Google Instant Everything – Much Ado About Nothing?

Recently, Google rolled out a couple of new updates to their search functionality. In an effort to speed up searches and enhance user experience, Google has changed the way searches take place. “Google Instant,” as they dubbed it, delivers search results even as you type. The results are dynamic and change based on each character typed, regardless of whether the user presses the “return” key. Just a couple short weeks later, Google released Instant Previews, which show a graphical preview of the search results.

These interface changes, especially Google Instant search, put the SEO community into an uproar. Speculation ran rampant as to how it would affect tracking, PPC, searcher click-through behavior, and SEO as a whole. Some even claimed Instant would be the death of SEO itself!  It’s been a few weeks now, so it’s a good time to look over the data and see how much, if anything, has really changed for SEO.

Instant Google (Coffee)

Sounds Great. So… What’s Google Instant Again?

By now, everyone in the US using one of the four major browsers should have noticed a change in the way Google presents search results. Google promises it’s rolling out Instant in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia as well, with more to come in the future. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, or perhaps just aren’t quite clear what you’re looking at, here’s a brief explanation.

Using a technology called AJAX, Google Instant begins showing results for queries without waiting for users to press enter or even finish a word. Everything on the results page is affected by the continuously updating Instant results, including the PPC ads. It’s important to note that the results are not showing up simply for unfinished bits of words, but rather for the first Google Suggest result. This shows up in faint gray text to the right of your cursor, while the full array of the usual Suggest options dynamically appear and evolve below the search box.

Google Instant Screenshot

What Does Instant Change?

Google claims these changes will have a vast cumulative effect on search speed, saving an average of 2-5 seconds per search. Taken as a whole, the global searching community is expected to save 11 hours every second! That’s a nice chunk of time shaved off from something as simple as skipping a few key strokes.

Google also expects the Instant suggestions to help people narrow down their search phrases more quickly and easily, since they are able to see right away the results of a variety of search phrases without having to type them out or even hit “enter.” As a result, one big question SEOs are all asking is, “How will this affect long tail search targeting?” There are those who speculated it would will either kill off the long tail or cause it to thrive even more than before.

In fact, after all the hubbub, it appears there has been less effect on SEO than the average algorithm update, something which Google does hundreds of times each year. According to data collected by Conductor covering over 880,000 visits, search traffic distribution by query length was “virtually identical” the weeks prior to and post launch of Google Instant. A study by MEC had similar results.

So why didn’t Instant make as big a splash on the metrics as many search marketers expected? For one thing, long tail didn’t die because people still need to narrow their queries to the right phrases in order to get the right results. Although some results are shown when they type the first letter of their query, they aren’t necessarily the right ones. Additionally, many people do not even look at their screens while they type, “hunting-and-pecking” for their keys. These people probably neither notice nor use the Instant results.

It is also worth noting how easy it is to turn off Instant. Next to the search button is a link which lets users toggle the feature quickly and easily if the constantly updating results are distracting or unwanted for any reason. I haven’t been able to find any solid usage statistics, but I know of two people at SEO Worldwide alone who have turned it off simply because they found it annoying, and they’re not the only ones.

First Instant Results, Then Instant Preview

Shortly after launching Instant, Google rolled out the new Instant Preview feature. Despite also having “instant” in the name, the two features are not strictly related. Both services theoretically speed up search time, but the similarity ends there. While Instant search updates results in real time, Instant Preview lets users get a preview of the listed websites without having to leave the SERP.

The Instant Preview goes beyond traditional ideas of a thumbnail. When a searcher clicks the little magnifying glass next to the search listing, a pre-rendered image of varying length is displayed in the right sidebar (over the advertisements area). If the Web page is long, the image may be truncated with a jagged break in the middle so the bottom of the page can be shown as well, or it may cut off at the bottom. The majority of the text in the preview is too small to read, except for large headers; however, the search term is often called out with a magnified portion of text overlayed across the image and highlighted with a yellow border.

Instant Preview Screenshot

Slow loading images will not appear in the pre-rendered preview, and neither will Flash objects. Any websites still using the outmoded convention of a “splash” gateway page built in Flash will now not only be irritating their customers, but showing them a blank box in Google’s preview. Instant Preview just adds to the reasons to do away with this ancient design practice.

Ironically, Instant Preview has a greater potential impact on SEO than Instant results, despite greater interest shown by the search marketing community to the latter. Although it doesn’t affect ranking, it is likely to affect user behavior. People are less likely to click on the first result and bounce back immediately after they discover a website is of poor quality. Instead, they can get a quick preview of all the results on the first page and make quality judgements based on design and layout without ever having to leave the SERP. That means design just became a direct part of SEO, because the design is displayed right on the SERP.

Should SEOs Be Concerned?

SEO as a whole remains unchanged in light of Google’s adjustments. While there may be a few minor fluctuations in searcher behavior as they become accustomed to Instant search, overall this is not a game changer. Instant Preview is something to be aware of when designing a site, especially in light of the Flash limitations (check out this great article for more on designing for Instant Preview). However, as a general rule if a site is designed well overall it is likely to look attractive in Instant Preview as well.

In short, as far as Google Instant Everything goes, SEOs should keep our eyes open, but for the most part it seems we can “move along; nothing to see here.”

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