Whatever happened to that nice simple list of ten links to HTML web pages that used to be the friendly recognisable face of Google and nearly every other search engine? In reality it has been gone a long time, but in 2016 the one thing you can be sure of is more change.

When presenting relevant answers to users’ search requests in Google, modern Search Engine Ranking Pages (SERPs) use Universal Search to rank the entire digital universe. This search includes a range of content types such as tweets, images, videos, content snippets, knowledge graphs, blogs, news, The Local Pack, Google Merchant Centre, Adwords and Google Street View, as well as the more traditional yet semantically sophisticated keyword search results.

A simple search for a brand as ubiquitous as Tesco returns a page rich with a variety of content types: maps and contact details for locals stores, the latest tweets, company information, breaking news about the brand – oh and 4 HTML page links – two of those being to Wikipedia and Facebook. HTML web pages on the brand site account for only one listing on the page – the second being the Tesco PLC corporate website for shareholders. Brands like Tesco, for which thousands of people search for specific information daily, need to make use of a multi-channel, media-rich approach to search strategy, having shifted the emphasis away from relying on HTML web pages and instead drawing upon all other types of searchable content.

By doing this brands have greater opportunity to achieve both page 1 visibility and increase their ‘real estate’ visibility on that page. But that doesn’t mean your website is irrelevant – far from it: brands that focus exclusively on digital marketing strategies undermine themselves if their websites provides a poor user experience.

Everything is Integrated

There has been a watershed in how brands need to approach search strategy, driven by a significant shift in how users access the information they are looking for and the variety of information they expect. For brands, a successful search strategy means:
The Google SERPs are often the ultimate destination for the user, with no real need for them to click away from the Google advertising platform.

On Facebook and other social channels an in-platform journey will meet more of the users’ needs, with many eventually offering the option to purchase in-channel.
On your mobile phone and other devices, in-app search, widgets and rich push messaging means mobile users won’t even need to open the app to access the required information.
Already the majority of time users spend online is spent on a tiny proportion of websites, which raises the question of whether many destination websites (other than those of the biggest brands) are going to be necessary at all.

Interactions are Changing

It was not very long ago, that brands could expect users to Google a term, like ‘Tesco’ and they would be met with the aforementioned list of links. Search the same term today and users encounter rich data to help them to modify the specifics of their search and direct them to the right destination.

In this example, users encounter a wealth of data, making Google SERPs the destination page, with data pulled from a third party database and rendering the brand’s HTML front-end website to some extent less significant. With info-hunters’ ever-increasing use of mobile phones, search pages have transitioned to offer opportunities for users to access real-time, localised, media-rich content via fully-optimised apps. Users searching for ‘Tesco’ using their mobile will encounter a screen inviting them to install the app. The user’s location is also immediately identified and the nearest stores located on a map. There is very little need for them to engage at all with the company’s website.

Ever-evolving Relevance

Google knows how estranging large amounts of text data can be, but it also recognises our need for the right information, instantly. A consistent look, feel and layout to that data in one familiar platform like Google makes it more accessible to users. It also lets them sell more ad impressions.
Brands cannot ignore this. Websites will continue to be critical, but publishing approaches and forms of data feeds will continue to grow in importance.
Some of the features that allow brands to direct users quickly to what they’re looking for and a wider variety of relevance include:
Real time info
Current information is listed in response to a user’s query. Push notifications, however, supply relevant, timely, personalised information directly to the mobile, assisting in the real-time accessing of information.
Media rich
Users can access information in various ways from maps to videos, to Youtube channels and other social platforms.
Local data
The information is precise and tailored to your locality. Even without the addition of the location in the search, Google assesses the likely geographical area for the search and supplies the relevant information in the Local Three Stack data, (which is helpful due to the abundance of local Tesco stores near this particular search).
Social channels
Here the search results offer a variety of profiles so users can access Tesco, in this example, via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Google+ at the tap of an icon.
Image support
Images such as recipes featured on Twitter, further augment the user search experience.
Relevant news
Half a scroll down will display the latest news, privileging the most recent.
The knowledge graph
The knowledge graph at the top right of the results page now has an API, which means data can be pulled on competing brands, and brands can find out how best to optimise their own knowledge graph content.

Helping users; helping yourself

By integrating all the information the user might need to make an informed decision, SERPs work hard to assist the user along their journey.
Brands that recognise the importance of optimising all apps and social channels are the ones who will find users engaging most meaningfully with search results pages, thereby facilitating the brand’s natural real estate ownership on the SERP.
Google is continually refining its algorithm to provide the most relevant results, but keeping up to date with these changes isn’t about knowing the latest algorithm, rather it’s about anticipating what’s coming – like the rise of the app – and ensuring your strategy is future-proofed to handle it.
For big brands search optimisation of the HTML website continues to be fundamental to success, but if yours isn’t one of the top names it’s worth thinking about whether your website or app will remain as important in the future as it is right now.