Google Instant: Potential Impact on SEM and SEO

September 2010

Google Instant: Potential Impact on SEM and SEO

Google has unveiled a new search feature, Google Instant, which promises to provide users with an easier, faster and predictive way to search. Some pundits are calling this the most significant change to the Google search page since the advent of AdWords. Google Instant anticipates what you are searching for, and provides search results “instantly” as you type. Users have seen suggested keywords appear in the search box as they type through the feature known as “Google Suggest.” With Google Instant, users now see not only the predicted keyword, but the corresponding search results page before typing the entire keyword and hitting enter. As Google VP of Search Products and User Experience Marissa Mayer posted on Google’s corporate blog, the core features to Google Instant are:

Dynamic Results – Google dynamically displays relevant search results as you type so you can
quickly interact and click through to the web content you need.

Predictions – One of the key technologies in Google Instant is the prediction of the rest of your
query (in light gray text) before you finish typing.

Scroll to Search – Scroll through predictions and see results instantly for each as users arrow down.
The common denominator across these features is that Google Instant should make search more time efficient. In fact, Google boasts that the new instant feature will not only save users million of hours of searching a year, an estimated 350 million hours to be exact, but also improve the size and scope of search at large. With all those hours saved, Google’s hope seems to be that users will ultimately search more, providing Google with an increased opportunity to sell more ads. While the impact of the new service on users is relatively transparent, the impact on search marketers is undetermined.

How can users access Instant search? Where is it available?
Google Instant is currently available for all US desktop search users, using Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer 8. Google Instant is also available in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain and the UK. Instant search is only available from Google’s homepage. For people using browser search boxes, the first searches would not invoke Google Instant. Any subsequent search taking place on the Google page, however, could be subject to the Instant results. Google Instant is not yet available on mobile devices, but Google anticipates it should be available by fall, 2010.

Google Instant: Potential Impact on SEM and SEO


What are the key features for users?
Google Instant is driven by the notion of speed. Before Google Instant, the average searcher took more than nine seconds to enter a query. With Google Instant this time is cut down by 2-5 seconds per search. When a user started to type a query into Google Instant, Google’s algorithm attempts to predict the rest of the search by judging it against popular queries typed by other users. The three main features of Google Instant are:

Streaming Search Results – Streaming Search Results are the search results displayed as a user
types. Without pressing the ‘Enter’ key or clicking the ‘search’ button, users are presented with immediate results.

Predictive Text – While a user types, predictive text offers suggestions for what the users might be
searching for. Predictions are displayed in light gray text as a continuation of what is being typed and can be automatically filled in by pressing the ‘tab’ key.

Scroll to Search – The scroll to search feature allows users to preview Google’s search suggestions.
Search results pages are automatically updated as users select them by using the ‘down arrow’ key.

How does Google Instant affect a search marketer?
Definition of ad impression
The increase of impression volume will be one of the most obvious and important impacts of instant search. With a new search results page appearing with every keystroke, the concept of an “ad impression” requires clarification. In the process of typing a query such as [who is Landon Donovan] into the search box, a user would be exposed to search results for [weather], [white pages], [whois], and [who is lady gaga]. To curtail this problem, Google developed a new way of defining ‘ad impression.’ An impression is now counted when a user does one of the following things: Presses enter to execute a search Clicks on ‘search’ Clicks on a specific result

Google Instant: Potential Impact on SEM and SEO


Clicks on a suggestion Clicks on a refinement option Pauses for three seconds or more It’s the last criterion that’s new and important. If a user takes a bit longer to read over the results or types slowly, the “3-second rule” could have a negative impact on click-through rate, particularly for high-traffic keywords.

Tracking of Google Instant
Google is not providing a means of separating out ads served under Google Instant.

Google is currently not providing advertisers with reports segmenting Google Instant data.

Ad Serving Methodology
Remains unchanged. Both sponsored links and organic results are served under Google Instant just as if the user had typed in the complete query. For example if a user types in [ma] and Google delivers results for [MapQuest]. Both the sponsored and organic results would be exactly the same as those served when users type in the complete query [MapQuest]. Google Instant is ultimately a user experience innovation. Google has not adjusted the methodology for calculating quality score and ad rank, or the rules around match types and negative keywords. At this time, we don’t believe Google Instant will have any impact on the ranking of organic search results.

How many users will utilize Google Instant and how will they modify their search behavior?
This is the big unknown, and frankly the most important factor in determining the impact for search marketers. Google Instant can only be activated on computer-based searches from the Google results page. This is only a subset of all Google searches (the exact number is not known). And of these searches from the Google homepage, some number will take place on unsupported browsers and some number of users will opt to turn off Google Instant. For those searches that are subject to Google Instant, we anticipate a reduction in long-tail searches and further uptake of Google’s suggested results: If the user had intended to type in a long-tail query such as [las vegas hotel midweek specials] and begins seeing somewhat relevant results as soon as they finish typing [las] or [las vegas], this could alter their intended query. For the search marketer, it could result in further consolidation on head terms. On the other hand, a user who had intended to run a simple query such as [las vegas] may find more relevance in the suggested alternative [las vegas hotel special] and end up expanding their query. Google’s suggested results have been around for some time. The further interactivity afforded by

Google Instant: Potential Impact on SEM and SEO


the up/down “toggle” feature in Google Instant could increase impressions and clicks on these suggested alternatives. Ultimately, Google Instant increases the complexity and interactivity of the results page. With every keystroke, Google Instant will deliver a number of results with potentially no or only limited relevance to the user’s stated intent. As long as the user can remain focused on their original goal and complete their query, the search process should remain unchanged. So what impact could these changes in user behavior have on our SEM and SEO strategies?

Impact on Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
Overall, we don’t expect to see a major shift in SEM strategy as a result of Google Instant. The number of ad impressions should increase as a result of Google’s new counting methodology. We don’t expect this increase to be significant, but it should be concentrated on high-traffic keywords. This could adversely affect CPC and Quality Score for these high-volume terms, although the impact should not be significant. Other trends we are monitoring closely:

Upper-funnel searches may shift toward the middle
The hypothesis is that a user searching for an upper-funnel term may, in some cases, choose the more specific keyword from Google Suggest. For example, a search for [used cars] produces these results in the assist box:

Searchers could be drawn to the keyword [used cars los angeles] and end up choosing the geo-modified keyword. Depending on the shifts in search behavior, advertisers should closely manage the suggested alternatives to their top performing head terms.

Long-tail searches may also shift to the middle
Searches with a very specific intent, e.g. [san diego hotel for children near the ocean] may truncate their search as soon as soon as the [san diego] or [san diego hotel] results begin to appear on the page. For the advertiser, a search that normally would have been conducted on a long-tail query could end up being changed to a head or torso term with a much higher CPC.

Partial versions of high-volume keywords could get more impressions
With Google pre-populating predictive results, a certain number of users will click enter before completing their search. For example, a search for [minivans] produces the [minivans] results page just from typing [miniv]. Out of habit, some number of users will see the results they are looking for and hit enter. Rather than seeing the same results, they will be taken to a page that has absolutely nothing to do with family automobiles.

Google Instant: Potential Impact on SEM and SEO


Bidding on these partial keywords could be an effective way to capture targeted traffic at a comparatively cheap price. We will track our search query reports to determine if impressions are increasing on partial versions of high-volume keywords. This could be a strategy for a few weeks while users get accustomed to the new search rules. Keep in mind, however, Quality Score implications may make this strategy ineffective. Bidding on partial keywords may result in poor QS and thus make it cost prohibitive to buy.

Google Suggest will be critical for keyword expansion
As Google provides more long-tail expansions of head terms, traffic to these suggested keywords could increase. For example, an advertiser bidding on the keyword [Alaska cruise] should also look closely at the specific alternatives from Google Suggest:

Chances are these alternatives were already in the advertiser’s keyword set. Search marketers should identify these suggested alternatives across top geographies, and track them for increases in impressions. TSA Editors will take the top performing keywords and determine what Google Suggest is offering as alternative queries to either use for keyword expansion or negatives.

Click-through rates could decline for well-known brand terms
After typing in 1 or 2 letters for any keyword, the instant results are typically a well known brand or web site. The rich certainly get richer, as companies like Walmart gain some free advertising for any search that begins with [wa] and Domino’s can promote their specials on completely unrelated searches such as [domination of the world]. Google will only count this as an impression if the user takes at least 3 seconds to ponder a pepperoni pizza. CTR on these suggested keywords could go down, but this shouldn’t produce a negative impact on Quality Score as all advertisers on that term would be impacted equally. Our editors will be evaluating Google Suggest for every additional character being typed on brand terms to either use for keyword expansion or negatives.

First words of multi-word keywords could become more important
Take a site whose top keyword is [soccer shoes]. Before Google Instant, they may not have bid on the keyword [soccer]. Now that the results for [soccer] will show up as their customers are trying to complete a search for [soccer shoes] they should consider bidding more aggressively on the keyword [soccer]. The ad would be lumped in with ads for soccer news, soccer equipment, and U.S. soccer. But a user looking specifically for [soccer shoes] could be drawn to all the results about [soccer]. If your ad is the only one that promotes soccer shoes specifically, your ad may end up getting the click.

Google Instant: Potential Impact on SEM and SEO


Impact on Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
For organic search, Google Instant certainly does not spell “the death of SEO” as some have written. But it could make things a bit more difficult for advertisers targeting long-tail traffic:

Possible shift in traffic from long tail to mid-tail and head terms
Although our SEO best practices will not change as result of Google Instant, the keywords a marketer needs to target may consolidate. The most significant change could be in a narrowing of the long-tail search spectrum. Some have already seen this as a result of suggestive search, but it could become more pronounced with the increased interactivity of the Google suggest box. In addition, we expect to see more users “give up” on long-tail searches as Google shows relevant results based on the first few words submitted. In those cases where a relevant head or mid-tail term is at the start of your long-tail term, trying to rank for those more popular keywords has become even more critical.

Keywords in Google Suggest could take on increasing importance
As is the case with SEM, Google Suggest will be an important keyword research tool. Monitor the suggested alternatives on your top keywords for expansion opportunities. Also track the suggested autocompletes on your longer keywords to identify where your long-tail traffic may get diverted.

Potential boon for big brands
Popular brands such as Target and websites such as Facebook and Wikipedia will gain more impressions from users searching on completely unrelated topics.

First page and top positions are even more important
Even before Google Instant, trying to earn a top ranking on page one was always the goal of SEO. The suggested results have only made the Google UI more crowded, eliminating at least one organic result from the page. And in a world where users view and internalize multiple versions of a search results page in “rapid-fire” format as they complete their search, earning a spot above the fold will be the only way to capture their attention.

Any change Google makes to its ubiquitous search results is sure to generate a lot of coverage. And for searchers, Google Instant is a game-changing innovation, with the potential to fundamentally alter search behavior. Until we can gauge the number of searches actually affected by Google Instant and the actual changes in search behavior, the overall impact on search marketing remains pure speculation. We will be tracking the adoption rate, particularly as Google launches a toolbar and mobile version of Google Instant. And we will be analyzing various reports to assess any shifts in user behavior. Although Google Instant is an important new innovation, it does not change the fundamentals of either SEM or SEO. And Google Instant is but one of a large number of changes Google makes in search. In 2009, Google made 540 “search quality improvements, all of which require analysis, testing, and ” potentially new protocols to drive continually improved performance in search results.

Google Instant: Potential Impact on SEM and SEO


We have already launched a number of tests incorporating the best practices we recommend above. The Search Agency teams will measure the impact of these changes on performance and continue to iterate our best practices accordingly.

About The Search Agency
The Search Agency is a leading independent search marketing specialist firm, with expertise in cross-channel optimization of paid, earned, and owned media. Dedicated client teams staffed with SEM and SEO specialists apply a holistic approach to all search campaigns. The Search Agency’s proprietary AdMax™ search marketing platform delivers best-in-class SEM and SEO decision support technology as well as cross-channel analytics to provide efficiency and scale. Clients have complete visibility into their campaign activity and results through AdMax’s online reporting platform to measure the effectiveness of each initiative and generate ready-to-use reports. As a leading independent search marketing specialist, The Search Agency gives marketers the assurance that their search marketing program will be proactively driven by experts, reinforced with a leading decision-support technology platform, and always under control. The company was founded in 2002 by experts in bid optimization technology and online marketing, has grown to over 160 employees, and is an active member of the advertiser councils for the three major search engines. The Search Agency is one of the largest and fastest growing search marketing firms, having been named the number 83 fastest growing company in North America on Deloitte’s 2009 Technology Fast 500™ and a top-five independent U.S. search marketing agency by Advertising Age. For more information or to schedule a free online marketing audit, visit or call 888.257.6736.
Copyright © 2010 The Search Agency, Inc. All rights reserved.

Google Instant: Potential Impact on SEM and SEO


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