You don’t have to go far to find digital marketers wringing their hands over the growing invasion of Google’s universal features into the SERPs.

And can you blame them? In the search results for the query “rainbow” (shown below), there is a single standard organic result above the fold.

It’s a good idea to step back and remember that even though these results aren’t the traditional ten blue links, they’re still natural results.

In other words, they’re earned media; they represent what Google thinks will be the most high quality and relevant result for a query. That means there’s a huge opportunities for digital marketers who have quality content and optimization skills.

I optimized my last post on Econsultancy for the term “offline marketing”. After it was published, I noticed that it appeared in the news universal search feature for the query.

Universal search works in my favor here. The format of the news element makes the article a prominent visual feature on a competitive first page.

I optimized this post using SEO best practices, not specifically targeting universal search. This goes to show that despite the fact that universal search elements have different algorithms and ranking triggers, the best practices of both types of search results are similar and their strategies are complimentary.  

Offensive and defensive universal search strategies

Universal search is another opportunity to get your brand out there in a competitive market. In every vertical, there are untapped niches and those who are the first to market will have an enormous advantage.

While you can find these opportunities and offensively maneuver for universal search space, you may also want to strategize defensively.

After all, it’s important to know where you rank organically in the context of universal search.

If you’re Tilly’s in the above SERP, you technically only rank one organic position below Nordstrom.  However, the images universal result that Google surfaces in the middle dramatically widens the space between these two results.

It’s helpful to know that for this SERP, putting in the elbow grease it takes to jump up one natural ranking position will pay off extra.

You’ll leapfrog over the universal result in addition to the Nordstrom organic result. Knowledge like this can really help you prioritize your optimization efforts.

How to rank for videos in universal search

Realistically, we can’t look at all the possible ways to rank for universal results in a single blog post (one look at Dr. Pete’s ‘mega serp‘ will cure you of that desire).

Still, we’ll take a look at videos (and images) to help give you a sense of the tactics.

If you sell products online, you’ll probably want to start producing video content. After all, a whopping 96% of consumers find video useful in their purchase decisions.

Fortunately for marketers who want to rank for video content, there’s literally a guidebook. The YouTube playbook showcases best practices to help you surface video content in both the natural results and in the universal search results.

A video in the universal search results can be quite powerful. In the SERP for the query “Adidas Mens F30”, Sports Authority actually outranks Amazon because of the video’s position as a universal search element.

Not only does Sports Authority outrank Amazon, its video result also pops visually, attracting eyes with its ratings and preview.

One of the primary ways Sports Authority does this is by producing extremely detailed, high quality structured data to accompany its videos.

As a brief refresher on structured data: search engines recommend that you use rule-based html tags that convey meaning about your site content.

For that reason, good structured data often helps you rank better for more relevant queries. (If you need more info, start with this post by Andrew Isidoro.)

This is Sports Authority’s video sitemap. It is an excellent example of detailed, well-constructed markup.

The markup tells search engines all kinds of details about its video. Here is just some of the info contained here:

  • Whether the video is family friendly.
  • How long it is.
  • View count.
  • Publication date.

All this goes a long ways towards getting Sports Authority’s videos in the valuable universal search real estate. Anecdotally, we’ve seen schema vastly improve video rankings in both natural and universal search.

How to rank for images in universal search

More than ever, Google is doing an excellent job of identifying when images are unique. Unique images have a far better chance of appearing in universal search positions (and ranking well in general).

Zappos performs very well in the universal image packs because of its emphasis on unique content. Zappos takes pictures of all of its products (and shoots its own videos).

You can see that the site is being rewarded for both those efforts in this SERP for “dr marten 1460”.

Besides uniqueness, it’s also critical to optimize the title, alt tag, and the copy around your images with relevant keywords on relevant pages.

As Google itself warns, “…if you have a picture of a polar bear on a page about home grown tomatoes, you’ll be sending a confused message…” As always, authority also plays a part.

Universal search is the best thing since sliced bread

There’s an interesting study by iCrossing about the myriad benefits brands gain by appearing in both natural and paid search. I think it’s fair to extrapolate that appearing in natural, paid, and universal search can only heighten those effects (more visits, conversions, and so on).

Add the fact that universal elements are often at the top of the SERP and are visually appealing…that’s rich territory you can’t afford to ignore.

Ranking in universal search isn’t out of reach, either. A good SEO strategy goes a long way towards universal search optimization. Alongside best practices, factor in the ranking triggers for universal search (like schema for videos and uniqueness for images). Be aware of where universal elements do and do not appear in the search results.

With good SERP data and a solid SEO strategy, universal search can help marketers improve just about every metric they care about.