google gathers metadata from other popular video sites such as Metacafe, but embedded players video playback is currently not available for these third-party sites. Searchers will see a thumbnail image from supported sites’ video content and will need to visit the site directly before playing back any videos.

Google’s Marissa Mayer mentioned during yesterday’s Searchology event a lack of support for external video players and not the actual site content. The Media RSS module can help smart publishers better define video thumbnails and an appropriate web browser media playback console. The thumbnail element provides search engines with visual search result data and the player element specifies the location of your preferred playback interface. I don’t expect Google to load remote code such as a Flash player inside of their search results pages, but at least you can be properly prepared.

Related content

Google results Jerry Falwell

The search result page also suggest alternate searches related to your current query where appropriate. In a sample search for “Jerry Falwell” I received five related searches, three results from the news archive broken out by year of publication, and three recent blog posts on Falwell’s recent death.

If a searcher makes it all the way to the bottom of the page it’s likely they never found what they were looking for, and a few quick suggestions might boost the relevancy of their experience.


The main Google search result page just received a major revamp yesterday with more content integrated from search verticals and new methods of displaying information about your query. Google’s sidebar advertising has always restrained itself to matching the layout and expectations of the main search result page, so perhaps Google Universal Search opens up new advertising options beyond a text summary such as maps, images, and video.

Publishers should now be even more motivated to list their content in a Google vertical and stand out on the main search result page. I expect video publishers and local businesses will pay even more attention to Google and its referral power now that their data can be highlighted in a more visually appealing search result than the competition.