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Google Instant & SEO
From the moment Google Instant was announced back on September 8 there have been forum chats, blog posts, articles and podcasts discussing the ramification of this new technology. Some have called it the “Death of SEO” which others (myself included) have proclaimed this a step forward and an opportunity for SEO's, not a threat. And then of course there's those who don't even know there's been a change at all, let's call them “the vast majority”. In this article we're going to discuss the pros and cons of Google Instant as it pertains to SEO's and to website owners as well as cover some of the reasons that this new technology may not have as large an impact on search behavior as some may fear/predict.
But first, let's cover the basic question …
What Is Google Instant?
Google instant is a technology that allows Google to predict what you are looking for as you type. They are referring to it as 'search-before-you-type” technology (catchy). Essentially – as I type a phrase (let's say “buy shoes online”) as soon as I get to “buy sh” I start seeing results for “buy shoes”. As soon as I've entered “buy shoes “ (with a space after shoes indicating I want more than just the 2 word phrase) I start seeing results for “buy shoes online”.
Technologically this is genius. Google is now serving likely billions of additional search results pages per day as each query has multiplied results that apply to it. Well … I suppose we all wondered what the Caffeine infrastructure update was all about didn't we? But what does this do in the real world?
Why Google Instant Isn't A Big Deal
Alright, obviously it is a significant technological enhancement in search but the way some react you'd think the whole universe was about to be turned on it's head. There are two reasons why that's not the case.
- I find it unlikely that many will notice right away that the change has occurred and further I find it even less likely that the majority will use the feature. You see – the major hindrance of this enhancement isn't in the technology – it's in the users. Only those who touch type and can do so without looking at their keyboard will be affected. If the user looks at their keyboard while typing then they wouldn't even notice the results coming in ahead of their actual search.
- This will only affect users who are searching in instances where the shorter or predicted terms match the users end goals. For example, if I am searching for “buy shoes online” and get as far as “buy sh” the top results are sites which clearly suit the needs of a searcher for “buy shoes online” and thus – this may work to the detriment of sites who rank well for “buy shoes online” as they may well lose traffic. In the case of a site targeting, oh – I don't know – “seo consulting” there will likely be little affect if any. The searcher, looking for an SEO consultant, will find once they've entered “seo” that they are presented with Wikipedia and Google – sites that, while informative, don't offer the services (or results) desired and thus – the searcher would be less affected. Once they proceeded on to enter the “seo c” the searcher would be presented with the results for “seo company” but I'm prone to believe that if the searcher wanted those results – they would have searched for it. For this phrase I'm confident we'll see little in the way of negative affect from Google Instant.
So we've discussed why Google Instant isn't a big deal, now let's discuss …
Why Google Instant Is A Big Deal
On the other side of the coin lies the reasons why Google Instant brings forth a revolution in search technology. Followers of the Beanstalk blog or my radio show on WebmasterRadio.fm (Webcology) will know I'm not one to love everything Google does but in this case the immediate affects and long terms affects may well be significant and at the very least – one has to appreciate the brilliance behind the effort. In this section of the article we're going to cover the three important perspectives involved with the launch off this (or any) Google product. They are:
The Searcher – we'll look at the pros and cons from a searcher perspective. It's this aspect that will dictate whether the feature will matter at all.
Google – we'll look at the positive affect on Google. Of course – this aspect is of paramount importance for this feature to be kept.
SEO's – I'm of course incredibly interested and have spent much of my analysis time determining the pros and cons to SEO's (admittedly – there's more than a bit of self interest here).
So let's begin …
Google Instant And The Searcher
This is sort of a win-win for Google from a searcher perspective. One of two things will happen for the searcher. Either they won't notice the change or won't be affected and thus – Google will be exactly where they are now OR they will notice the change and will select results quicker and find the feature helpful. As I noted – it's a win-win. There isn't much of scenario from a searcher perspective where the searcher will be negatively impacted and if they are – they'd simply revert back to past searching patterns. From the perspective of impact on the user – Google has it made with this feature. Their worst-case scenario is that they're exactly where they are now.
Google Instant From Google's Perspective
Any feature added to any corporate system must serve a single primary function – it must make it's developer money. We've already seen that the feature itself can't really negatively impact the searcher but can it make Google money? There are two ways that this can happen:
- Improved loyalty and marketshare, and
- Increased revenue directly from the initiative
Fortunately for Google – they're going to win on both fronts here and when we see the Q3 earnings and moreso in the Q4 earning Google reports we'll begin to see how significant an impact this change will have for them – mainly in the second of the two monetary reward methods noted above. And here's why …
We've already covered the improved loyalty this can have on the searchers. Anything that makes my life easier and makes my quest for information faster will make me more loyal. At worst – Google will see my behavior stay the same but for many, the search experience will become faster and more effective – especially once the technology is improved by user behavior to a degree that people trust it more. Overall there will be a net gain in the experience – we've only to wait to see how large that net gain is and how it translates into marketshare. The big win is in the second point.
For anyone who's every bid with AdWords you'll know that for the most part – bids for generic terms are more expensive than bids for very specific terms. If I'm bidding on “shoes” I'm going to pay more than I would for “shoes online”. So let's view the world where I start showing the results (and paid ads) for “shoes” while someone is searching for “shoes online”. And what if that person sees the ads that was written and bid on for “shoes” but relates to their query and they click on it. Google just made more from the paid ad click. Maybe only pennies but multiply that by billions of searches per day and you've got a significant increase in annual revenue.
The move is a huge win for Google but it does come with a theoretical downside and that is annoying the businesses that are paying for the ads. The argument I've heard is that if businesses find that the cost of their campaigns is increasing higher than the ROI that they might get annoyed. Fair enough BUT I would argue – what are they going to do about it? As long as Google maintains the first consideration (the searcher) then the advertisers have no choice. They can drop their bids but at worst – they'll level off to what they were paying for the longtail phrases. Again – worst case scenario, Google will find themselves where they are today.
Google Instant From The SEO's Perspective
So let's assume for a moment that Google Instant is here to stay. Based on all the ways Google and the searchers can win and the limited situational permutations by which they could only come out even I'd say that's a safe assumption. Given this, what's happens to SEO's and those optimizing their own websites?
For one thing – we can't assume that research we did up to and before the 8th will be relevant down the road. I have already scheduled to redo keyword research in a couple months to see what industries and search types have been most (and least) affected by this change. The main reason for this is that I have a strong suspicion that specific industries will be more prone to being affected by the change based mainly on search types (such as the “buy shoes” vs “seo consulting” example above) and demographics. A Linux developer site is more likely to have a demographic off touch typers who can type without looking at the keyboard than say a life insurance site with a more scattered and thus less technically proficient overall demographic.
So in the short term – life is going to be very interesting for the SEO and website owner while we figure out which industries and phrase types are most affected. In a few months when we see the trends and which phrases are being affected and how we'll likely have to make adjustments to many campaigns. The downside for may business owners will be that for those who's campaigns focuses on searches for longtail phrases – they may find the search volumes for their phrases decrease and a shift to more generic (and generally more expensive to attain) phrases is necessary. Only time will tell what the best moves are there and we may not know what exactly will shift and how for a few months yet and even then – we'll then know the trends, not where things will settle (if anything in online marketing can be referred to as “settling” anymore).
If there is a segment that should be concerned about the situation it is small business owners with limited organic or PPC budgets. Google Instant – because it puts preferences to more generic phrases – clearly favors businesses with larger budgets. How much so we'll know after we've had a chance to see how the search volumes shift. For SEO's this presents two opportunities and for business owners who do their own SEO – it offers one. And here's the good news for those.
For SEO's you'll find two new opportunities, The first is that there will be a shift to more generic terms in search volumes. This means that there will be stiffer competition for more competitive phrases. If this sounds like a bad thing it's not. If you're a skilled SEO who knows how to get the job done it means you'll have more access to larger volumes of traffic without the added efforts required to rank for a wide array or phrases. Rather than needing to rank for 10 or 20 phrases to get traffic you'll be able to focus in more and reap the same rewards in the way of traffic. On top of that – SEO's will be able to charge more for the rankings as fewer phrases have a higher value. A win-win for SEOs and a win for business owners who either do their own SEO or have talented SEO's on staff.
The second opportunity will come in the form of improved clickthrough rates though I'll admit – at this point that's just a theory (noted with a hint sent to Gord Hotchkiss to run eyetracking tests on this theory). If I type while looking at my screen and I'm entering in “buy shoes online” and I rank organically or via PPC for both “buy shoes” and “buy shoes online” I would hypothesize that searchers who complete the phrase “buy shoes online” who had the site (or ad) for “buy shoes” appear and then the same site appear for the full query will have a tendency to click on the familiar. This same principle has been witnessed in sites appearing in both paid and organic results who have an increase in their organic clickthrough rates. This will present opportunities for both PPC and organic marketers to improve the traffic to sites by ranking for specific phrases meant to both attain traffic on their own but also to improve traffic for the other. I would suggest that down the road we'll be hearing of this phenomenon when conducting and discussing keyword research.
There isn't much to conclude that hasn't been discussed above. Virtually every party wins or at worst, breaks even with the introduction of this technology. The only victim appears to be small businesses without the budgets to compete for the more generic phrases but even they may win with a shift away from these phrases by the larger companies. It may well occur that while the search volume shift heads in favor of large companies with larger budget – that the lower hanging fruit, while reduced in it's search volume, may fall too in the competition levels making it more affordable. Larger business may focus like snipers on larger phrases and smaller business may well be presented with the opportunity to go after more, less search phrases that aren't worth targeting for larger companies – at least organically.
But only time will tell and of course – we have much data to collect and many algorithmic updates to come between here and there.
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