Are we getting ready to see a massive overhaul of Google or just some expansion of what we've already seen for years. That's the question. Either way, it appears Google wants to keep users more on its own sites and less on other people's sites.
What Is Google Planning?
The Wall Street Journal put out this huge article about changes brewing with Google (specifically, the company's search engine) that would make you think search as you know it is about to be turned on its head. Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land provides some good analysis and what he calls a "reality check".
The truth about it all is that much of what the WSJ article discusses has been part of Google for a while. However, that does not mean that there is not a bigger picture takeaway we should get out of that article - the direction Google is moving in, which does have large implications for sites (and therefore businesses), competition in search and social media, and advertising. It also sounds like Google is getting more aggressive in the strategy.
Okay, so what is the strategy? Basically, it's about providing more direct answers in search results. Much of what the article discusses sounds like what Google has been doing with Google Squared, as Danny mentions.
Where Google's Changes Are Coming From
Google really started using the Squared technology to provide direct answers in search results in 2010.
If you read the WSJ article, however, you discover (near the end) that it's more about (or at least additionally about) Google's acquisition of Metaweb Technologies (also in 2010). Here's a snippet of Google's announcement about the Metaweb acquisition from back then:
With efforts like rich snippets and the search answers feature, we're just beginning to apply our understanding of the web to make search better. Type [barack obama birthday] in the search box and see the answer right at the top of the page. Or search for [events in San Jose] and see a list of specific events and dates. We can offer this kind of experience because we understand facts about real people and real events out in the world. But what about [colleges on the west coast with tuition under $30,000] or [actors over 40 who have won at least one oscar]? These are hard questions, and we've acquired Metaweb because we believe working together we'll be able to provide better answers.
In addition to our ideas for search, we're also excited about the possibilities for Freebase, Metaweb's free and open database of over 12 million things, including movies, books, TV shows, celebrities, locations, companies and more. Google and Metaweb plan to maintain Freebase as a free and open database for the world. Better yet, we plan to contribute to and further develop Freebase and would be delighted if other web companies use and contribute to the data. We believe that by improving Freebase, it will be a tremendous resource to make the web richer for everyone. And to the extent the web becomes a better place, this is good for webmasters and good for users.
According to the WSJ, that 12 million is now more like 200 million entities, and Google is also trying to get access to more organizations' and government agencies' databases to expand even more.
Will Google's Broader Strategy Hurt Your Site's Traffic?
The Journal calls the forthcoming changes (reportedly in the coming months) "among the biggest in the company's history" adding that they "could affect millions of websites". The report cites "one person briefed on Google's plans" as saying the changes could directly impact 10% to 20% of all search queries or "tens of billions per month".
That's a lot.
Of course, anytime Google makes big changes, webmasters and SEOs have to pay attention, and often adjust their strategies. Sometimes the changes have a huge impact on the web and businesses.
Interestingly, the Journal's report says "people briefed on the matter" indicate that Google is hoping the changes will make people stay longer on its own site. Obviously, time spent on Google's search results page is time not being spent on your site. If Google's expansion of these direct answers is as huge as it's being portrayed (and probably depending on the partnerships the company is able to secure), this could cover a pretty broad range of website and content types. We might have a lot more types of sites joining the growing list of "competitors" complaining about Google "favoring its own results".