Google has been giving users “instant previews” in the search engine results pages (SERPS) for some time allowing users to click a little blue magnifying glass symbol next to each result to see a cool little overlay that shows a preview of the resulting website content.  Google has now rolled out this same functionality for video, showing actual video previews for any video results without the user having to leave the results page – Kinda like how they used to do it, but better.

We actually noticed this a little over a month ago and were intrigued enough to grab some quick video of the feature in action. It was clearly in testing and hadn’t rolled out to the public yet. Then, late last week, the feature suddenly appeared in a more widespread fashion. We were able to confirm it was live across data centers and Jeremy grabbed some more video of it on a Google Video search results page:

As you can see, users are shown four video thumbnails in the preview, and each one plays for ~5 seconds, starting with the top near the start of the video and the others at incremental chunks proportional to the total duration. It does an excellent job of giving a quick overview of the actual video’s full content without the user having to click through to the destination URL.

Oh, and as you can see in the above thumbnail for this post, it’s working in Google web search as well, not just the Videos vertical. If a result in a traditional Google search happens to be video, courtesy of our friend Universal Search, the video preview function may work there as well.

Watching Video in Google Search Results, Once Again.

A few years ago, it used to be that Google would embed videos directly within both universal/blended and video search results so that you could actually click a “watch video” link and play videos in their entirety.  In fact, that was the original reason for the“allow_embed” variable within the <video:player_loc> tag in Google’s Video extension to the sitemap protocol. It still states in Google’s guidelines that:

The optional attribute allow_embed specifies whether Google can embed the video in search results…

This functionality, known as the “Video Plus Box” was removed 3 years ago (from universal search) and a couple years ago in video search results. I think it is interesting to speculate why, and I stress “speculate.”

What was wrong with the first take?

I believe there are a few reasons (and I’m sure there are many more) why they removed the “Video Plus Box.”

  1. At the time, it was still less than 2 years after Google bought YouTube and there was still a good amount of chatter within the industry about whether or not Google paid too much for YouTube and whether or not YouTube was ever going to be profitable. Google even stated a few months prior that YouTube profitability was a top priority. By instead driving searchers directly to YouTube, there should have been increase page views, time on site, brand recall, new users and as a result – Money from advertisers!
  2. As was likely the case for YouTube, this could have been disadvantageous to publishers who rely on traffic to their own website for monetization (hence the reason for adding a “yes/no” option in “allow_embed”).  As a result, and I know this from first-hand experience, some publishers were reluctant to have their videos in Google at first.
  3. Perhaps that user interface caused a reduction in paid search advertising response and hence PPC revenues? Again, just speculation but you can bet that ad revenue is a major influence in any UI decisions for Google SERPS, even though I dont expect Google to state that.
  4. Google is a search engine but has received heat in the past for “stealing content.” I think that’s going a bit overboard, but originally with the old feature, Google allowed users to watch videos in their entirety, while publishers footed the bill for bandwidth and missed out on the site traffic.  With the new feature, the videos are not embedded, but rather are digested and then previews are served up by Google.
  5. Maybe the feature was something that users really didn’t find useful.  A Google spokesperson stated at the time that:

We are constantly experimenting with new features to help improve the search experience. When some features — such as the “Watch Video” link – aren’t as useful as we want them to be, we remove them and go back to experimenting.

BUT, in the quick mention of this new preview functionality, Google’s Amit Singhal wrote:

When it comes to videos, people want to spend less time searching and more time watching. That’s why we added an enhancement to Instant Previews—the ability to preview videos.

So, who knows!  Now let’s speculate why the functionality to watch/preview videos directly within search results pages is back.

Why Video Previews in Google Search Results Now?

There could be several reasons why Google is making this move, and making it now. Here are a few ideas from Jeremy Scott as to possible motivations (“some more believable than others”):

Good, old-fashioned customer service?

Google has always claimed to care most about one thing: helping users get to the content they need and want in the fastest, most efficient manner. And certainly all the revenue-generating services they’ve built up around search (ads, specifically) depends on them remaining the top search engine. One way to stay on top is to continue to innovate ways to improve the user experience. The new video previews definitely do that, allowing users to sample the content without ever having to leave the search results.

Better analytics?

This is pretty speculative, but maybe Google wants to help YouTube get more accurate readings on their user behavior. Or better-define the metrics they use. I’ve long suspected that users who click a video but then abandon it immediately play havoc with their ability to report views. Perhaps video previews on Google search result pages will result in fewer bounces (videos that are started but quickly abandoned by users)? It’s just a thought. But more-informed searchers should be more consistent in watching a larger portion of the video they click on.

Better video analytics probably help YouTube’s ad division when it comes to selling advertisers.

Are YouTube Search Previews Next?

Maybe the end game is YouTube, and this is just a proof of concept? After all, with the volume of search queries YouTube pulls being second only to Google search, it’s safe to assume they’re as concerned about YouTube search as Google Video, right? Most likely there are more video-specific searches on YouTube than Google already. I half-expected to see this preview function working on YouTube searches already, but it’s not yet.

TIP: Don’t Want Users to Screen Your Videos in Google?

First off, I would advise each of my clients differently depending on their situation and business model–but, overall I think it’s great that users who come to your website from a video result, may be more qualified if they’ve already screened the relevant videos.  In fact, it will be interesting to watch and see if length of video viewing from Google SERP referrals increase.  It will also be interesting to watch what happens with traffic stats for video pages visited from Google search.

If you really don’t want to allow Google to show previews for your videos, there are 3 things that you may need to do, and this may be a balancing act for some.

  1. If you’re giving Google a video sitemap for indexing, use the <video:player_loc> tag instead of the <video:content_loc> tag.
  2. If an MRSS feed, don’t opt to provide the optional <media:content url=…> tag.
  3. Don’t link to or provide media files in your HTML, as those videos will be scraped and digested. This may include HTML5 videos coded directly onto a page (haven’t tested this yet), but most likely if you’re publishing video that way, the you’re already OK with letting bots scrape your files.

I’m thinking our good friends at Google Videos may come up with some other method for publishers to “disable” this per video, but we’ll have to wait and see.  The “allow_embed” variable is still pointless, but I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to set it to “No” if you’re really concerned.

Just to reiterate, I think this is a feature which may help improve the quality of visitors to your video landing pages so I would encourage you to examine all variables before deciding to go the route of preventing it.

Conclusion:  It’s Cool, SO – That’s a Wrap!

With video previews enabled on search result pages, users can make more informed decisions about the video content they choose to pursue. That should lead to happier customers, a higher percentage of videos viewed completely, and more accurate ad measurements for YouTube and publishers alike.

But, is it a good thing for all video publishers? And, what other reasons do you think Google had for pushing this feature live? Let us know in the comments below.