The End is Nigh! (Google Instant)

September 10, 2010 , 16 Comments

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.

[/one_half_first] [one_half_last]
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.

[/one_half_first] [one_half_last]
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!

About ​Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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  • Great Post Shane.

    It does seem like people really went crazy since Instant was launched and so many are calling it the death of SEO without even taking 1 minute to think what really happened.

    Regarding the targeting of partial words or even letters. I don’t know what started this but it is pretty much wrong. When Google Instant shows results for letters or partial words, the results are generated according to the full suggested keyword that Google Instant selects for you.

    SEO has changed so much over the years and with every little change people are thinking the sky is falling. Turns out that most changes only did good for SEO and all we need to do is adopt to the changes.

    I don’t think SEO is dead. I actually think that 2010 is the year SEO made a very big comeback after losing the spotlight to PPC over the past 2 or 3 years.

    I am sure wheels are turning and heads are spinning as we speak in testing and creating eBooks and Videos about the change Google Instant brings to the table and how we can all profit from it…


    • Thanks for your comment!

      Yes, it does seem like every little change has some people running scared. But in SEO, as in life, the only constant is change. As you say: we adapt and keep going.

      And if nothing else, this should help some ebook sales. :P

      I can already see it:
      “Google Instant Domination!”
      “Instant Money With Google Instant!”


  • Nice analysis Shane, thanks!
    I have not seen Instant yet, I’m in the UK and don’t search while logged in anyhow.

    I am a very slow typist with ADD and would HATE to see the search page jump around as I type. I suspect lots would hate this and would do whatever it took to stop it!

    I guess the intent is to help the “search ignorant” to get what they want with fewer searches. The search cycle is often to use a general term, look at the page and then use a longer tail term and look again. Instant may cut this cycle down and result in fewer abandoned searches.

    And fewer people being lost to Bing!


    • I managed to test Instant through some string to attach to the addres which prevents the geo-redirect Google usually does (fogotten the string again, though…).

      I gotta say it make zero difference to me. I have a fairly fast connection so lag isn’t an issue. And I always know what I want to search for before I start typing, so I really couldn’t care less.

      But of course, the people discussing this kind of thing are not representative of the average Google user…


  • Always makes me laugh when people roll out the very old and very tired “end of SEO”.

    I really don’t think Google Instant is going to make that much of a difference. Perhaps the only thing that might change are people trying to target more of the auto-suggest keywords.


    • Yeah, I could see that happening.
      It would be interesting if it made a big differece. :) But I doubt it will.

      If certain forums are to be believed, SEO dies about twice a month, I think. Clearly, it must be a zombie at this point.


  • Shane – Great analysis!

    Our over hyped world is alwyas waiting for the death of something. The death of SEO. Not a chance.

    Stop and think for just a minute. How does Google make money? Adwords, advertising and PPC right? Who pays them? Advertisers. Specifically, advertisers tyrying to communicate with someone that is looking for something.

    The way i see GI working is that if you are ranking high for a specific keyword, or long tail keyword, you are going to show up anyway. If someone starts a search,a nd is looking for something specific, and a high authority site shows up, but is not offering exactly what they want – what do you think they will do? They will continue to search, using longer tail keywords and queries.

    So, if you are targeting your niche correctly, know what the keywords are and were, you should do as well, or better.

    Google is serving 2 masters, search consumers and advertisers. If they piss one off, they will be less attractive to the other.

    I am not even concerned one bit about the potential of Google Instant of wiping out SEO. People are always going to whine, and they wil laways shy away from work at the first sign of difficulty or a challenge. Evolution is a good thing.


    • I agree, Rob. It seems that many people just like to be apocalyptic about things (just look at all the conspiracy nuts etc.), but in most cases, you just need to take into account the bigger picture. As you say, Google is not going to do anything to jeopardize their good standing with users and their semi-good standing with advertisers. At least not intentionally…


  • May be of interest… I Tried a burst PPC campaign on “abrasives” using keywords a, ab, abr etc. 90+% of the impressions and all the clicks went on the letter “a”. Think I will optimise our Abrasives site for the letter “a” and retire :o)


    • That’s pretty interesting. I wonder why that is. It would suggest that there are a lot of slow typers who are surprised by the instant results, perhaps?
      Surely, no one intends to search for “a”, right?


      • Insufficient data to be confident, but actual numbers (over 9 hours on Thursday 9th) were 19,330 impressions on the keyword “build up” of which 19,227 were for “a”. Clicks were 28 (0.14 CTR), all for the letter “a”. For the complete keyword “abrasives” there were 143 impressions with 1 click for the same period. Checked the landing page stats and there was 23% bounce rate compared to an average of 12%. So not all “a” visitors left the site. Certainly not conclusive but interesting.

      • That really is interesting.
        Quick, write an ebook about this and sell it! :P

  • Hi Shane.

    Enjoyed your interview with Terry Kyle. Keep up the good work.

    I agree that Instant is not the kiss of death that some are purporting it to be, but I think it will have a fair effect on traffic patterns simply because the expanded auto-suggest box takes up so much new room.

    With Google’s sponsored ads already often three-deep in the main SERPS area, you now have to be in the top 2 organic searches to guarantee a place above the fold.

    That’s great if you’re in the top 2 spots, but not so great if you’re not. Looks to me like you’ll need the top spot (or at least 2nd) for your keyword-targetted phrase in the future to stand any chance of getting decent organic traffic.

    And as anyone involved in SEO knows, that aint easy to achieve.

    Be interested in your thoughts.




    • Hi Ed,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Yes, that might actually be the most significant effect: the “bumping down” of the results because of the space the suggestion box occupies.
      I gotta say, though, rank nr. 1 has always been by far the best spot in terms of traffic. Might be more true now than before, but either way, a number five spot or number eight spot or whatever isn’t worth much anyway, getting at least 10x less traffic than #1.

      For me, it’s always been a fight for nr. 1, otherwise why bother? :)


  • One of the main issues I have found with Google Instant over the long haul is the drop down menu — they should allow the menu to disappear without hitting ‘enter’… i see what i want to click on, then click on blank space and the menu is still there! Ugh


  • Google instant is a real pain. I have to type realy slowly, a character every 5 seconds or so or it freezes. Yahoo and Ask dont do this, I can type as fast as I like with no problems. Why has Google screwed up? Its not useable any more. And whats with the black bar? Please Google, revert to how it was and I will start using you again.


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