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The Jagger Update in 2005 was a major watershed. Jagger prepared Google's infrastructure for their migration to the Big Daddy infrastructure in early 2006. That change brought us the continuous, rolling PR and backlink calaculations we see today -- as well as the current situation of 300-400 algo tweaks per year.
[edited by: tedster at 12:12 am (utc) on April 10, 2009]
1. A positive push to improve relevance and meet user expectations and needs. Remember the old days of search, getting 1 relevant result out of 10? They've certainly raised the bar on that. A big part of this change was moving away from literal text string matching and using more sophisticated semantics tools.
2. The need to scale with the exploding level of content on the web. This pushed Google to advances in infrastructure, including the Google File System and then the Big Daddy infrastructure, plus innovative software, firmware and hardware solutions.
3. A defensive push to understand and limit the effects of webspam. Once webmasters appreciated the importance of links and PR, it became a kind of arms race that pushes Google to protect their SERPs from manipulation. And that brought us their war on paid links.
Universal Search was one of those changes that Google felt the general public would appreciate. It took a lot of work on their end to figure out how to make the ranking systems comparable across the various vertical search categories - which were not originally created with Universal Search in mind. Here's a related Google patent [appft1.uspto.gov].
My not-so technical friends and relatives love it. And sometimes it makes my job easier when a client has some junky negative information ranking on the first page and it gets pushed off to page 2 by news or video.
But mostly it cut down the first page real estate available as a ranking goal, and that makes getting Google search traffic a lot tougher on those keywords where it appears.
It pushed me to learn more about web video. [curmudgeon alert!] Given the problematic level of literacy that exists today, I'm glad I learned. Video helps make me a more effective marketer. And sometimes I can get a Universal result to rank right up there with a regular url.
It's all a question of how information is packaged - and now with Universal Search, there are more kinds of packaging available than basic html. Those who are focused on text web pages alone are becoming, well, just a bit antiquated in the light of Universal Search.