This is a huge topic, since Google's universal search results include images, locations, business listings, videos, news, and now/coming-soon merchant services... so I can't cover everything, but I want to give our SEO clients a short primer on what universal search is, how important it is, and what we can do to optimize it, especially for local businesses.
The basics are this: without you asking, Google gives you more than just websites in web search results. It's been like that for more than a year, so I'm sure you've noticed... but you may not know how this impacts SEO. Here's an intro to Google's blended search and what's included in the results.
There's a New Definition for "Number One Search Results"
A bunch of our clients are local businesses. For example, we have some clients who are either golf courses or advertising cooperatives for golf courses in Myrtle Beach, SC.
Look what happens these days when you Google "myrtle beach golf":
The Division of Search Results Real Estate
This is on a 1024 pixel wide browser-
Yes, zero. Ye ol' natural website listings are not visible above the fold for this local search. And we didn't ask for that- that's just what Google naturally gives us for this search- it decides this is an important search to show local business results for.
So if your critical target keywords show local business results in Google's search, YOU MUST BE IN THE TOP LOCAL BUSINESS LISTINGS. If you have any doubt about that, check out independent research that shows that blended search changes searcher behavior.
Getting in Google's Top Local Business Listings Search Results
How do you do that? Luck? Voodoo?
Some businesses are lucky (or smart) to have keywords in their URLs and brand names. Look what happens for "Myrtle Beach Resort" when you type in the popular keyword "myrtle beach resort"...
...instead of a variety of local listings, the one business is featured. And they have the number one website ranking, so they get all 51% of the non-ad space above the fold.
The hotel group "Myrtle Beach Resorts" does not get the same privilege for the search "myrtle beach resorts":
Evidently, Google lets the plural form trigger a listing of multiple results, and MyrtleBeach-Resorts.com does not appear to be optimized to win in the top local business listings for this keyword. Looks like they need more backlinks and more reviews with that keyword in it!
An interesting question that comes up is: what keywords bring up local business listings in the Google search results? We tested a bunch of keywords in multiple cities, and it turns out that it depends on the city and what the businesses there are.
For example, "myrtle beach mosque" does not produce local listings...
...but "new york mosque" does:
Why? There aren't any mosques in Myrtle Beach, but there are a bunch in New York City.
How Do You Know Which Keywords Will Have Local Business Results?
The easy answer is search all your target keywords to see if local business listings come up and see how your client does for them. Every business should be managing a Google local business profile anyway- and that's part of the solution.
This is like the local biz results but not local and only service providers- so if you want to compare secured loans, you can compare rates and even fill out a lead form to get rate quotes.
Will it replace websites that get business leads? Probably not, but will it be another important channel? Yes. And will someone have to manage that information for these service businesses? Yes. Who? SEO's, of course!
Videos in Local Search Results
Just a few tests demonstrate that you can get locally relevant video results not just from keywords that contain video like "myrtle beach funny video"...
(note "myrtle beach video" brought up listings of video stores like Blockbuster)
You can also get video results from keywords closely enough related to the title of the video, e.g. "myrtle beach funny commercial"...
My Tips on Video SEO Optimization are:
Herewith endeth ye ol' lesson.