Last week, Google introduced “Instant,” a feature that predicts searchers’ queries as they type them and streams the results for that predicted query onto the results page in real time. Google announced Instant on its blog, at “Search: now faster than the speed of type.”
Google Instant builds on personalized search and on the popular Google Suggest feature to bring every searcher a personalized result set based on his or her search history, location, preferences, and other factors. Every letter typed improves Google’s ability to predict the searcher’s intent, enabling Google to refresh the search results set in real time. With. Every. Letter. Typed. Google is the first of the big three engines to launch quick, predictive, personalized search to the masses as a foundational feature. For a helpful overview of Instant, I recommend “Google Instant Search: The Complete User’s Guide,” an article published on Search Engine Land.
The technology is undeniably impressive, despite my personal opinion that the user experience is painfully disruptive. Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, as a searcher, Google Instant is a potential game-changer in the world of search marketing. But how that change will manifest itself is widely debated.
Benefits of Google Instant
Google is positioning its new technology to deliver the results searchers want, faster. Because people can read faster than they can type, Instant allows searchers to scan results as they type. As the results flow into the page in real time the searcher can simply stop typing when the result set shows what they were looking for, or continue refining the search query without bothering to hit “enter” and wait for another page to load. Google estimates that this feature will save 2-5 seconds per search. Google’s own Matt Cutts shared his view of Instant’s benefits on his blog, at “Thoughts on Google Instant.”
What Does Instant Impact?
Search Result Visibility. Unlike Google Suggest, Instant’s suggestions push the results lower on the page. Suggest displays 10 suggested queries in a drop down over top of whatever is on the page. Instant displays five suggested queries on the page itself and pushes the search results (paid and organic) lower on the page. Consequently, the difference between the traffic received for a number 1 ranking and a number 3 or 4 ranking, paid or organic, could be bigger than ever before. It’s entirely possible for a number 4 ranked page to appear “below the fold,” requiring the user to scroll. And with Instant results, why would anyone scroll? Just keep typing until you see something that appears relevant in first page view.
How People Search. Some argue that Instant will usher in a new era of complacent searchers happy to consume the results that previous users and the algorithm have deemed most popular. If Google spoon-feeds searchers results, more people may be more likely to choose the most popular results by default. Why not? It’s easy and good enough for most.
Increased Competition for the Head. By changing how people search, Google Instant could potentially create a self-fulfilling system that reinforces what is popular and relevant simply by virtue of continuing to serve the results that users clicked because they were served instantly because they were clicked because they were served instantly because they were clicked.
Farewell to the Tail? The most concerned search professionals hail Instant as the demise of the long tail. If the most popular head terms become more and more depended upon, then will searchers stop entering longer and more specific search queries? I, for one, doubt that the long tail will completely be snapped off by Instant. After all, if I want to research hiking trails at Exit Glacier in Alaska, a two-to-three word query just won’t cut it. People search for specific reasons. Instant may change the number of characters they type, and may change the query they would have eventually typed to something that many others have typed instead, but detailed queries are here to stay. Instead of a missing tail, if Instant is widely adopted we’re likely to see a shorter, thicker tail. How short and thick remains to be seen and will vary by site.
Analytics & Keyword Data. Impressions (the number of times pages from a site were viewed in search results) will likely increase based on Instant because Google counts clicks and three-second pauses as impressions, as Google explains here in its AdWords support section. Three seconds, really? How are we to know whether the user really was consuming the content on the Instant results page, or whether they leaned down for a moment to pet the dog? AdWords accounts aren’t charged per impression. So at least that’s not a concern.
But what impact will these impressions have on Google Keyword Tool data that many rely on to determine the potential value of bidding on or optimizing for a particular keyword set? It will become increasingly difficult to determine whether a keyword is truly popular, or whether it is artificially reinforced by Instant. Though I suppose it hardly matters why it’s served. If Google serves it, then search marketers will have to strive to dominate the rankings for it.
Google’s Profits. According to the cynics, it all boils down to money. Google may view Instant as a benefit for its searchers, but Google also stands to profit from Instant. If Google can steer its users to search in larger consolidated groups for fewer phrases, the competition and cost for ads on those terms will increase. Google’s AdSense program profits. And if paid ads continue to be placed at the top, more of the organic results will be pushed from first page view. Google’s AdSense program would profit from the decreased organic visibility. It may not be Google’s primary motivation, but it is a pretty advantageous possibility.
What Instant Does Not Impact
Rankings. Rankings for an individual search query for an individual user will not change. The Instant result I receive when I type practical ec will be the same as the result that Google would have shown me two weeks ago for practical ecommerce, the query Google rightly predicted I was going to search. Another searcher may get a different personalized result than I get, but that result would be the same today as it was two weeks ago, pre-Instant, all other things being equal. In other words, the algorithm hasn’t changed, only the delivery.
Ads. Google Instant won’t change the way ads are served. But, as with rankings, the ads shown will be based on the predicted query, as opposed to the partial query, the searcher is currently typing. To repeat, the algorithm hasn’t changed, only the delivery.
Will Instant Impact Your Ecommerce Site?
First and foremost, the impact Instant has on any site depends on searchers’ ability and willingness to use it. Initially, Instant was only available to searchers on Google.com signed in to a Google account in the U.S. on certain browsers. But, the number of people able to access Instant grows every day. It remains to be seen how many will be delighted with it and how many till disable it.
Assuming searchers use Instant and assuming that Instant is likely to reinforce the status quo, the impact Google instant has will likely be tied to a site’s distribution of head versus tail traffic. If a site has historically based its search performance on site-branded and large-volume keyword phrases, Google Instant may actually strengthen that site’s search marketing performance. However if a site has historically excelled in the tail, attracting a handful of visits from many, many pages and keyword phrases, that site could potentially lose ground.
Mark September 8, 2010 as a milestone. Measure traffic and conversion performance before and after that date. Rankings vary by searcher, so don’t fret as much about changes there. If the volume of traffic remains the same, and conversions remain consistent, then no harm done. If traffic or conversions change after September 8, start digging. Was the change confined to Google-referred visits? If not, then Instant is not the cause. What types of pages gained or lost? Which keyword phrases? These data points are the symptoms that can help diagnose the issues and identify the cures.