Marshall Simmonds will be speaking about “Universal Search” at SearchFest 2012, which will be held February 24, 2012 at The Governor Hotel in Portland, Oregon. For more information or to purchase tickets, please click here.

1)      Please give us your background and tell us what you do for a living?

I’m the Founder and CEO of Define Media Group, specializing in enterprise search marketing and strategic audience development.  I’ve been involved in search since 1997, was the Chief Search Strategist for from 1999-2011 of which the last five were spent quarterbacking all search strategy initiatives for the New York Times Company portfolio.  Define Media Group started in 2005 and officially broke off from the NYTCo in January of 2011.  Define works with many of the most influential brands and networks in the world.

2)      Universal Search already seems to be a grab-bag of mixed result types.  How do you see that evolving in the next few years?

Few years?!  No clue – hopefully some Tron-esque-Kinect-using-Minority-Report-style file navigation – I’ll be patient though. 

In the near term the evolution will mainly be consistency and consolidation.  Right now, Google is all over the map with their results and what constitutes spawning one-boxes, fresh links, images, and videos.  With that comes predictability and an integrated strategy to purposefully end-around the SERPS through a back or side door with targeted optimization of all digital assets. 

Search is ultimately the scoreboard for execution as well as a glimpse into a company’s internal content creation and optimization process.  Got a procedure in place to consistently mark up images with ALT text, captions and file names?  If not, it’s certainly worth the time and effort to educate editorial personnel on the best practices and require accountability.  Are you a growing recognizable brand?  Even better as Matt McGee pointed out with image improvements: “Google says its image search algorithm is not only looking for relevant images, but also “linking to the highest quality source pages.” Landing page quality is now an algorithmic signal for image search.” Images and video are two of the best ways to get into the main search results page!

We also hear water-cooler stories about teams within Google now actually sitting together (gasp!) so can easier collaborate on projects.  Google News switching over to Googlebot for crawling was most likely a formality and to help navigate an ever-growing list of user-agents. (As an aside Google *really* needs to update this page and add a date line – little help here?)  However, it represents needed consolidation and bringing Google News further into the Master Fold.  Google News one-boxes are great ways to get link-share footholds.

Universal Search continues to speed towards Author Rank and personal brand management (see Simon Penson’s great article on this topic) as one of the strongest signals for 2012 and where we’ll be focusing efforts.  It’s as micro as we can get for now it seems – although I’m sure DNARank is coming soon – Wired: Artifacts from the Future? I’m looking in your general direction for guidance on this.   

 3)      Your website prominently features the phrase “audience development” as a specialty of your company.  How can the opportunities of Universal Search further these goals?

Audience development is the scalable fulcrum for any site and as a result, the demand for our expertise draws us deep into an enterprise organization; SEO, UI/UX, social, IA, research, strategic project management, technical responsibilities, training, etc.

There is no better time to be a publisher online.  The freshness update really was helpful as we see a nice balance of big brands and lesser-knowns revealed for time-sensitive queries right now (mainly TV, Sports and Celebrity News) which is sure to expand.  Video, however, is the huge opportunity and back door into Universal Results as it continues to dominate the OneBox insertions. SearchMetrics reports 70% of their tracked organize queries showing video.  While we haven’t corroborated that information we certainly have seen an increase in demand for rich media.  Publishers who have the money, and even those that don’t, can produce high quality video with the strategic motive to get that click from a ‘visual ranking.’

News is a no-brainer too and Google News has loosened the barrier to entry required for acceptance. I like Google News for the early link-grabs and equity strategies.  It positions a piece of content nicely when the social cycles kick up and early buzz is spreading around a topic.  Owning a Google News One-Box is a path to sharing success.  If you aren’t pushing a news sitemap to Google, stop, but down the mouse and do it immediately (or at the very least submit)!  Be aware though that it’s a quirky and sometime finicky system that will kick out errors much more often than the XML sitemaps do requiring more time and attention in GWT. 

Finally, as I mentioned above, I’m a huge fan of leveraging image and video databases.  Google is clearly showing their desire to further display visual type results whether or not the user requests them.  That said there’s no reason to not introduce an active optimization campaign around these assets in tandem with content production.  The bottom line: if a user can see it, it can be optimized.  

SearchFest is a great way for an SEO or someone in charge of audience development to take back to the office a number of strong initiatives to win budget, validation, and resources to generate traffic and contribute to the bottom line – the ultimate, and nearly recession proof, personal brand management.

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