Universal search (also called blended search) is a term from search engine optimization, which refers to generic search. For a so-called universal search, results from different databases are all provided in one list.
In order to understand how the universal search works, one has to understand that search engines such as Google often have access to different databases. Therefore, indices for images, news, websites, and other structure data exist. Users can selectively access these databases through a specific search. If only one search request should be answered, the search engine can deliver a mixture of different data. The user thus receives a result in form of images, shopping tips, background information, etc.
Below are examples of the different types of information from Google’s vertical search engines that Google uses since 2011 to provide users with search results:
The use of additional data sources and their integration in the SERP depends on many factors that Google and other search engines have not made transparent. For instance, users can have their individually preferred content displayed in the SERP using Search Plus Your World.
As an example, it can often be noted that real-time services such as Twitter are integrated with current events, whereas Google Shopping results are prominently displayed when a clear intention to purchase can be assumed (i.e., a transactional search).
Google often tests the integration of search results before implementing a fixed change in results display. Most recent changes are often first implemented in the databases for Google Search in the USA.
For the universal search, databases that provide pure websites can also be used. The Google Shopping database can therefore be enriched with product lists provided by dealers who have registered for Google Shopping. In order to obtain more structured data, Google regularly buys companies so as to use their databases for its own servers.
Google and other search engine providers want to provide users with more relevant information using the so-called universal search and thus refine the search. In the process, different media and data types can also be used. A currently prominent example for the universal search that is further optimized by Google is the so-called “Fact Box”. Here, individually compiled results from different data sources, which are accumulated in the Knowledge Graph database, are displayed in an information box on the side of the SERP.
Critics of the universal search insinuate that search engine providers, particularly Google, use these mixed search results so that visitors can stay longer on their pages. Since Google is a company that mostly earns its revenue through advertisements, this point of criticism is certainly justified. The longer a user stays on Google’s Internet pages, the more probable it is that the user will click on an advertisement. Critics argue that by focusing on the respective Google products, the objectivity of the search results might also suffer.
In addition, the space for organic search results in the SERP is becoming less and less whereas adverts, e.g., from Google AdWords, are being made more and more conspicuous.
Many marketing experts similarly argue that Google’s universal search adversely affects other service providers e.g., price comparison portals in the SERP.
The extension of the search has enormous implications on the search engine optimization. Since the SERPs are augmented by additional information, it might happen that organic search results, especially on the first pages, are pushed back very far. It can therefore happen that a website is very highly ranked with regards to a certain search term, but the link to the website is only visible after scrolling since the universal search results e.g., images, shopping results, or an integration of a local search results page are placed between Google Doodle and the organic search results. For SEOs, holistic optimization will increasingly become important so that images and videos from a web project can also be prominently placed in the SERP.