With the launch of Google Instant, Google has ushered in a new interface for its core search product. Starting soon, search users in seven countries will see a continuously changing list of search results, and the ad experience will likewise morph with each character a searcher adds to her query.
As a result, Google estimates it will deliver both organic and paid listings faster - dramatically reducing query-to-click times.
During a news conference today, Google sought to assure advertisers that its underlying algorithms and quality score methodology will be preserved. However marketing strategies are bound to change as agencies and clients grapple with the impact on their paid search and optimization efforts.
For instance, as Google Instant rolls out widely, the raw number of ads displayed per query will inevitably increase as Google displays a sequence of best guesses about its users' desired queries and shows results for the top guess. So a search for "a" displays results and ads for Amazon.com; an "e" search does the same for eBay.com.
To compensate for the fluttering ad listings, the company is changing its internal definition of an ad impression. To qualify as an impression, said VP of Search Product Marissa Mayer, an ad exposure must last for at least three seconds.
Even with that calculation in place, the effective click-through rate experienced by many Google advertisers may change. In theory, that won't adversely affect campaigns because search campaigns are billed by the click - not the impression. The feature raises several questions: Could it affect an advertiser's quality score, especially if marketers happen to bid on search terms that resemble or overlap with commonly searched characters? How does it affect forward-thinking marketers who have begun to think of search as a branding channel?
In response to an e-mail, a Google spokesperson emphasized that Instant does not change the way the company determines the relevance or quality of ads. "As always, we look at an ad's performance relative to that of other ads for the same query, position, and UI treatment (including whether or not an ad was served using the new Google Instant interface)," he said. "In general, all advertisers will be affected equally by Google Instant. Therefore, we don't anticipate any changes in relative advertiser performance."
Quality scores aside, Google Instant may also have the effect of eliminating some clicks on ads targeted to general phrases, as users go with more specific ones. This could come as a result of user distraction.
Kevin Lee, CEO of search agency Didit, is among those concerned that rapidly shifting ad listings could derail searchers natural impulses - thus impacting client campaigns.
"It could result in dilution of click quality, where the person's intent wasn't there in the way it would be if they had been allowed to complete the thought," Lee said. "You don't have an opportunity to come up with your own way of expressing your needs and desires."
He offered the example of a query for "travel," which leads users to a more specific phrase - such as "travelzoo" or "travelocity" - than they might have arrived at on their own. "Now what's going to happen is that person's going to type in 'travel' and get sent to a keyword phrase that's further down the funnel. You end up with clickers [for whom] it wasn't their idea to type that search term."
Additionally, from now on the SEO playbook must take into account that Google begins returning results after a person has typed only one letter. As a result, marketers may begin to optimize pages for letters and syllables as well as full queries.
Google acknowledged user search patterns are likely to change as people grow accustomed to Instant and admitted there will be a domino effect on SEO, but representatives declined to speculate what it might be.
"That's a longer term effect and we'll have to assess it over time," said one exec.
The experience will roll out in seven countries, including the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Russia. A preview is currently available here.
Google did not immediately respond to a reporter's queries.
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
March 19, 2014