Critics have warned that Google Instant, launched last week, will have significant implications for small businesses and the SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) industry.
As an extension of Google’s traditional search function, Google Instant allows users to view predicted results before they have finished typing and pressed “search”.
According to Google, the new feature will not only allow users to reach the right content faster (saving 2-5 seconds per search), but it will improve the relevance of the search term being entered by providing instant feedback.
For Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, ‘it’s the internet on fast-forward, and it's aggressive – like trying to order from a waiter who keeps finishing your sentences while ramming spoonfuls of what he thinks you want directly into your mouth.’
But while some users may find Google Instant a little too instant, the main concern voiced by those working in search engine marketing is that it somehow changes the rules of the SEO game - even makes all past SEO efforts “irrelevant”, as Steve Rubel implied last week:
"Here's what [Instant] means," he says.
"No two people will see the same web. Once a single search would do the trick...
"Now, with this, everyone is going to start tweaking their searches in real-time....
"When you get feedback, you change your behaviors."
The flaw in Rubel’s take (as others have pointed out) is that personalised search has been around for a while.
Just one example: if you’re in Bristol, UK, and you type in ‘italian restaurants bristol’, you don’t get results for the 30 or so towns in the USA called Bristol; you get results for where you are.
The difference is that now, you can get as far as ‘italian restaurants bris...’ and Google presents you with a list of results tailored to Bristol (not Brisbane) before you’ve finished.
Searchers were seeing personalised results pages since well before Google Instant; Google has all sorts of information about every previous search, and tailors results based on your previous activity.
If you’ve been to one particular Italian restaurant website before, it’s likely to appear on the front page (though it might not for your friend).
You still see the same results as before - just sooner, and without pressing enter.
Concerns about Google Instant
So are there any concerns?
One is that Google Instant will change search behaviours.
Basically people will alter their searches before they spend time searching through irrelevant results - correcting misspellings, tending to go for more popular search phrases, etc - in real time.
As Matt Cutts says, if they’re just doing general research on a person or place they may well be swayed to read popular results (i.e. you can be easily distracted by ‘news’ on a topic).
For example, imagine you want to look up what UK Prime Minister David Cameron called his baby.
Halfway through typing ‘David Cameron baby name’ you get news results saying ‘Cameron is being warned not to throw the baby out with the bath water’.
You may find you change tack in your search.
It has definite implications for those working in PR or reputation management; placing a common search term in with your news titles has some advantages (though of course this was always the case).
So in sum, while it’s too early to tell how much Google Instant will impact behaviour, there’s no reason to think it changes everything.
Here are some key effects to expect:
1. Changed Human Search Behaviour
Google has clearly said that ranking stays the same with Google Instant, but it will change the way people search.
It will affect their search behaviour, and that is what search marketers are going to have to think about more than ever.
You should also consider that some people will simply deactivate the feature, and that currently it doesn’t work while signed out of your Google account.
2. Extra Publicity for Business Names Descriptive of Business
Businesses which do describe their business in the brand title - as with KN Office Supplies - are getting extra publicity with local searchers by appearing in the Google suggestions for just ‘office supplies’.
Again, it doesn’t change the actual results of ‘office supplies’ searches - GI just puts the name in front of people a little earlier.
(It may mean that businesses start to use more descriptive company titles, though we’d be surprised if it had that effect except in the long term.)
3. Topical News about Brands Presented to the Searcher
It puts other consumers’ opinions between large brand name corporations and you - much more efficiently.
If a big brand is in the news, you’ll see that before you finish typing in a long query about their refund policy.
If the brand has just been told to recall a product line, you’ll be alerted while you search.
4. Effects on Competitiveness of Local Stores
It does make it difficult for local shops which compete with online stores to sell brand name products, but only to a point, because it also makes clear to you while you’re searching that for local results you need to qualify with a location.
If you want a Bristol camera shop, you’ll realise more quickly you need to qualify with Bristol so as not to get generic results for online stores - since you can see results appearing. Results will, potentially, get more local, except where the search is clearly for an online service - like Apple tech support, or Amazon.
The only potential problem area GWS is monitoring is for services, like solicitors, which get online competition from, say, internet will-writing services.
It seems unlikely that people who began searching for a local solicitor would be immediately swayed to a generic online service midway through a search, but it may mean that certain professions need to consider offering a tailored online approach to remain relevant to clients.
This is of course a symptom of a wider changing market anyway, an issue which Google Instant highlights rather than directly affects.
5. Increased Time Spent on Google Searches
Because Google Instant is smarter, quicker, and more convenient, it’s likely more people will spend longer using Google for productive search.
As Marissa Meyer has said, the net effect is more searches, and faster ones.
Anything which makes Google more usable is good for businesses who already pay attention to their Google presence.
6. Increased use of Google search on mobile devices
Because Google Instant means searchers have to type less, people may be more inclined to use Google on their phones (a feature being rolled out soon).
This means overall, traffic to your site may increase over time - it’s more ‘findable’ by a bigger potential audience.
7. Effects on PPC Campaigns
Google Instant definitely impacts on PPC campaigns.
You have to make them smarter and you’re going to see fewer impressions if you’re targeting longer phrases.
Again, though, had you not been doing this earlier, the quality of your campaign would have likely been compromised anyway.
In conclusion, while Google Instant means that online promotion and SEO have to get smarter and target more popular, shorter search terms - which will increase competition for the ‘pithier’ location-qualified keywords - it’s an opportunity to innovate and develop, and gives you an incentive to rethink your target audience and how you can give them more news, more information and more updates about your product or services; customer communication is good for everyone.
Plus, it will also undermine the usefulness of getting number 1 positions in very niche/longer phrases that are sometimes targeted by SEO companies eager to show rapid but meaningless results – if fewer people are searching for them, they become even less important.
We at GWS think this can only be a good thing.