Google recently introduced the “Instant” search feature. In case you haven’t seen it, that’s because it isn’t available in all countries and it only works for logged-in users.
What Google Instant does is display search results as you are typing your query. It’s basically the next step up from the auto-suggestions box. Now, instead of only auto-suggesting possible keywords, it actually displays the full search results for the top listed auto-suggest keyword, even before you hit “enter”.
And with a change such as this, there is, of course, lots of wailing about how this is the end of SEO and how Google hates affiliates and so on and so forth.
Is there really a reason to panic? Is this the end of SEO or will it at least mean significant changes in the way we do SEO? Well, I don’t know, but below are some things you need to consider…
The End of Long-Tail Keywords?
The primary concern for many online marketers is that this change might kill the traffic that long-tail searches are getting. On a side-note, Google Instant might have something to do with the recent drop in search volume numbers, although I believe we haven’t seen the last of that.
Concerning long-tail keywords, here’s what has people worried: When you start typing a query, Instant tends to start displaying authority sites, which are ranking for single-word keywords, in the results. There’s really no other option, when you think about it. For most queries, it’s impossible for Google to make an intelligent guess as to what multi-word query you’re looking for, when it only has the first few letters to go by. It can make something of a guess about what single word you’re in the process of typing, but beyond that, results would be completely random.
This means that as you start typing, it’s likely you’ll see sites such as Amazon, Wikipedia and Wal-mart show up in the results. And most likely, for some one-word term which is not the keyword you’re actually looking for.
But does this mean that we can no longer build small sites, optimized for specific long-tail keywords, because everyone will end up clicking through to these authority sites before finishing their search?
It all comes down to user behaviour and user adaptation to this new search feature.
Actual Search Behaviour
A question few people seem to be asking is: How many people will actually be interrupted in their search and pick one of the early results displayed by instant?
I think there are two distinct scenarios we need to consider: Some searchers know exactly what they are looking for and know how to search for it effectively (i.e. they know how to ask Google a question in such a way that they will get a good answer) and on the other hand there are searchers who either don’t have a very specific search in mind or don’t know how to use search properly. Let’s just call them “Search Savvy” and “Search Ignorant”.
Search Savvy User:
Types “windows 7 screen freezes when starting firefox” because that is most likely to return a forum thread or article about the specific problem, with solutions regarding the correct operating system, etc.
Search Ignorant User:
Types “why does my computer crash?” or “firefox not working“, because that’s the problem they are experiencing and that’s how you’d ask another person for help.
In this example, Instant is likely not to make a real difference for the searchers. Certainly, the search savvy user will not change their mind and click on a result for “windows media player” or “window cleaners” instead of completing the query.
The search ignorant user might find a slightly more relevant result in the auto-suggestions while they’re typing and go for that one instead of the originally intended query. They are still unlikely to find a very suitable result for their problem, though.
Let’s look at a different (also hypothetical) example:
Search Savvy User:
Types “muscle building workout sheet download” or “women’s fitness blog“, having something very specific in mind. The search is customized with a particular kind of search-result in mind.
Search Ignorant User:
Types “build muscles” or “how to build muscles“. Again, that’s a simple expression of what they’re looking for and it’s not customized for the search engine. It’s not in Google-lingo, so to speak.
Once again, the search savvy user is unlikely to get distracted by Instant, since the suggestions are almost certainly going to be less specific than the intended query.
However, the search ignorant user might find the Instant suggestions useful. Since they only have a vague idea of what they’re looking for or how to “ask” a search engine for it, they may get sidetracked by the Instant results. In this scenario, they may actually end up going for a longer-tail search than they originally intended. For example, if they start typing and results for “build muscle fast” start showing, they might go for that (building muscles fast is better than just building muscles, after all).
This could go either way, though. Someone intending to search for “build muscle fast” may get sidetracked and click on a result for “build muscle” before they’re done with typing.
Am I confusing you yet? What I want to emphasize here is that it all depends on the user, the intended search query and the type of search query. Certainly, there are certain keywords where the searcher is more likely to get distracted and others where they’re very unlikely to get distracted.
Utilization of Auto-Suggest
Another important question is: Will more users make use of the auto-suggestions with Instant Search?
Auto-suggest has been around for a while now and it certainly had some kind of impact on search behaviour and SEO (not one that many of us felt, I wager). But now that the results appear instantly, will this lead to more people making use of the feature?
If it does, that might have a significant impact on search volumes and SEO.
What we need to realize is that the vast majority of search engine users are basically clueless as to how a search engine works and are very bad at using one. Auto-suggest is an attempt to help people make more useful searches, by making them more specific. Before you disagree, think about this: When you have a specific query in mind, will you pick a less-specific one, just because it gets displayed? Of course not! If you have a vague query in mind, will you pick a more relevant one, if it gets displayed and seems more relevant to your situation? Yes, probably.
So, auto-suggestions will tend to produce longer-tail searches, not shorter ones. Perhaps Instant is an attempt to condition users to utilize the auto-suggestions. If this is the case, we might see more three to four word searches and fewer single-word searches, which is good. We’ll also have to look into scraping and analyzing the auto-suggestions for our keyword research.
Finally, we might need to start considering demographics and geo-targeting for keyword research, since the auto-suggest features are personalized to a certain extent.
But What About Those Single Word Searches?
Not that many of us are likely to be pursuing rankings for single-word terms, but there’s a significance for Google Instant in this. Many people use Google to navigate to their favorite websites. In fact, many people aren’t all that clear about the difference between the three available boxes in a standard browser view (URL box at the top, quick-search box in the top right and search box on the Google homepage). They’ll type “facebook” to get to the facebook homepage, for instance.
Here, Google Instant could be a curse or a blessing, depending on where you want to go. Judging by this thread, it seems to be a problem for most people. This could impact search if it proves annoying many people (which would change their search behaviour).
Too Slow/Too Fast?
Here are some more “real world” implications that could make or break Google Instant:
- Think about your family and friends. How many among them are very slow typers and need to look at the keyboard while they’re typing? Probably quite a few, right? While this hardly applies to younger generations, there are currently still a lot of users who are not accustomed to computers and are super-slow typers. Some of them might not even notice Google Instant…
- What about the other extreme: In the thread linked above, there are also several people complaining about the lag created when Google tries to display a ton of different results as they are quickly typing their queries.
- For that matter, what’s this like for people with slow connections? Especially when maps, images and videos populate the search results, I imagine Google Instant isn’t much fun on a slow connection.
At least one of the above issues could be addressed if Google held back with the results if it detects that someone is typing fast (high probability that they know what they want, anyway).
Targeting Partial Words?
One idea that popped up very quickly in SEO circles is that of targeting unfinished words or even single letters.
Is it possible to get a top ranking for “lose weight” by targeting “lose wei” and getting listed in Instant, as searchers are typing? The advantage would be that there’d be practically no competition for these unfinished words (at least, for the time being).
This is very unlikely to work, though. Google Instant displays the results for the top-listed auto-suggested keyword, not the unfinished keyword that the user is typing.
For now, it’s no use fearing that the sky is falling. Keep doing what you’ve been doing so far, in terms of creating website content and promoting that content.
Keep an eye on your traffic and particularly on what keywords you’re getting Google traffic from.
Is this the end of SEO? Nope.
Will we need to adapt and change a few things about our approach? Probably.
What do you think about the recent changes? Let me know in the comments below!