Is Universal Search Harder?

Does universal search make finding things harder?
Does universal search actually make finding what you are looking for more difficult?

All the big players in search are rolling out some form of Universal Search, where not only web pages come up in the results, but also images, videos, podcasts, news, books and so on. I have to assume that all of the search engines think this makes search easier for the searcher.

But does it?

For this article, I am considering a universal type of search to be any search results page that brings up all types of results – video, news, images, etc. – as well as web pages. Some search engines mix them all up in the search results, some place non-web page results around the page, like

Consider this example. I like penny loafers, which are getting really hard to find in brick and mortar stores these days (I know, it’s 2008, but I’m a retro kind of guy!), so I decided to try to find some on the web.

I headed over to, which has a really impressive interface with web pages, images, videos and a lot more that this nifty service dishes out with organic search results. I searched for “penny loafers” expecting, naturally, to find places where I could shop for my oh-so-square-footwear. Here are the top organic search results that I got, minus the PPC ads and the left nav links (so the image is readable):

Searching for penny loafers at

I see lots of information about a co-ed a cappella group called “The Penny Loafers” and a blog called “Orange Penny Loafers.” I see unrelated news and videos and even some images of penny loafers at the top right (next to the PPC ads), but nowhere in the top organic results do I see a place to actually shop for penny loafers footwear.

It appears that, rather than narrow down search results for the searcher, a universal type of search results page can produce a shotgun spray of results.

Is it any wonder that so many searchers are heading for social sites like Facebook and verticals like Do we really have to search through recommendations from our social contacts and specialty sites to find what we are looking for because what we are trying to find in the search engines is being pushed off the page by videos, images, news and so forth?

Does a simple text search for a product really have to be so hard? (Yes, there were PPC ads for penny loafers footwear, but I’m referring to organic results in this article.)

There are times when what I really, really, really want are relevant text results for a text search!

Here’s an idea. How about an on-off switch? Yes, sometimes I might want news, videos and so forth to come up with certain searches, say for a music group. But there are times that all of that extra fluff gets in the way of actually finding what I am searching for. It would be real nice to be able to turn OFF any type of universal search results.

Similar searches in Google and Yahoo yielded relevant shopping opportunities. In fact, it appeared that their respective versions of a universal type of search results page didn’t kick in for “penny loafers” at all – no videos, news, etc., making the search results more relevant to my need.

So, does Universal Search make finding things on the web easier? Not necessarily. Sometimes all of that clutter just gets in the way.

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+Richard Burckhardt

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