Impact of Google Instant on SEO

It seems that as we grow older, we get busier. And that means a every second matters that much, for Google it’s even measured in milliseconds. That’s why this seemingly revolutionary product launch tries to help us save time searching for information. Perhaps Google has observed that it takes considerable amount of time for some users refining search queries before finding what they’re looking for.

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I spent part of the night watching the live broadcast of Google’s Marissa Mayer introduce Google Instant as “search at the speed of thought” and a “quantum leap forward”. While other search engines may be busy fine tuning its results, Google went a step further by allowing search engine users to take peek at search results based on predicted search queries. With Google Instant, the whole search experience happens at a much faster pace. The time spent on typing a query, network time (sending the data from browser to server), computing and fetching data from server and returning results into the browser (Mayer mentions that Safari, Chrome, Firefox and IE 8 are the supported ones at the moment) can last about 11 seconds. Then the user spends another 15 seconds sifting through the results.

In its aim to continue to improve user experience, Google wants to serve results faster using Google Instant (try it). Imagine, this feature was just mocked in one of the early episodes of Google’s April Fools Day presentation. Now, it’s become a reality.

For SEO, one might ask does this feature kill the industry? When Ben Parr of Mashable asked Google panel on how Google Instant will impact SEO: “Ranking stays the same. Behavior and the kind of searches we see may change, however. That’s a longer term effect and we will understand it better over time.” Google adds that the feature will be made available everywhere, so there’s no special treatment for certain target markets. I think the same question of SEO as a dying craft was asked when Google launched Universal Search results in 2007. Three years later, we’re still in the business fortunately.

It’s quite early to make conclusions, but here are my observations:

Attractive titles more important
As users can peek through the results without finishing their queries, an important element that catches their attention is the search result snippet. The more relevant it is to search queries, the more likely the visitor will land on them. But then again, user intent does not change. If I am looking for “travel channel”, I don’t have to click on results for “travelocity” even if the search engine suggests it’s the default suggestion. But maybe not, as Matt Cutts explained on the change in behavior when searching information about a politician.

No change for locations with slow connection
For this new feature to work, AJAX was utilized and Google had to optimize a lot of JavaScript and have to deal with browser performance issues. This, however, doesn’t work well for environments devoid of have high-speed Internet connection. Google will automatically disable the feature for very slow connections.

Impact on generic keywords for paid ads may be more pronounced.
Google Instant may provide tendency for users to use more specific search queries instead of general ones. As a results, there could be a reduction in clicks towards ads triggered by generic keywords. On the other hand, ads can receive even more impressions as they may get displayed for partial search queries. However, Google acknowledges that an impression is officially recorded when the user hits the ‘Enter’ key to complete their query, looks at the page for over three seconds, or they click on a link from the results page.

SEO for letters — not just keywords’ — becomes a new business
While others say this is the final nail to SEO coffin, some SEOs may even offer more services, notably optimizing for first few letters that comprise a search query. That’s because results appear even before you finish typing a query. When I type for “Elm” as the first few letters of my name, Elmo is the runaway leader in rankings.

Benefiting the Google Instant feature are the brands, shows, companies or individuals that appear as “default” results (H/T to WSJ). Results may vary regionally.

A: AOL, Amazon, AIM, Apple
B: Bank of America, Best Buy, Bing, Bed Bath and Beyond
C: Craigslist, Chase, CNN, Costco
D: Dictionary, Droid X, Dell, Drake
E: EBay, ESPN, Expedia, Eminem
F: Facebook, Facebook login, FIFA, Fandango
G: Gmail, Google Maps, Google.com, Glee
H: Hotmail, Hulu, Home Depot, Hopstop
I: Ikea, IPhone, IMDB, Inception
J: Jet Blue, Jetblue, JFK, Jersey Shore
K: Kmart, Kayak, Kohls, Katy Perry
L: LIRR, Lowes, Lost, LinkedIn
M: MapQuest, MySpace, MSN, MTA
N: Netflix, NJ Transit, New York Times, Nordstrom
O: Orbitz, ooVoo, Old Navy, Optonline.net
P: Pandora, PayPal, PetCo, People
Q: Quotes, QVC, Queens College, Quest Diagnostics
R: Realtor, Rite Aid, Run, Radio Shack
S: Staples, Sears, Skype, Sprint
T: Target, Twitter, TD Bank, Ticketmaster
U: UPS, USPS, UTube, Univision
V: Verizon, Verizon Wireless, Victoria Secret, VLC
W: Weather, Walmart, White Pages, Wikipedia
X: XBox, XM Radio, XE, XKCD
Y: Yahoo, YouTube, Yahoo Mail, Yelp
Z: Z100, Zappos, Zillow, ZIP Codes

My experience is hardly affected — for now. I use Google Chrome and enter my search query on the address bar; the experience is quite different from what Google Instant offers.

It will be interesting to take a closer look at how Google Instant may impact search referral volume, top referring keywords, rankings and related reports soon as they become available.