Everyone and their mother have probably written about Google Instant by now. So why am I also writing on this topic? I don't intend to explain what the changes mean for people in the SEO "biz." Instead, I want to deliver a point of view that my clients can understand, and that focuses on whether there will be an impact to their marketing strategies, and what they (or their agencies) may want to do about it.
What Is It?
Google Instant is a change to the way Google displays search engine results. Instead of a user having to wait until they've clicked the "search" button, results begin to show up as they type in the search box. These results will then change as the user refines and/or completes their query.
How Does It Work?
Google's algorithm attempts to predict what a user will search for based on historical queries by other search users.
What Has Changed?
In addition to the traditional means of search results showing after a user hits the "search" button, organic and paid listings will also be shown based on what Google calls the "predicted" query.
Let's look at a quick example. Say someone sets out to search for information on the New York Giants. When you type the first word "New," Google's results begin to predict New York right away and show New York Times results (Figure 1). With the next word "York" added, the results change again, with New York area and travel information dominating the page (Figure 2). And with the final word "Giants," the results change again to display information on Giants football news, schedules, and tickets (Figure 3).
What Are the Benefits for Users?
Google Instant can help users search more quickly, get results faster, and help guide their search through the predictive model. As the example above demonstrates, users will have access to two to four times more results based on any given query than they ever would have before.
What Are the Benefits for Websites?
In its Q&A on Instant Search, Google predicts that Instant Search will improve user's experience, thus benefiting advertisers: "As a result, we expect increased user engagement with our search services, including ads." Advertisers will likely have access to additional impressions than in the past due to the fact that their listing will now be showing for any predictive queries as well. In addition, Google suggests that the performance of your ads may improve as the service may help users hone in on exactly what they're looking for, producing a more qualified candidate.
What Are the Implications for Search Marketing Strategies?
Clearly, instant search comes with a host of benefits for both users and businesses. That said, instant search is a major change and no doubt comes with a series of issues and implications for brand's search engine visibility.
The good news is, businesses should not experience a major decline in their performance as a result of Google Instant, and in fact can potentially capitalize on this change by adapting their strategies appropriately.
Now let's review some of the implications and recommended adaptations that marketers might want to consider for both their organic and paid search strategies.
The way marketers go about optimizing their website for the organic listings should not fundamentally change as a result of Google Instant. If anything, there will be even more of an emphasis on producing high quality, compelling content. The marketers who are already making SEO about great, tightly focused content, logical navigation, and user experience, as well as solid link relationships, will probably fare quite well. But those who still believe SEO is a game of manipulating the search engine results will likely face challenges.
Hessam Lavi's article, "Google Instant Search and Its Impact on SEO," puts it perfectly:
"This is definitely a game changer but it does not change the way serious SEOs have worked for a long period of time. That includes focusing on important KPIs other than rankings. Instant Search is however a massive headache for those who still treat SEO as a magic formula and have been focusing on optimizing for mere nuances in Google's search algorithm. They will continue wasting their time focusing on the petty details in the algorithms instead of working on improving the overall value of the sites they are promoting."
He makes a good point that the click-through rate (CTR) of organic listings will likely become more important than rankings. In fact, rankings will become more difficult, if not impossible to measure based on the range of predictive queries a listing could possibly come up for.
And no longer considering rankings as a KPI is definitely a good thing. Based on the increased room the predictive queries take up on the page, everything on the search engine results page will shift down. Also, as the "universal search" elements (news, images, video, etc.) tend to dominate the top of the page, it will become even more unlikely for websites to achieve and maintain "top" rankings.
That said, marketers can and should be doing all that they can to make their results as compelling as possible:
Some of the same implications for organic SEO apply to paid search as well.
Specifically the comment around creating compelling listings that "stand out from the crowd." Employing some of Google's more recent and innovative ad formats and ad extensions can help ensure your paid search ads are as relevant and compelling as possible. Specifically, the Ad Sitelinks extension helps your paid search ad gain more real estate on the page, increases relevancy for users, and tends to significantly improve click-through rates.
You will also want to pay special attention to the performance of your ads in the coming months. You may find that ad copies are performing differently than you typically see based on your increased exposure to the new predictive search queries.
In addition, you may need to revisit your keyword lists and reintroduce more "popular" or broad terms that you had shied away from or weeded out over time. As users will be prompted with predictive queries of the most popular search results, users may be content to employ the "wisdom of the crowd" instead of inputting additional queries to find what they're looking for. That means your long tail keywords (those more obscure and usually longer length keyword phrases) may start to experience reduced traffic. That said, you should be able to make up for that reduction as the short tail, or more popular terms, will likely see an upswell in traffic.
If you are adding new keywords or reintroducing ones, ensure that you have a solid analytics infrastructure in place to measure and optimize to your KPIs. As you find which keywords are beginning to dominate your referrals, you can spend more time refining those ad groups and associated ad copies.
The Bottom Line
Google Instant is not a crisis. Just like any other Google update or change, your search marketing strategies need to evolve and adapt. Regardless of what is happening in the environment, your strategies should always be evolving and improving as you learn more about your audience and search landscape!
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Julie is a member of the senior strategy team at Klick Health, focused on online media and digital. Julie initially established and led the media practice at Klick for several years, relinquishing leadership to expand beyond media into additional digital tactics. She brings a wealth of experience in search marketing, digital media, and all facets of digital strategy to bear, helping Klick's clients develop innovative digital solutions. As her role has evolved, so have her contributions to ClickZ, which she has been writing for since 2007.
March 19, 2014