How Google Instant will (and won’t) impact your optimization strategy.

If you’re a Googler you’ve probably noticed that the search engine is running at faster-than-lightning speed. It’s called Google Instant and it’s the search giant’s latest upgrade—allowing users to see results as they type.*

No longer do you have to find ways to kill time while you wait for your search results to appear. Or waste precious moments clicking “Search” or hitting that pesky Enter key. (Your pinky will thank you.) According to Google, this innovation can save you 2-5 seconds per search. So if you do 12 searches a day, you could regain a full minute in productivity. Imagine the possibilities!

Sarcasm aside, Instant is a pretty neat feature. And like everything Google does, it has web marketing pros speculating about impact on SEO. More on that below.

First things first. How does it work?

If you have the right browser, the best thing to do is try it yourself. Otherwise, here’s a brief explanation: As soon as you start to search for something, results appear.

With each word you add, and often with each letter, those results change to become more specific to your query.

Meanwhile, suggestions automatically appear in the search bar. As you type, these are also instantly updated with predictions based on search popularity. In this example, if “prostate cancer symptoms” was what I was looking for, I could stop typing right now because the results for this query have already appeared.

Since Google Instant debuted a few weeks ago, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with it (all work-related, of course). At first it was really distracting—my eyes kept shifting down every time the text below would change.

Then it was annoying. As results appeared, I’d glimpse one that looked interesting. But before my brain could process what I’d seen, my fingers had clacked a few more keys and that intriguing link was history, a new search result in its place.

Lately it’s become distracting again, as I’m starting to doubt my ability to string together an effective set of keywords. With every stroke of my keyboard I glance down at the screen to see what’s coming up. If the results are no good, I’ll backspace and enter better search terms. This constant self-correction is mildly time-consuming—however I guess I’m saving a lot of time, too. Not as much clicking around on irrelevant websites or scouring page after page of Google to find what I was really looking for.

Finding new ways to find what we need

There are concerns that that the new feature could affect rankings, but Google says “this change does not impact the ranking of search results.”

What it does change—and I experienced this personally—is how we search. And this shift may indirectly impact rankings because of how we interact with our search results. As users figure out how to use Google Instant to their advantage, they could lose interest in the search results that appear farther down on the page (“below the fold”). Instead they may choose to refine queries until what they’re looking for appears at the top. Forget about the results on pages 2, 3 and so on. Plus, with the dropdown suggestion box taking up valuable real estate, many sites that previously enjoyed page 1 rankings will be relegated to page 2.

Additionally, if users are apt to accept the suggestions that automatically appear as they type (as opposed to entering what they may have instinctively searched for), the same queries will be searched over and over. This gives further visibility to the sites that already appear toward the top of the rankings.

“By effectively compressing the time of each individual search and allowing users to edit searches in real time, Google Instant has the potential to radically upend the current mechanics of search and the discoverability of sites.” – Evelyn Rusli at TechCrunch

“If you're the first brand or concept to pop up when someone types a letter – e.g. "b" gives you Bank of America (ugh) – you are an example of the SEO rich getting richer. These are the same results that showed up in popdown menus before, but Google is now guiding you, with the visual results below, to the top choices. This is a powerful feedback loop.” – Dan Gillmor at Salon.com

If Google Instant changes our search habits, will it change our SEO strategy?

It stands to reason that if people are searching for things in different ways, we should adjust our SEO strategy accordingly. The interesting thing about Google Instant though, is that it will only make people better at finding exactly what they’re looking for.

SEO expert Eli Feldblum, in a guest post on TechCrunch, offers some insight into what people can do to address the changes being brought on by Google Instant.

- On what to do if your below-the-fold keywords are showing a decline in traffic:
“…now those top results are shown more often and are driving more traffic, so obtaining a top position is more important than ever. On the flip side, keywords ranking at the bottom of Page 1 are starting to get more attention, while keywords on subsequent results pages are tanking. Time to do that extra work to push your keywords from the top of Page 2 to the bottom of Page 1.”

- On what to do if Google’s suggested search phrases are keeping users from searching on longer, less popular phrases that you’ve optimized on your website:
“Firstly, take a deep look at your analytics…find out which tail keyword phrases have stopped generating traffic, despite ranking well, and stop optimizing those phrases. … Follow up with some keyword research—using Instant—to discover other popular varieties of those keywords that are showing up in Instant suggestions.”

What it comes down to is that SEO is more important than ever. Now optimizing for popular search terms will be even more vital, and the competition to land among the top few ranks will be even stiffer.

In a TechCrunch interview, Google VP Marissa Mayer suggests that Google Instant gives users an opportunity to learn as they go—perhaps discovering pages they wouldn’t have otherwise searched for or clicked on:

“One of the things I’ve seen in my own personal usage is that while each search is faster, I spend more time doing searches. Because I actually see the results coming in and out as I’m doing my searches so I learn things as I go. And after I’ve actually fulfilled my query, a lot of times I’ll see interesting suggestions, so I’ll scroll around and learn different things and so I think ultimately, it may increase engagement of our users.”

Even more reason to up our SEO game. With the increased likelihood that our sites will be judged on first impressions (and possibly discovered during a detour) descriptive title tags and succinct, smartly-optimized copy will mean the difference between being clicked or ignored.

*Google Instant isn’t yet available everywhere, and it only works on certain browsers (Chrome v5/6, Firefox v3, Safari v5 for Mac, and Internet Explorer). Also, you can only see it if you’re searching for something at google.com, not in the Google toolbar widget or on your personalized iGoogle homepage. Google has plans to roll out the feature globally, beyond its homepage, and on mobile devices in the near future.

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