Roughly half of the visitors to an ecommerce site come from search engines, typically. And when those search engines change the method in which consumers search for online products, the effect on merchants can be dramatic.
Enter Google Instant, the new auto-fill search process that Google recently launched. It automatically suggests search terms as users type characters in the search box. Google says that this will make searches faster for most users.
We asked longtime SEO contributor Stephan Spencer to address commonly held questions that merchants have on Instant.
Why did Google launch Instant?
“Google is in business to build shareholder value. That’s done by maximizing profits and operating cash, both short- and long-term. It’s all fine and good for Google to say Instant provides searchers with a better user experience. (Google’s official position is that Instant can save 2 to 3 seconds per search, which I have trouble buying, incidentally.) But I believe financial incentives are at the heart of it.
“The bottom line is that Google Instant drives growth in ad revenues. That’s because it displays more ads to more users (5 to 7 times the number of results are displayed now via Google Instant than before). And it motivates AdWords advertisers to compete more vigorously for the top predictions coming out of Google Suggest. These terms are already expensive, and now they’re more so, thanks to Google Instant.”
How does Google determine what will be auto-filled in Instant’s search results?
“It’s based primarily on popularity of searches on Google over a recent, and short, period. Google states in its web search support section, ‘While you’ll usually be able to discover new queries within an hour, in some cases it can take a few days to a few weeks for recently popular search queries to start appearing in autocomplete.’
The most popular search term for the keystrokes entered becomes the query displayed in the results. With autocomplete, there are other factors in play besides purely search volume. Google states that these factors are ‘algorithmically determined based on a number of purely objective factors (including the popularity of search terms) without human intervention.’ Search history and geolocation are two of those factors. As such, the autocompletion suggestions aren’t the same for everybody, even when the keystrokes are the same. Sometimes the suggestions given may not begin with exactly the keystrokes typed, such as when Google assumes the keystrokes typed are part of a spelling mistake. For example, if you type ‘melborn,’ the top suggestion is ‘melbourne.'”
Can you provide a technical explanation as to how Instant works?
“The search is considered complete when you hit Enter, hit ESC, hit Tab, click one of the five suggestions, or click an organic or paid listing. If there is a 3-second or greater pause between keystrokes, it’s not considered a completed search (auto-completion is still active), but it is counted as an impression for paid search ad purposes.”
Does Instant favor larger ecommerce merchants or smaller ones?
“Google Instant favors sites with greater domain authority. That is not the same as larger merchants. Some small merchants or affiliates are punching above their weight and wielding lots of domain authority through link baiting and other sophisticated link-building initiatives. The way I’d explain it is this: Google Instant, by its nature, displays popular searches, and thus it follows that these search terms are ultra-competitive and difficult to rank for without serious amounts of link authority.”
Are you aware of organic results changing for any site due to Instant?
“If you’re asking if any site’s positions have shifted because of Instant, the short answer is ‘No.’ Rankings are unaffected by Google Instant. If you’re instead referring to ‘results’ as being Google-delivered traffic and subsequent conversions obtained from organic search, then absolutely.”
What about pay-per-click ads? How has Instant affected advertisers’ results?
“Some AdWords advertisers mistakenly think that they should now be buying incomplete words and phrases. This makes no sense. It would require the searcher to hit the ENTER or ESC key or click the Search button in the middle of their entry. For example, the searcher would need to type the keystrokes d-o-g-SPACE-c-ENTER for an ad for ‘dog c’ to show up. If the searcher types in d-o-g-SPACE-c, that shows ‘dog collars’ as the top suggestion and corresponding search results. So if a merchant selling dog products wants to show up after the searcher types d-o-g-SPACE-c, they would need to bid on ‘dog collars.’ If the merchant also wanted to show up in the paid results for d-o-g-SPACE, they’d need to bid on ‘dog names,’ too.
“Some worry that because Instant is increasing the number of ad impressions (an impression is defined as when someone completes a search with ENTER, or ESC, or Tab, or a click, or pauses for three seconds or longer after a keystroke), it will reduce the advertiser’s click-through rate and thus their Quality Score. The problem with this theory is that the Quality Score decrease is relative; the other bidders you are competing with are feeling it, too. In other words, Google Instant will inflate your competitors’ impression counts, too. That said, those going after the Google Suggest suggestions will feel the impact of Instant on impressions more than those who resign themselves to only competing for obscure, long-tail terms.
“As I stated above, I also think competition will increase for the auto-completed terms.”
Does Google publish data on the percentage of its users that use Instant when they search?
“Not that I know of.”
What do you, an SEO expert, think of Instant?
“I like it. I like it as a user. Not only does it look cool, but it also feeds my addiction to multitasking. But many industry folks don’t like it. There are plenty of vocal critics on the blogs and forums complaining about it. Like it or not, you can’t argue that Instant is an innovation. And innovating is what Google is good at.
“Is it possible that Google could end up backtracking on Instant and make it be ‘Off’ by default? Sure it is, but I hope not.
“As an SEO practitioner, I like the new opportunities Instant presents. It means you either have to up your game or get out of the way. Google Instant demands that practitioners become more aware of what Google Suggest is recommending to searchers, how to influence Google Suggest’s recommendations, and how to win at the more competitive terms that Google is predicting.”
What else do ecommerce merchants need to know about Instant?
“Google Instant isn’t anything to get stressed about. Regarding SEO, Google Instant is not a ‘game changer’ or a ‘disruptive technology.’ I’d argue it’s not even a major SEO development. It’s nowhere near the impact of Bing powering Yahoo’s results, for instance.
“Also, as a heads-up, Google Instant will be rolled out onto Google News, Google Images, and onto mobile devices in the coming months.”