Practical Ecommerce

Google Instant Search: The Impact for Ecommerce Site Owners

This week Google rolled out Instant Search, a revolutionary AJAX-based technology that dynamically updates the search results page as users type in each character of their queries. Instant Search changes the fundamentals of how a user will search on Google. The introduction of Instant Search means that ecommerce site owners should be on high alert over the next several weeks to monitor their analytics and ad campaigns for changes in user behavior, click patterns, and search terms.

The Details on Instant Search

Instant Search results for "practical e", for a Practical eCommerce staff member.

Instant Search results for “practical e”, for a Practical eCommerce staff member.

With Instant Search, Google uses the wealth of data it possesses to predict what users will want to see and serve the results accordingly. With each character that a user types, Google dynamically updates the search results page–including organic, shopping and sponsored links.

Google has provided an overview, called “About Google Instant,” including a “frequently asked questions” section that I recommend to ecommerce merchants.

Over the past year, Google has been moving decisively toward relying on its predictive abilities and vast database of user information to serve up results. Google Instant is part of an ongoing transition Google has been making toward localization and personalization of search results. In Google’s new paradigm, if ten people type in the same term, the results each person sees likely will vary, depending on where the user is located and what his or her search history contains.

Although Google is not fundamentally changing how it ranks pages, by putting more emphasis on its knowledge of the user and its own predictive powers, the experience of searching and user behavior is likely to shift.

What Effect Will Instant Search Have?

Google Instant should have a positive, short-term benefit for the average user. But it will present challenges for search marketers and small ecommerce site owners.

Here is a concrete example of a product-related search. Let’s assume a shopper is interested in a “PondMaster Mag Drive Pond Pump.”

With Google’s old way of doing things, the user would type the entire phrase and then hit search. The results would reflect a close match for the long tail phrase that the user was after. Then the user would scroll through results to find the listing that piqued his or her interest and possibly click through to lower pages in Google’s rankings.

With Google Instant Search, a possible scenario is that the user will type a few characters and wait for the results. As users type a few more characters, new results will automatically display on the search page. Before typing the entire phrase, there is a good chance that the users will see something that catches their eyes and click to the sites. The user’s attention will likely be focused in the first few listings around the search box as they continue to type. And, there is a higher degree of likelihood that they will not finish typing their long phrase and make it to the listings that are a direct match for their original intended search.

This scenario presents challenges for the average small site owners or people doing their own search engine optimization work. Click-throughs will skew more heavily toward those who have the top few positions in paid and organic, and could benefit those who have a lock on the more generic terms, which often times are larger brands.

Changes to Consider

Google asserts that Instant Search will not negatively impact click-through rates on paid campaigns or radically alter organic listings. But it is up to you to monitor and assess the impact on your site.

Organic Search Changes

Although Instant Search won’t technically affect search rankings, Google is fundamentally changing the notion of how search results will be delivered. So, the game just got harder, and you need to be smarter.

  1. Make a list of your current top products and associated phrases. Start typing the phrases and pay attention to where your site comes up when typing the first several characters as compared with the entire phrase. Look for new areas to focus your optimization based on the results you see.
  2. Make adjustments to your on-site SEO to make sure you are doing everything you can on the more general phrases.
  3. Pay close attention to Google’s auto-complete suggestions and look for new opportunities for phrases based on what Google is suggesting to searchers.

Changes to AdWords

  1. Monitor your campaigns closely over the next several weeks for changes in your impression numbers and clicks. Depending on how user behavior changes, your impression levels and quality scores could be affected.
  2. Note these conditions under which Google will count an impression:
  3. When an ad is displayed for a minimum of three seconds without the user typing. The “timer” will start going again once the user types another character.
  4. The user clicks anywhere on the page after having typed a query.
  5. The user selects one of Google’s suggested queries.
  6. You might need to shift your bidding if your long tail keyword click-though rates decline. Keep a close eye on your long tail keywords in your campaigns to see if they continue to product clicks and conversions.


Google will now generate and pass along a referring URL that includes the original search query as well as the final suggested search query that Google is using to build the results page. Knowing both of these pieces of information is crucial for understanding your users’ behavior.

Semetrical blog offers a concise description of how to set up a Google Analytics filter for splitting out the two search queries and making sense of how users are searching on Google to get to your site. Merchants should read this description.


Google’s central idea behind Instant Search is that it will speed up the search experience for users and make it easier for them to find what they want. But it also means you, as a site owner, have new challenges ahead of you. Pay close attention to your site’s performance and be ready to put your search marketing skills to work.

Michael Stearns

Michael Stearns

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  1. mohsink4u September 9, 2010 Reply

    Very informative article

  2. thekeeper September 9, 2010 Reply

    It will be interesting to see how rank checking tools such as WEBCEO deal with this.

    Will Bing also follow suit?

  3. Michael Stearns September 9, 2010 Reply

    Bing actually has a similar tool – an AJAX -based search interface. It was available over a year ago, but I don’t believe it ever went past the experiment stage.

    You can search on Google for "The Real Live Search" :-)

  4. Michael Stearns September 10, 2010 Reply

    As an update to this article, the Google Analytics team posted some information today on their blog related to Google Instant

    They say that some of the "clever" filter hacks such as the one I referenced are not necessary for tracking "predicted" search phrases in Analytics.

    To get semi-geeky for a moment, they are saying the "oq" parameter is not always passed along and is not an accurate reporter of partial terms.

    I will be interested to follow this discussion and will be doing some experimentation as to how searches flow into analytics.

  5. skilaq September 15, 2010 Reply

    It would be correct to say that brand related searches will almost certainly favour the manufacturers website mentioned in the search phrase. For example: you may have a really authorative rank for the search phrase "nike shoes", but if people can stop at nike and proceed through to nike’s website then Nike them selves will probably close the sale (provided they sell their products online)

    It’s probably time to start targeting generic search terms… Searchers looking for sports trainers, sports shoes, sports boots etc really need to complete the search phrase before they are going to get anything relevant coming up in instant search.

    If you are an retailer of other brands and focus highly on using brand related search terms for your sales, you could be in for a bit of a shock and its really a good move to start starting those generic search terms.

  6. Michael Stearns September 16, 2010 Reply


    Although I agree with your basic point, it is easier said than done to start targeting and get top placement with major brands and generic terms with your SEO. My advice:

    1. Don’t panic.
    2. Watch your stats closely over the next few months to see if things actually change.
    3. Most definitely you should look for new SEO opportunities, or places where you have done a poor job. But cracking the top for brand searches will be tough.
    4. Make sure you have fully explored Comparison Shopping Engines and whether they are a good fit for your product line. Many shoppers are going to CSEs to find the best products and values.

    These are interesting times in the Ecommerce world. Time to explore Twitter’s new interface and what opportunities are available there!

  7. Paul Lewis September 16, 2010 Reply

    Great write up and interesting how things will pan out.

    I’ve written a quick article about how Google Instant Search could change things for the big brands picked up by just one letter searches.. For example, typing in P brings up PayPal..

    I’ve got the whole [Google Instant Alphabet search listed on my article here.](

  8. Steen Olsen September 20, 2010 Reply

    It will be very interesting to see how other platforms – ie Facebook – might get a boost due to this, since a lot of the smaller companies without big budgets will loose so much traffic from the search engines over time. Thus, they need to find alternative channels to drive their sales and marketing initiatives