How Google Instant Changes SEO, PPC, the Long Tail Plus Your Gas Mileage, Credit Score & Sex Appeal

August 22, 2016

This weekend at home, I was surprised to find Google was giving me way more than ten results per page—more like twenty, though I confess I didn't bother to count. (It seems Google no longer does the counting for you.) I quickly sent an email to Tom and Ken about it, but it appeared it was "just me," or rather an experiment that was only affecting some users (as reported by Andy Beard and Barry Schwartz).

I was still thinking about this experiment on Wednesday, contemplating a post called "No More 'Ten Blue Links'" when Google unveiled a much bigger change—big enough to warrant a live press conference, big enough to get everyone on Twitter talking, and not just the "tweeple" in my web marketing column.

This big change is Google Instant. It sounds a little like a joke—for a while now Google has been anticipating what you want (search suggestions, personalized search), and now you can get results before you hit enter, before you even finish typing! In its own words:

Google Instant is a new search enhancement that shows results as you type. We are pushing the limits of our technology and infrastructure to help you get better search results, faster. 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.

Google goes on to say that "If everyone uses Google Instant globally, we estimate this will save more than 3.5 billion seconds a day. That's 11 hours saved every second." Whoa. (Wait, huh?)

Search Engine Land and Read Write Web, among others, live-blogged the conference, where Marissa Mayer and other Googlers fielded audience questions. Naturally, this change does raise a lot of questions, among them:

How does this affect AdWords? The ads are streaming too—what counts as an impression?

According to AdWords Help, an impression will be counted when:

  • The user begins to type a query on Google and clicks anywhere on the page (a search result, an ad, a spell correction, a related search).
  • The user chooses a particular query by clicking the Search button, pressing Enter, or selecting one of the predicted queries.
  • The user stops typing, and the results are displayed for a minimum of three seconds.

What about keyword referrers? Will we see what the user actually typed (even if it's only part of a word)?  

The Web Distortion blog addressed this with a post on tracking Google Instant queries in Google Analytics. They provide code for tracking partial queries (is this working for people?), but by default, Google will pass the full search term to your analytics even if the user didn't finish typing; in other words, if the user types "jetb" and then clicks on the top result for JetBlue, you'll see that as a visit for the "jetblue" keyword.

How does Google Instant affect SEO? Is SEO dead?

Answer: No, of course it isn't, silly. Steve Rubel (who doesn't deserve a link) was quick to claim that "Google Instant means no one will see the same web anymore, making optimizing it virtually impossible." But personalized search already made that true, and SEOs still have a reason to come into work. Matt Cutts reiterates this in a post called "Thoughts on Google Instant." Remember, the algorithms are still at work, they're just working faster.

Can you turn Google Instant off? Do people really want this?

Yes, you can turn it off—there's a drop-down menu next to the search button.

Turn Off Google Instant Search

But Google says that during testing, only a small percentage of users turned the feature off, and then mostly due to slow Internet connections. I think people are skeptical because Google has put out some products lately that didn't necessarily meet a real demand (Wave, Buzz), but the company says that people really do want faster search.

NOTE: To see how "regular people" are responding to the change, I asked my mom what she thought of it. My mom's no luddite but she's not a full-on, early-adopter tech geek either. She usually uses iGoogle, but went to Google.com and signed in to try it out. She said she's pretty sure she likes it, and even found a use case where she got better results: "I had been looking for a ph neutral floor cleaner and not able to find much using google classic but the google instant pulled up some suggestions fairly quickly." There you go.

Is this just more fuel for Google conspiracy theories? Does it raise online privacy concerns? Should we be frightened?

I've heard some people question whether this is just a way for Google to increase its ad revenue, by returning commercial results for potentially informational queries. Tom's example was a search for "credit," for which Google returns instant results for "credit report," a very lucrative query. Of course, it's entirely possible that the vast majority of people who type "credit" into the search box are in fact looking for credit report services, and that those who aren't won't click on those ads.

What does Google Instant mean for the long tail of search?

Lots of conflicting opinions here. Andy Beal thinks this will actually make the long tail more important for SEO. Portent Interactive's Ian Lurie echoed Beal's thoughts: "long-tail search is going to be more important, since folks can just keep typing until they see what they want." Others are saying the opposite, that this will kill the long tail. John Ellis seems to think so:

Starting the query with “Las”, shows ads for Las Vegas. Some of those ads are for hotels. Why would a user continue typing if they see hotel ads already? As an advertiser this forces me to bid on “Las Vegas” to compete. Thus, making me put more dollars in Google’s pockets. This kills the need to bid on long-tail keywords. Users may never even get to “Las V…” much less “Las Vegas 5-star Hotels”, “Las Vegas hotels on the strip”, “Las Vegas hotels on the North Strip”, etc.

On Search Engine Watch, John Lynch writes "Unfortunately for the advertiser, the well-traveled road means less opportunity in the long tail. With more advertisers competing in the same space, the auction prices for head terms will rise in both volume and price, at the expense of less expensive/less common search terms." Heather Lloyd-Martin also says this will push people toward more profitable head terms. Both Heather and Andy think we'll need to start writing more compelling title tags to stop users mid-search.

Here are some other reactions to Google Instant:

  • Aaron Wall says "If anything, Google Instant only increases the value of a well thought out SEO strategy."
  • Manoj Jasra predicts we'll eventually see "pay-per-scroll" advertising and promoted, sponsored suggestions (I think the latter has already happened).
  • Scott Clark at BuzzMaven makes a number of predictions, including that regional sites will see more traffic and Google Instant suggestions will serve as a new "micro SERP."
  • Marshall Kirkpatrick wonders how this will change what we think of as normal, and how much we trust in Google: "When the Great Google in the Sky interrupts you asking it a question and says (effectively) 'don't even bother finishing, we know what you're going to ask and here's the answer' - how many of us might just concede to ask what Google expects we were going to?"
  • Brad Geddes explains how to set up a Google Instant experiment for AdWords.
  • Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch says now "sites will need to optimize for particular letter combinations, not just entire keywords." Um, no, I don't think so—if you type "je" Google shows you results that are optimized for "JetBlue," not for "je." So let's not do anything stupid, shall we? (As Rae Hoffman put it, "Dear Mainstream Media … leave explaining SEO to people who actually understand SEO.")
  • A poll on Mashable shows that most people, so far, like Google Instant—either because they're getting good results (about 30%) or because it's "interesting and entertaining" (about 28%). Almost 20% aren't sure yet, and another 14% say "No, it's information overload."
  • Marketing Pilgrim's Frank Reed doesn't like it: "The constant changing of the screen from the search suggest to the actual results changing on the fly practically gives me motion sickness. I'm all for saving time but if I need to take a Dramamine tablet before I Google something that won't be very productive."

What about us? Do we like it? We sure did yesterday, because our own Tom Demers' face was ranking above Google itself in a Google search for Google:

Google Instant Results

Thanks, Google Instant! (Ironically, USA Today quoted Tom as saying that instant results will be a "usability disaster.")

I think that's enough links for today, don't you? Have a good weekend, all.

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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