Google Instant Changes the SEO Game

Late last week, Google unveiled Google Instant, the kind of interactive search on steroids that Jonathan Allen of Search Engine Watch called “arguably the biggest change in the user interface (UI) of search engine results pages since search engines were invented and one of the most sophisticated engineering projects for Google since Caffeine.” Keep reading to find out what it is, what it does, and just how much you might have to rethink your current approach to SEO.

Google actually foreshadowed Google Instant a day or two before its release with an odd Google Doodle – a Google logo composed entirely of balls that moved when your cursor hovered over them, but settled down when you stopped moving your mouse. The company’s only explanation for the mysterious logo was that it symbolized how they thought search should be: fast, fun, and interactive. That’s what Google Instant is supposed to be.

As Search Engine World pointed out, however, Google has been building toward this service for a long time. Google Instant combines improved spelling corrections, universal search results, Google Suggest and more (even the Google MentalPlex April Fool’s joke) into a search that appears to all but read your mind as you type in your query.

Currently, Google Instant is only available to users in the US, and to signed-in users in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain and the U.K. Users must also have the latest version of Chrome, Firefox, Safari or IE 8, and be searching from Google’s main search page (not the browser toolbar). Even if you meet all of these requirements, you might not get to see Google Instant just yet; “Google Instant not working” has been a popular search on Google lately, and (as of this writing) while I’ve been able to see it since rollout, my direct boss, who works in the same state and is more tech savvy than I am, hasn’t been able to make it work for him.

For the benefit of those who haven’t seen it yet, let me explain how it works. Simply go to Google and start typing in a word. The second you start typing, well before you finish your query, Google starts popping out search results in an effort to predict what you’re searching for. The results are dynamic; they change with every letter you type in.

Not only do the results change, but under the search box you get a little drop-down that lists suggested search terms. For example, when I typed the term “bobbin” (without quotes of course) into the search engine, my drop-down terms included “bobbin,” “bobbing,” “bobbin lace,” “bobbing for apples” and “bobbin winder.” I get ads appropriate to “bobbin” on the right; those ads are ALSO dynamic, changing with what I type in (more on that later).

Google Squared is still active, as is Universal Search, so my results show images or videos pretty high up (before I have to scroll). Also, the “Something Different” suggested on the left includes “spool,” “mandrel,” “plunger” and “bushing.” Scrolling all the way down still gets me to a linked list of searches related to my search term.

In short, nothing has changed – but everything has changed.

According to Google’s blog entry on the subject, Google rolled out Google Instant to give its users a better, faster search experience. “Our testing has shown that Google Instant saves the average searcher two to five seconds per search. That may not seem like a lot at first, but it adds up…we estimate that we’ll save our users 11 hours with each passing second!”

If that sounds a little crazy, consider this point from the About Google Instant page. “Our key technical insight was that people type slowly, but read quickly, typically taking 300 milliseconds between keystrokes, but only 30 milliseconds (a tenth of the time!) to glance at another part of the page. This means that you can scan a results page while you type.”

But what does this mean in the more practical sense? How will people use this when they’re searching? That is, after all, the most important question for those of us doing search engine optimization. If you frequent SEO Chat’s forums at all, you know that this is of keen interest to our members. One member mentioned Matt Cutts’ reaction when asked if Google Instant will change SEO. He seemed to think it might…in time.

What exactly did Cutts mean by that? He noted that the search results for a query wouldn’t change, but that users might learn to search differently over time. “For example, I was recently researching a congressperson,” he explained. “With Google Instant, it was more visible to me that this congressperson had proposed an energy plan, so I refined my search to learn more, and quickly found myself reading a post on the congressperson’s blog that had been on page 2 of the search results.”

Google Instant may or may not change the way people, but one thing that will change is the way Google records ad impressions. Google’s AdWords blog explains that the search engine expects increased user engagement with its search services, including ads. To accommodate this, though “Google Instant doesn’t change the way ads are served, ads and search results will now be shown based on the ‘predicted search.’” This means that an ad triggered by the word “flowers” may show up as soon as a user types in “flow,” but not be on the screen very long if the next letter is “c” (which would then trigger an ad related to “flowcharts”).

This means Google had to rewrite the book as to what it considers to be an impression. “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.” Google notes that this may increase or decrease your overall  impression levels.

While excited about the changes, Google seemed relatively sanguine about the actual effects on search. They seemed to see only how Google Instant would be a positive for those using it. Many SEOs, however, see things a little differently, with some predicting the end of long-tail searching, and others predicting the end of SEO itself. In the second part of this article, we’ll take a closer look at those predictions, and see if they actually hold any water. Hint: Matt Cutts still expects SEO to be around in five years; on the other hand, do you use the same SEO practices you used five years ago? Something to think about…until next time. Good luck!

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