Google’s new search update, Google Instant, launched on September 8th and has everyone in the SEM (Search Engine Marketing) world talking. While the full effects of Instant have yet to materialize, I wanted to give my early ideas on its implications for the future of search and how it could affect your site.
1. User Behavior Will Change
The most interesting thing to keep an eye on with Google Instant will be how it affects user behavior. The consensus is that it will change the way people search, but because the technology is so new, no one knows exactly how it will make that change. My instinct is that it will create "lazier" search queries, as people rely on the Google suggestion to complete their thought. This could mean less long-tail searches and will almost certainly mean less click-throughs to the second page of results.
What we should see from an SEO perspective is a greater premium placed on ranking on the first page, and in the Top 3 more specifically. If this holds true, it would hardly be an unintended consequence. Google’s SEO guru Matt Cutts has stated that “a key insight behind Google Instant is that we want to get people answers and solve their problems faster”.
2. Big Brands Will Gain an Edge
Another side effect I’ve noticed in the Google Instant debut is a visibility boost for top brands. This applies to both the paid and organic listings. I cannot help but notice when I type A, I get Amazon, E is eBay, and W is Walmart. Instead of serving a hybrid distribution of results for the letter E (ESPN, E-Trade, Expedia, etc.), Google gives me a full page of eBay results and ads.
The cynic in me wants to say Google is trying to boost some of their top spenders on AdWords such as the aforementioned Amazon, eBay, and Walmart. The line of thought here is that these top advertisers will accrue residual impressions and clicks, increasing Google’s take from AdWords, their cash cow. The reality is likely less sinister than that, but there is no denying that big brands are afforded an advantage in Instant.
3. Long-Tail Searches Will Change
Long-tail searches ("green eggs and ham" vs "breakfast") are more focused and have less volume than a general one or two word search, but they often lead to more precise results and, thus, strong conversions. Some people have jumped to the conclusion that Google Instant effectively kills the long-tail and will hurt sites that have focused their efforts there. I think that is a bit extreme, and I would encourage anyone to watch their analytics as I think there are potential positive and negative effects.
Because Google Instant results are displayed as you type, users can easily bail from typing a long phrase and settle for what is shown with their partial search. If you do not rank well for the shorter phrase, you will likely see a decrease in traffic. Also, analytics might show keywords that do not make as much sense because they are only part of the searcher’s true search intention. On the other side, Google Instant could also increase your long-tail traffic in some cases because search refinements seem to be easier with the new feature.
4. Data Will Fluctuate
Web analytics and data are key drivers of search marketing strategies, whether paid or organic. Google Analytics and other packages offer detailed data on a user’s intent by showing the search query he or she typed to reach a given website.
Or at least they did.
With Google Instant, and its built-in suggestion feature, Analytics packages will now display the suggested query that led to the eventual click. This is not meaningless, - it will certainly be valuable to see how searchers are reaching your website - but it is not as powerful as it was previously. Search queries as they were previously reported served as a direct line to your customers’ minds. Now, they are a truncated version of a searcher’s question with a little Google suggestion sprinkled on top.
On the PPC side of things, Google has warned advertisers and managers of AdWords accounts to monitor their accounts for increased impression numbers and click volumes. To date, we have not noticed any major impression fluctuations from any of our AdWords clients, but there is evidence that Instant has been responsible for this with at least some percentage of AdWords users.
Overall Google Instant is not going to negate the value of Search Engine Optimization or even change it drastically, but I would recommend staying vigilant. As always, monitoring analytics, watching your Adwords stats, and reviewing your search engine rankings will ensure that your site does not go quietly into the night.