Google Instant? Hmmm.

by Paul Carpenter
See Dave Speak SMX London

So of course everyone’s all over Google Instant this morning. In case you’re not, it’s just an Ajaxified version of Google that brings in the search results as you type.

Because I’m too lazy to make a video, here’s a few screenshots. Notice that as I type, I not only get the usual Google Suggest drop-down, but a light grey predictive text kind of feature in the search box. More dramatically (if you set the bar for ‘drama’ a notch or two below Emmerdale) the actual SERPs themselves change as you type.

Is it any good? Skip over the screenshots for initial impressions!

Google InstantGoogle Instant resultsGoogle instant Ajax search results

Is it any good?

Google state up front that:

We are pushing the limits of our technology and infrastructure to help you get better search results, faster.

There’s no doubt that as a technological achievement, Google Instant is pretty incredible. Given the vast size of its index, the astonishing complexity of its algorithm and the sheer volume of traffic the search giantTM handles, to be able to pull the results out in real time is pretty phenomenal. If nothing else, the engineers should be (and probably are) high-fiving each other on rolling this out.

The achievement is all the more impressive when you remember that 25% of all search queries seen by Google have never been seen before, so the opportunity to pre-fetch or cache results ahead of time is necessarily limited.

»The more they can keep you searching and using Google as your portal to the web, the more ads they can serve you”

Technological achievement aside, my own initial impressions are mixed. Google say that this will help save time on typing queries (2-5 seconds is their claim) as the results will save people formulating longer queries.

On a sheer practical level, I know many people who don’t even look up from their keyboard when typing and thus have never even seen Google Suggest as it is, so clearly this won’t have any effect on those with sub-par typing skills. Then there’s the category of people who, like my dad, pause between every letter to look at the screen over the tops of their glasses to check what they’ve typed so far. They’re suddenly going to find that Google has half-filled in the text box for them, added a drop down and filled the screen with results before they’ve even finished.

I just know that sitting next to my dad while he tries to find this article on the Daily Mail about house prices will stretch to infinity as he grapples with what he’s seeing and how Google is behaving.

Now, admittedly these are classes of people who are probably way behind the tech curve and don’t interact that much with the web anyway so the effect on them will be pretty minimal – other than to add another area of confusion.

As what might immodestly be termed as power user of Google (what with it being my job and all) I’ve found it a little disconcerting but for other reasons. One of the big problems faced by heavy internet users is keeping on track and on focus. There’s a whole world of random gubbins out there and I’ve just quit Twitter because I found the distraction of life in the real time stream was getting too much.

We all know that Google SERPs themselves are distracting, because every query throws up things we weren’t expecting to see, or intriguing looking links that just beg to be clicked. At a stroke, the peril of these distractions has risen enormously. Before I’ve even typed ‘Paul Car’ I’ve seen results for Paul Gray, Paul Casey and Paul Carrack, and by the time I’ve got to ‘Paul Carp’ I’m seeing ‘Paul Carpenter Associates/actor/golf and (wtf?) “Paul Carpenter minnie the moocher”.

That’s a metric tonne of potential timewasting right there, and with the best will in the world people are likely to perform more – not fewer – searches as a result. And here is the rub from a Google perspective: the more they can keep you searching and using Google as your portal to the web, the more ads they can serve you. And as AdWords get served more frequently, so the cost of competing in the ad space goes up.

And on a purely personal level, I found it very visually disconcerting. I’m sure that familiarity will overcome that fairly quickly though.

…and SEO?

From an SEO perspective, we know that the algorithm here is no different. Anyone using Google Instant will see the same results as for the regular, default Google but the effect will be more interesting for the effect on user behaviour as I hinted above. As Google is stepping more into the prediction game, it’s hard to know what the effect will be on the long tail.

“Paul Carpenter” is one search term – but the very few people who search for “Paul Carpenter is a relentless sex machine” are going to be presented with a wealth of suggested choices before they even get to the ‘sex machine’ bit. In effect, Google will be guiding their search pattern towards things that it can suggest. Google are started to assert their influence into what people should be looking for at a subconscious level.

It’s hard not to conclude that a keyword strategy going forward that doesn’t pay enormous attention to the things that Google is ‘suggesting’ – and now actually showing as you type - is a foolish keyword strategy. Of course people are going to take the option to choose things that Google is suggesting.

We’ve spoken a fair bit recently about how accurate AdWords data is in terms of keyword research, but if Google Instant does become the new default (and Google say it will) then savvy SEOs will probably have to pay a lot more to what Google is putting in front of people. In one sense, it won’t change the general principle – target the head term and build up content to bring in the long tail on the back of that. But now you’ll have a clear 3, 4, 5, 6 opportunities to appear in the SERPs before the search is even complete.

Food for thought, as ever…

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