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Google Instant and SEO/SEM

Sep-13-2010

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There is quite a lot being written about how Google Instant is changing the way we search and how it may even change the way we surf the web and use software. If a 15-year-old could update the iTunes interface to do something like it, and if many other web-based apps are being hacked to behave similarly to the Google Instant interface, then this somewhat novel implementation of an AJAX-like interface could set the bar for many others.

If you are new to Google Instant (what's that, you're in one of those corporate environments that standardized on IE6 ten years ago and you cannot upgrade?), you can get an overview at the official announcement on the Google Blog, or you can watch the (self-congratulatory) video Google provided.

But how will Google Instant change the way we search? And by search, I really mean how will it change who gets seen in those searches?

As I use Google Instant, I find that typing the first few letters brings me to words and results I did not expect, sometimes distracting me from my original search goal and sometimes bringing me what I think I wanted. Between the Google Suggest options in the expanded search box and the strobing of search results as I type, I find myself missing the simple interface, but I see too many links to carry that thought for more than a moment.

As I observe my own behavior from that part of my brain that is also thinking about my next taco, I can see a subtle shift in my search patterns and see far more uncompleted searches as I go. And that makes me wonder about those results I am not seeing, that I don't stumble across now.

Image of Google Instant Monthly ad spending worldwide through Google is nearly $2 billion per month. There are companies spending good money on ad impressions and click-throughs. But now just what does an impression mean when every letter can further refine the search, resulting in dramatic changes in the ads that are shown? Google claims that it doesn't count an impression until a user stays on a page (or stays with a given set of results) for three seconds.

Will ad keywords command higher prices as users spend less time on the site, and possibly click less? An article at Advertising Age (What Google Instant Means for Marketers: More Ad Impressions) discusses some of these questions, and it's pretty clear that the next few weeks are going to be crucial for companies to see how this affects their ad campaigns as well as budgets. The landscape of SEM may be changing before our eyes.

What does this mean for organizations or web sites that are identifiable (rather, identified by Google) off the first letter? When I type "n" the first result is Netflix. I had to get through two more letters to get "Nerf" to come up. "A" shows me Amazon.com along with a corresponding Amazon ad on the right. Will users stop searching sooner? How will a company work to become the organization that shows up in the first letter or two (or three) during the search?

The Guardian asks a similar series of questions, but about SEO as well as SEM (What will Google Instant do to 'SEO' - and to its own AdWords system?). Given how many SEO "experts" target Google and, in the case of the snakeoil salesmen, walk away after developing a site, never to return, is all that work for naught? While Google claims that the search algorithm as well as the results aren't changing, as users get used to this new model the search behavior may very well change. Given that Google Instant takes your location and possibly even search history (if you are logged in) into account, this can result in users finding exactly what they want immediately and missing other links they might have seen during protracted search result scans.

How will this affect organizations or people with odd names that don't bring up an auto-completed result (Google Cleans Up Its Act — and Erases My Identity)? Will users become so reliant on the Google brain finishing their thoughts that the search button will be viewed as an archaic device, like banging rocks together to cook dinner? Will this become the new version of "below the fold?" I do not look forward to the day when I have to tell people to click "search" in order to see the things Google couldn't present with its autocomplete.

There's quite the potential for change that this seemingly simple user interface change could have, both on user behavior and money spent on SEM/SEO. The next few weeks may prove to be very interesting.

From Google

From the Google Analytics blog (Google Instant and Google Analytics):

With this change, you might notice some fluctuations in AdWords impression volume and in the distribution of organic keywords. For example, you may find that certain keywords receive significantly more or fewer impressions moving forward.

From the Google Webmaster Central blog (Google Instant: Impact on Search queries):

With Google Instant, you may notice an increase in impressions because your site will appear in search results as users type. [...] It’s likely that your site will still see impressions for queries like [hotels in santa cruz], but because Instant is helping the user find results faster, your site may see an increase in impressions for shorter terms as well.

From the Google Inside AdWords blog (Google Instant: A More Innovative Approach to Search):

[...] Google Instant changes the way we think about impressions. With Google Instant, an impression is counted if a user takes an action to choose a query (for example, presses the Enter key or clicks the Search button), clicks a link on the results page, or stops typing for three or more seconds.

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