June 21, 2010

How Google’s Time Dimension Will Disrupt Your SEO

(Read in entirety at Search Engine Land. Published 2010)

I no more than finished weaving some nostalgic “back to the future” references into my last article (how social media content like UGC can accelerate your SEO into the future) and Google decides to unveil their new search results UI, featuring among other improvements new filters that give searchers a whole new dimension on which to search: Time. A search marketing time-machine? How can I resist… Marty, we’re going back to the future, for part two.

“I foresee two possibilities… the encounter could create a time paradox, the result of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe. Granted, that’s a worst-case scenario. The destruction might be very localized, limited to merely our own galaxy.” –Doc Emmitt Brown

Targeting time travelers

On the surface, these time filters appear to present searchers with little more than a look back at what was relevant in previous time periods. For example, you can filter the index for content added in the last few hours, day, week, month, year or even across a custom date range. It’s like time-traveling using the Wayback Machine, but for search results, right? Not exactly. In fact, not at all.

What the time slices actually show is a list of the freshest, most dynamic pages added to Google’s index during the selected timeframe, ranked based on their comparative relevance (as opposed to their “absolute” relevance—which is biased towards those pages with links). The nature of fresher content is that they have not had as much time to establish link credibility on the web. So rather than letting searchers travel back in time, these filters are more like searching into the future, by seeing not just content from the past, but from right now.

I think this will be a big deal for brands. When searchers opt to view Google’s index by freshness, they are effectively removing the entrenched organic brands (with more link-credibility) from the consideration set in that keyword market, while also ignoring brands that fail to provide fresh content for them to consider. It is reminiscent of SEO circa 2000 when dynamic page content couldn’t be indexed and large sites were simply invisible.

For instance, compare the results of a simple [men’s jeans] query in Google’s traditional results. You see the brands you’d expect: Macy’s, American Eagle, Banana Republic, Armani, Gap, JC Penney and more. Now turn on the time filters to see only the content added to Google’s index over the past few hours; the last day; the last week; the last month, the last year.

I realize the results I saw when I wrote this post will have changed by the time you read this (future-boy), but the point is clear: established brands that worked so hard to earn top results are simply not visible in the fresher time filters. What you find instead is social media chaos, like Tweets, Facebook posts, blog content. I even spotted some rare Craigslist and AOL listings. Talk about going back in time 10 years.

Here’s the bottom line: By institutionalizing a search time dimension with their UI, Google has introduced a new opportunity for all brands to steal (or have stolen) search marketshare from (or by) the competition. Brands that focus on dynamic site content with fresh social media output stand to gain searchers, at the expense of those brands who stay stagnant, one query at a time. The speed at which the gains and losses occur will be magnified by the availability (or lack) of content within each time filter. Now the “recency” of social media will begin to matter in search.

Measuring recency

To get ahead of the opportunity, and manage your own risks, there are some practical steps you can take to overcome an analytic barrier that may stall you and your competition in your tracks.

The issue is a classic chicken or egg problem: unless you are present in the “fresh” results now (aka “recency”), you cannot accurately predict what percentage of searchers are shifting to time-filtered results in order to make the business case for action. Most analytic systems will not yet parse out this traffic either; it is just lumped in with all Google organic results.

Ask yourself this question: Is there a way to estimate whether any of your current keyword markets are time-sensitive and if you are currently getting organic traffic from time-filtered results?

First, you need the following name-value pairs which Google’s UI appends to any search query to produce the time-filtered results. You can verify this by simply appending these codes onto a Google query, like for content added in the last 24 hours.

  • Latest: “&tbs=rltm:1”
  • Past 24 hours: “&tbs=qdr:d”
  • Past week: “&tbs=qdr:w”
  • Past month: “&tbs=qdr:m”
  • Past year: “&tbs=qdr:y”
  • Custom range: “&tbs=cdr”

Armed with these codes, you can query your log files to determine how much, and what percentage, of your Google keyword traffic came from each of these filters during May 2010. Compare your May results to a baseline (say, April 2010). You’ll need to set up your query to match on Google as your referring domain, where the referring URL string also contains one or each of these time filter codes. Compare to your baseline. Monitor this over the coming months for trends as searchers modify their behavior around this new feature.

If your aggregate Google traffic across the time filters for any keyword market approaches 10% levels, I’d recommend treating that as an indicator of a time-sensitive market where searchers are dissatisfied with the traditional results. That may be your trigger point for more aggressive social media campaigns or dynamic site enhancements targeted at establishing presence in the fresh results for that market.

SEO + social

Even with Google’s significant UI change, the objective remains the same: ensure your brand is represented, whether searchers in your keyword markets go “back in time” for established results, or search “into the future” for more recent information. But to this end, SEO as a singular tactic to reach organic searchers is a relic of the past. Whether we give this work a new name (like “earned media”) or simply redefine “SEO” to encompass social media and marketing elements, achieving time-optimized search visibility clearly requires a new style of execution on both fronts.

Welcome to the future of search!

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