When you type a URL into your browser, websites that you have visited or bookmarked are likely suggested by Firefox, Internet Explorer, or other browsers as you type the letters. (Of course, this depends on your settings, cookies, and whether you have various add-on platforms.) The goal, of course, is to save you time — rather than typing, say, twenty letters in the toolbar, you can type just a few and then select the correct destination from those suggested.
With the recent release of Google Instant, the search-engine giant hopes to do the same. Now, when users search on Google’s home page, the website suggests keywords after a few characters are typed. And after every few characters are written, the listed results are revised accordingly at each step along the digital way.
According to the online-search leader, the benefits of Google Instant are numerous:
“Faster Searches: By predicting your search and showing results before you finish typing, Google Instant can save 2-5 seconds per search.
Smarter Predictions: Even when you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, predictions help guide your search. The top prediction is shown in grey text directly in the search box, so you can stop typing as soon as you see what you need.
Instant Results: Start typing and results appear right before your eyes. Until now, you had to type a full search term, hit return, and hope for the right results. Now results appear instantly as you type, helping you see where you’re headed, every step of the way.”
For those who are unaware of the changes, here is Google’s landing page for Instant that contains a demonstration of the technology. Just like general searches and Google AdSense, the Google Instant listings provided by Google are localized and personalized based on items including the person’s location and search history.
While the new system raises several search-engine optimization (SEO) issues, the first question is whether Google Instant will actually decrease search times.
Say, for example, that you want to search for “baseball playoff tickets.” After typing “baseball,” your eyes, in theory, would scan the Instant-suggested keywords and search results throughout the page. Then you would type “baseball playoff” and probably do the same. The items for which you are actually searching would not appear until after you type all three words.
Now, this is in theory. Whether this will turnout to be true remains to be seen. But even if the search time would decrease by half a second, the positives (described above by Google) may outweigh the negatives.
After all, online searchers may indeed be liking the new feature since its release in early September. In September 2010, Google’s market share of online searches rose while that of Yahoo! declined. However, UBS attributed the increase to the start of the school year — students performing searches for classes and related needs — rather than Google Instant even though the system was unveiled in early September. More months of data will need to be reviewed to discern whether Google Instant had a statistically-significant effect on Google’s already-dominant position.
The new addition has also brought attention to other changes as well. Now, a small blue arrow appears in Google to the left of the title of the first search result. People can now scroll the arrow down through the results with a keyboard rather than only a mouse (and select a result by pressing Enter/Return). Google is seemingly looking to decrease search times further by even removing the need for one’s hands to move from the keyboard to the mouse.
Still, the most-important consideration for online marketers is whether Google Instant will affect SEO — and, if so, how?
In Google’s announcement of Instant, the company flatly stated that “this change does not impact the ranking of search results.” But even if the feature does not directly affect search-engine rankings, people’s use of the feature may do so. And that is something entirely different.
Online marketers already have many sources of keyword data; Google Instant is yet another one because it immediately suggests keywords. Take the above example of “baseball playoff tickets.” After I typed “baseball,” the suggested search-terms were:
* baseball hall of fame
* baseball games
* baseball america
* baseball reference
After I typed “baseball playoff,” the terms became:
* baseball playoffs
* baseball playoff schedule
* baseball playoffs 2010
* baseball playoff odds
* baseball playoff
I could go on, but you get the point. To the novice online-marketer, these keywords now seem important because, after all, Google recommended them! But this logic is faulty for two reasons. First, these search terms were suggested for me — you would likely receive something completely different. (Feel free to let me know in the comments what appears — I would be curious to hear.) Second, choosing the best keywords for any business website or online-advertising campaign depends not only on their popularity in Google but also on other factors including competition and PPC cost. And Google Instant does not tell you that.
Still, the fact remains that many people will not take this advice and will increasingly target the keywords suggested by Google Instant. As a result, it will be more difficult to rank highly for those specific terms. But when more online marketers focus on an increasingly-smaller set of keywords, this leaves more room for long-tail keyword optimization since they will be targeted less often — and the best traffic possibilities come from long-tail phrases.
Another aspect of Google Instant that affects SEO is the increasing role played by meta titles and meta descriptions. As HubSpot correctly notes:
“We believe that page titles and meta descriptions will now play a more important role than ever. Even though the page title is just a minor part in a website’s SEO relevance and the meta description doesn’t affect ranking, these are the two items that a user will see as they scan the page when they search. If you can write something compelling, grab searchers’ attentions, and stop their search process, you will get a better click-through rate. If the keyword is present within the page title or meta description, it will be bolded and even more likely to grab searchers’ attentions, so make sure to focus on creating great page titles and interesting, relevant meta descriptions.”
Before Google Instant, a single page of the first ten search-results in Google would appear after a user would perform a search. Now, a page of results appears at every step along the way. In my above baseball example, I would stop to scan the results after typing each of the three words in “baseball playoff tickets.” So a single search consisting of a three-word phrase showed me the meta titles and meta descriptions for thirty websites rather than ten. Depending on how often a searcher’s eyes scan the screen while typing a keyword phrase, the number of proposed websites could be even higher.
As a result of Google Instant, more meta titles and descriptions will be viewed in general — making those aspects of SEO that much more important.
After the release of the new system, I read countless articles suggesting that Google Instant would kill SEO. And I laughed. Websites will always need people to get them high rankings in Google for relevant keywords, and no computer can do that. Google Instant will not eliminate the need for SEO — it only changed the tactics.