SEO is dead AGAIN (and PPC is Knackered) thanks to Google Instant

by Justin March on September 17, 2010

Google recently launched “Google Instant” a new enhancement to Google search that shows results as a user types in a search query.  The new functionality allows the user to see content much faster than before; the user will be shown results before they have finished typing in their search term and before they have even pressed the “search” button.  Google argues that this functionality will enhance the user experience as it allows users to modify their results on the fly, formulating adapted search terms influenced by the search results and predictions that appear as they type their search terms into Google.   

The most important part of the new functionality (if you are interested in SEO) is the smart predictions functionality, as Google puts it: “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.”


Rather importantly the search results that Google Instant shows depends on individual personalisation settings ( and where Google thinks a user is physically located.   

Rather predictably this has led many to make (er) predictions about the future of SEO including Steve Rubel, Director of Insights for Edelman Digital who argues that “Here’s what this means: no two people will see the same web. Once a single search would do the trick – and everyone saw the same results. That’s what made search engine optimization work. Now, with this, everyone is going to start tweaking their searches in real-time. The reason this is a game changer is feedback. When you get feedback, you change your behaviors.“ he goes onto state that “Google Instant means no one will see the same web anymore, making optimizing it virtually impossible. Real-time feedback will change and personalize people’s search behaviors.”


I agree with some of what Steve is saying here, I think that how people use Google will inevitably change as a result of Google Instant, however I don’t see the change as being negative to either the user or to good SEO’s.

Google Instant will affect SEO (but it won’t kill it)
It’s important to understand that good SEO is about improving more than the ranking for a given keyword it’s about improving the level of targeted traffic across the board for a range of phrase, along with increasing onsite conversion rates.  The fact is that good SEO starts with keyword research and that will never change the fact that the keywords themselves get more or less diverse is somewhat immaterial.  It maybe that that searchers will tweak their queries in real time but they aren’t going to completely switch focus mid search and end up purchasing a holiday in Mexico having started with the intention of sourcing a carpet fitter in Bristol. 

Articles about the death of SEO misunderstand what search engines actually are in that a search engine by its nature will always want to discover the most relevant results possible; otherwise it will become of little use to its users and will soon start losing market share. 

Fundamentally if user behaviour becomes impossible to predict this will not only destroy SEO but it will also make the Google Adwords system unworkable.  Since Adwords is itself based on predicting what users type in (and since this is the way in which Google monetorise itself) I just don’t see them continuing with a system that effectively flushes their company down the toilet.   

I think that Matt Cutts (Google’s anti-spam and SEO spokesman) put it best when he wrote: “The best SEOs recognize, adapt, and even flourish when changes happen.”

So what else can we expect from Google Instant:

Google Instant will continue to predict search (just as badly as Google did in the past)
None of the search engines have ever been that good at determining user intent and this seems set to continue see:

Google Instant won’t disrupt Google Rankings
Google Instant won’t disrupt Rankings, just to clarify this for all the SEO fraidy cats, as Google themselves put it No, this change does not impact the ranking of search results.

Google Instant may lead to shorter search terms
Over the years there has been a steady increase in the number of words used within a search query, it seems likely that Google Instant may halt or reverse this trend and lead to an increase in the lower number 2-4 term searches.   Potentially searchers may find that less is more settling on the results provided by the 2-4 word searches rather than continuing to type in a long tail search term.

Google Instant may annoy users (or it may just be ignored)
Aside from the inaccurate predictions it would be interesting to know how many people will actively use Google Instant.  Google Instant will not appear when people search via iGoogle, use the Google toolbar or search via a browser’s search box.  It also occurs that many people are not trained typists and stare at their keyboards when they are typing, making the new functionality rather redundant in this instance.  Upon surfing the web it also seems to me that many users are actually annoyed by Google Instant, will this make a significant number of people turn it off or move over to BING, only time will tell?

Google Instant will disrupt Google Impressions (and may alienate Google Adwords Users)
Impressions are the number of times an advert has been displayed to web users, as Google Instant displays the results on the fly as the user types them in, there has been some concern that each change in results will count as an impression.  The reason why this is important is that the cost and performance of a Google Adwords Account is partly based on the Click Thru Rate (CTR) the higher the CTR the better.  

Google has clarified how Google Instance judges when an impression has occurred: 

“When someone searches using Google Instant, ad impressions are counted in these situations:
    * The user begins to type a query on Google and clicks anywhere on the page (a search result, an ad, a spell correction, a related search).
    * The user chooses a particular query by clicking the Search button, pressing Enter, or selecting one of the predicted queries.
    * The user stops typing, and the results are displayed for a minimum of three seconds.”

It does look like the number of impressions is set to increase which will be of particular concern to those inexperienced users using the Adwords system.

Google Instant will not lead to partial phrases appearing in Google Analytics

To clarify the most concerning point in terms of where users simply have to pause for 3 seconds for an impression to occur:

“The keyword analytics sends is not the partial one but the predicted query. If a user was typing “web metrics” but got the search result she wanted at “web met” with the predicted term being “web metrics”, then you will see “web metrics” in your Google Analytics reports.”

Google Instant may boost Google’s profits (and alienate Google Adwords users)
As well as skewing impression data, it would seem that more generic searches containing fewer words are more likely.  Adwords accounts have become harder and harder to set up and I can well imagine the costs associated with generic broad match phrases in particular spiralling out of control for the inexperienced Adwords user.

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