Changes and Significance in Search: Looking Back on 2008

    December 27, 2008
    Chris Crum

I initially intended to piece together a retrospective article about the happenings in the search industry and SEO from throughout the year, based on our coverage of it., much like what I did with online video and online music. I quickly realized this would be a monumental task given that something like 90% of what we cover is search or SEO related. We have articles numbering in the thousands from this year alone covering these things.

So I decided to go down a slightly different path for this article. For this, I wanted to get the opinions of some big names in the field about what they thought the most significant things of 2008 were with regards to search, and what the biggest changes were from 2007 to 2008. I figured it would make for a more interesting article and certainly a less time-consuming one not only for me, but for readers as well.

Editor’s Note: It’s been a very interesting year for search, and the coming year promises to be even more so. This article looks at how some of the most recognizable names in the industry view the everchanging industry. Where it has gone and where it is going. What do you think?

And while we’re on celebrating the year coming to the end and the holidays, we’d also like to share this holiday greeting video with you:

Semantic and Intent-Based Search I decided to start in-house and find out what our own Mike McDonald thought the most significant thing to the search industry was in the year 2008. "I think the biggest POTENTIAL event of ’08 was Microsoft’s purchase of Powerset," he told me. Now keep in mind (in case the emphasis wasn’t enough), he said potential, meaning it could have big implications for the search industry’s future. Powerset is all about language analysis and semantic search. "Semantic search and interpretive queries based on semantics are going to be big. Language and implied intent is a major direction for search moving forward," Mike said. "So, in my opinion, 2008 marks the start of the real race to a more language/intent/semantic approach to search."

There is no doubt that how we receive search results is in for some change. There has certainly been a lot of talk about it with regards to Google, and Yahoo too for that matter with their whole "open" strategy, but we haven’t heard as much about Microsoft on this. Mike may be on to something here. Microsoft no doubt hopes Powerset will be its ace in the hole to gain some search market share.

Personalization, Universal Search, and SearchWiki Search Engine Roundtable Editor Barry Schwartz had this to say: "I think one of the most significant changes in 2008 was just about a month ago with the launch of SearchWiki in the search results.  Although I think the average searcher is not ready for it, it is here and there are no signs that it will be going away any time soon.  Not only does this give a searcher the ability to boost or remove search results, Google has admitted that they may be using data gleaned from SearchWiki to change the search results for everyone else.  So, I think that this, along with Universal Search, will have one of the most significant impacts in early 2009."

The mere fact that it is Google changing the way they deliver results is enough to make this significant. Google is obviously the top dog in terms of search market share (though not in every country), and most of us use it over its competitors. No matter what Yahoo, Microsoft or anyone else is doing, what Google is doing is going to have a tremendous impact just because its the one more people use.

Michael Gray"The biggest change is the SERP itself. With more universal search, more personalized search, and now SearchWiki, Google is training users to expect ‘more than 10 blue links’," says Atlas Web Service Owner and President Michael Gray. "Other search engines that don’t provide rich results are seen [as] behind the times."

"I’d say that the most significant thing to happen in the search industry in 2008 was the advent of more personalized search, and even more so, the new addition of SearchWiki showing up in Google," says High Rankings CEO Jill Whalen. "It’s too soon to really know what will happen with that, but my guess is that it will cause some reputation management nightmares for many companies."

Jill WhalenThis is a point that has crossed my mind, and one I intend to explore further in the near future. I think it will be quite interesting to see what kinds of reputation management changes will have to come into play as a result of the changing SERP strategies of the major search engines.

"The biggest change from 2007-2008 was the advent of Universal/Blended Search results which came out in May of 2007," added Whalen. "It has caused some urgency in companies to create multimedia content in order to have their images and/or video snippets show up in the search results."

The Economy and SEO

"In terms of the biggest changes, that might go as far to worry me a bit, is what is going on in the economy," says Schwartz. "We all know about the financial trouble Yahoo is going through to compete with Google and Microsoft.  Yahoo is struggling to survive, as opposed to struggling to even compete and that is scary.   Google, for the first time, is cutting back big time.  They even have decided to not give out holiday gifts this year  – which is significant, in terms of Google.  What type of impact will the economic turn down play in 2009 and search?   Will this impact SEO jobs?  I have seen more and more SEMs loose their jobs recently.  Will this stifle search relevancy?  These are my concerns."

These are certainly valid concerns. Changes in how search results are going to be delivered are going to be challenging for SEOs as it is. 2009 will definitely be a crucial year for SEOs in terms of staying on top of their game.

Community, Professionalism, Clients, and Browsing

Aaron Wall "I would say the single biggest change in the field of SEO is the deterioration of the sense of community and professional decency in favor of self-promotion at any cost – where people promote spam reporting each other even when their own past reports were both damaging and inconsistent with search engine editorial policies," SEOBook Author Aaron Wall tells me. "The next biggest change would be Google launching a browser. They still have limited market share, but as they gain market share that gives them yet another dimension to view the web through, and gives them even more search market share."

Google’s Chrome browser could really turn into another big thorn in Microsoft’s side not only by dominating more search market share as a result of increased Chrome use, but obviously by cutting into Internet Explorer use, a browser that already had its fair share of competition from the likes of Apple, Mozilla, and Opera.

As far as the deterioration of the sense of community and professional decency, this is no doubt directly related to the growth in "social media marketing" and the lack of understanding of the goals of such on the part of many of the people engaging in it.
Dave Davies
On the other hand, Beanstalk Search Engine Optimization CEO Dave Davies says, "The biggest change has got to be in the clients.  Clients are coming to us [SEOs] far more informed as to what they want and what the limitations of SEO are.  No longer are people asking for top 10 results for competitive phrases and disappointed when we tell them 3 months just isn’t going to happen.  They understand a lot more about what we’re doing and how long it takes."

Competition and Google’s Increased Domination

Rand Fishkin"I think 2008 might go down as the year Google moved into complete market share domination, not completely through their own doings, but because Microsoft and Yahoo! failed to reach a deal to combine efforts and because the market has been so tough on Yahoo! while both engines (and other tertiary engines like lost share to Google," says Wizard of Moz (SEOmoz) Rand Fishkin. "In 2007, I held out hope that together, these three – Ask, Yahoo! and Microsoft – along with the possible newcomer,, would have some positive impact in preventing or postponing a Google monopoly, but after 2008, I’m very skeptical that we’ll see anyone keep Google from reaching 90%+ search share in the next few years."

That doesn’t mean the competition won’t continue to try. Yahoo seems to be doing all it can with it’s open search strategy to bring new forms of relevancy to its search results, though its ability to steal away a remarkable amount of Google users remains to be seen.

Danny Sullivan"The Yahoo-Microsoft Merger That Wasn’t was the most significant thing, as it caused both companies to be weakened against Google and remains as the biggest doubt about their success, as the off-again, on-again rumors continue," says Search Engine Land Editor-in-Chief Danny Sullivan. "Search marketers need healthy competition among the search engines, and the competition ain’t healthy."

Dave Davies also cited this. "Refusing a deal at $33/share and now sitting at around $13 has got to go down as one of the big ‘tragedies’ of 2008 in the search industry," he says.

Adjusting Focus

"The biggest change was probably more awareness that it’s not about getting more traffic but how to better convert the existing traffic you have," says Sullivan. "I hear more and more people paying attention to metrics, these days." I suspect this type of mentality will continue to increase as changes in SERPs render some traditional SEO tactics obsolete.

Another thing SEOs and Internet marketers are going to have to watch out for is what happens with regards to net neutrality. This issue isn’t always brought up in the search engine marketing discussion, but as Cindy Krum discussed with Abby Johnson) in the following video from SES Chicago, it should be.



"The victory of a Net Neutrality supporter in the Presidential race is also a significant event though many may not know it," says Davies. "If I had to say what will have the biggest long term affect on the search industry (and in fact the Internet as a whole) it will be this win by Obama.  No matter where you stand on the issue, the victory itself paints the picture of the future of the Internet."

Mobile Search

Boris Mordkovich "In 2008, we finally witnessed mobile search go mainstream," says MordComm Co-Founder Boris Mordkovich. "With the arrival of the much anticipated Apple iPhone, followed by a collaboration between Google and T-Mobile on the G1, it is becoming clear that mobile devices are going to a whole new level – and taking the Internet and the search experience, as we know it, with them. The SEM marketing community has been anticipating this for quite a while, so I think that we are well prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead."

Wrapping up

In concluding, I would like to thank all of the people mentioned in this article for providing their opinions and insight into the everchanging search industry. I am very pleased with the variety of answers, and I feel it has made for a well-rounded outlook on where the industry is heading. 2008 has been an interesting year for search, but 2009 promises to really shake things up, and you can bet we’ll be there keeping an eye on it. Then, this time next year, perhaps we can reflect on how it all really went down.

What do you think was the most significant thing to happen in the search industry in 2008? What was the biggest change from 2007 to 2008?